At the more stressful points of the school year the subject of wellbeing will arise on teacher social media. Social media being what it is, the comments are a mixture of cynicism, boundless optimism, or metaphorical finger-waving, both for and against. As a starting point though, it means that generating a conversation about wellbeing means it finds a place on the agenda.
The largest problem with any social media platform is that responses are instant, reactive, emotional and personal and insofar as wellbeing is concerned, a different approach would be more helpful, because wellbeing in any school setting can’t be effective with a reactive approach.
There are many myths about wellbeing, which I explore in depth in my book and one that I find often is that wellbeing is delivered in a token way; an INSET at the start of term, compulsory yoga and mindfulness or the occasional cake on the staffroom table. Though cake goes down well, it is never an answer to the stress of a cross word from a colleague, the behaviour of a challenging child or an email from an irate parent. Yoga and mindfulness do have benefits, but these often suit individual choice and can make some people feel embarrassed or self-conscious while also eating into valuable work-life balance time. The wellbeing day in September is all well and good, but what is the use of that Indian head massage in December when juggling the stresses of Christmas at school with your own arrangements, or in May when reports, assessments and examinations are our priority.
Wellbeing needs to be deeply ingrained in the culture of the school and reflect that schools thrive on positive relationships. Wellbeing is for every day, for every one; anyone can be a wellbeing champion. This however needs to be driven by the leadership: no tokens, no ‘just being nice’ and no tickboxes.
I have lost count of the number of times I have heard the expression ‘put your own oxygen mask on first’ and whilst this is an admirable sentiment, do we enable our colleagues to do so? Wellbeing begins with ‘We’ not with ‘Me’ and certainly not with ‘Me!Me!Me!’ If we are going to make wellbeing work in a school, we need to dismiss the tokens and promote the value of the team. Alongside this we need to promote the key principles that underpin wellbeing; compassion, trust, a sense of celebration, respect and empathy.
Empathy needs to embrace the realities and practicalities of our workplace; nowhere illustrates this better than EYFS settings. Here, arguably, the need for the team to be strong and mutually supportive is greater. Elsewhere in a primary school, a teacher may be working on their own with their class whilst in Reception and Nursery at the very least there are two professionals in the environment. This is a core relationship and one which could quite easily become toxic if not carefully managed, led and supported.
If primary school teachers are the true heroes of teaching, then our EYFS colleagues are the ultimate champions of our education system as they are the ones who need to get things right with the children, to engage them in that love for their environment, for social interaction, for manipulation and experimentation; everything that is an essential precursor for their learning journey to come. It is they who face the daily challenges of toddler tantrums and bodily spillages and increasingly children not truly ready for this setting: it is not now uncommon for children to arrive at Nursery and even Reception still in nappies, without some basic social skills and with little, if any, language development. Facing these obstacles together with being bitten, scratched or even spat at or sworn at clearly demonstrates the strains that the mental wellbeing of our colleagues could be under.
In such circumstances, the strength of the team is paramount, and herein lays the crux of the wellbeing paradox. EYFS in particular, given its specialist nature, often is staffed by professionals with many years of experience and with their way of getting things done. Sometimes they may not be enthusiastic in embracing change. If they are influential voices in the staffroom, then potentially there is a problem, particularly with new staff or new leadership who have an agenda for driving the school forward, or who interpret accountability measures in a particular way. EYFS has undergone a number of changes in recent years, the trial of the new baseline assessment being another example of a change which can unsettle long-standing practitioners.
If this professional relationship comes under strain or breaks, the impact will be felt in the team, with other colleagues and by the children who are more aware than we credit for picking up on adult insecurities, tensions and relationships. The intensity of working in a EYFS environment is greater than elsewhere in education; a poor relationship is no relationship and everybody suffers.
Let us not forget that EYFS begins not at entry into Nursery but from birth. Childminders and day nurseries face the challenges not only of Ofsted like the rest of us, but also of running a business and of parental expectation, leaving only recently arrived young people in the care of someone else.
10th October is World Mental Health Day. Too often such days, or weeks, are met with a token response in schools. When we talk about wellbeing for our adults, we mean mental wellbeing more than physical wellbeing. Let us mark that day, but not in a tokenistic way. Make it count but make it clear that our mental health is supported by everyone because the success of our schools depends upon it.
Andrew Cowley is a Deputy Headteacher in a primary school in South-East London, co-founder of the Healthy Toolkit blog and author of ‘The Wellbeing Toolkit’ published by Bloomsbury Education in May 2019. Follow Andrew on Twitter @andrew_cowley23