When I signed up to be a teacher, I wish they had told me that I would also be a nurse, a doctor and a social worker. We are all of those things,' says Michelle Stephenson, former deputy head at Young People's Academy, who has extensive experience of working with vulnerable and troubled young people.
It is our responsibility to spot signs of abuse, to talk to children about emotional issues, to deal with bereavement and trauma, to help them get appropriate help when they take drugs, can't manage a day in school or a day without alcohol or are fighting the urge to cut or burn themselves. Nobody talked about that in our PGCE.'
Schools are not just about curriculum and examinations. Educational staff at all levels from teaching assistant and lunchtime supervisors to teachers, senior managers and headteachers often come face to face with the problems that society prefers to forget.
What's not in the news
Last month the emphasis was on the stress of exam results and the impact on staff and students of changes of policy by the government and Ofqual.
Less has been said about the sterling efforts of school workers to support their community. Many collected and distributed computers to families who did not have technology for remote learning and kept in contact with phone calls and visits where necessary. Others dealt with basic household needs by making up food parcels, chasing up free school meal vouchers and in some cases paying for gas and electricity out of their own pocket. These moments take their toll on the energy and resilience of front line workers.
Teachers are under increasing pressure
In recent years there has been a substantial increase in mental health difficulties in schools and a stress epidemic across the entire UK education workforce. The National Education Union points out that, 'No amount of tinkering with toolkits can solve a problem with roots in an education system with unhealthy levels of accountability, high-stakes testing and stress, without addressing the more fundamental causes of high workload.'
Data from their previous reports includes comments from teachers: 'I spend every evening and weekend working. If I don't, I feel guilty for not working and I am made to feel guilty as well. I am now planning to leave the profession - the workload is making me ill and I want my life back.'
It's unmanageable and I need a new career. I'm unhappy most of the time and am unwell with stress and anxiety. It affects my family time considerably - I often miss time with my children and when I do spend time with them it's not quality as I'm either too tired or am worrying about what I have to do.'
Every day, teachers, senior managers and support staff come face to face with the impact of poverty, family breakdown, long-term illness and trauma. They may be involved in serious safeguarding issues and afterwards find they are unable to forget what they have seen and heard.
'Some days we just sit and cry over what these children have been through,' said Hollie O’Sullivan, head of English as an Additional Language at Great Barr Academy in Birmingham.
One of the largest schools in Europe, a number of their students were unaccompanied minors from dangerous spots across the globe. Staff have heard first hand accounts of atrocities and feel they cannot share these with family or friends. Hollie is aware of the pressure on staff who are not equipped to deal with the severe mental health needs of some children and the personal impact this can have on her team.
Clinical professionals such as psychologists understand that vicarious trauma is an inevitable consequence of working with individuals who have experienced traumatic events. They have access to regular support in the form of clinical supervision. Schools are beginning to realise that front line staff need support and training. To have the capacity and capability to support their students they too need to be in a mentally healthy place.
Impact on well-being
It is important that experiencing vicarious trauma is not perceived as a personal weakness, shortcoming, or illness. Year on year The Teacher Wellbeing Index reports on teachers' mental health and the support available. The 2019 Index, compiled by Education Support Partnership, shows that when faced with a mental health issue:
- 34% teachers and 33% of senior leaders would turn first to somebody outside of work
- 39% felt it would negatively affect people’s perception of that person This was a small increase on the 2018 data (37%).
- 39% felt it would negatively affect people’s perception of that person. This was a small increase on the 2018 data (37%).
Often it is only when teachers hand in their resignation, or are on long term sick leave that their colleagues and managers realise the pressure they have been under.
What can schools do to support staff?
It is important to educate all school staff (including maintenance and administration teams) on the cost of caring and the impact it can have on them and on colleagues. We have found by giving staff the language and knowledge they need, they are able to express how they are feeling and make sense of their experiences. This has increased their willingness to seek help and advice, reduced emotional distress and prevented educational staff from taking time away from the school.
The government’s response to the consultation on ‘Transforming Children and Young People’s Mental Health Provision: A Green Paper’ (2019) identified the role of designated senior leads for mental health to deliver whole school approaches. Time and time again we are hearing that mental health leads are experiencing mental health challenges themselves because they are finding themselves in an unsupported position whereby the senior leadership team are not truly on board with the implementation of a whole school approach to mental health.
Providing support for staff mental health does not need to be a costly or create additional work for educational staff. The following strategies have been implemented within schools across the UK and have had an impact on HR spend, staff wellbeing, retention rates and job satisfaction.
A good starting position is to conduct an audit on current processes and systems that support staff's mental health and identify areas for improvement. Introducing aspects gradually into current systems will enable the school to develop a sustainable whole school approach to mental health, an approach that is supportive of educational staff’s mental health will enable staffs and students’ lives to be shaped positively by every lesson.
Specific training on emotional and mental health difficulties makes a real difference to staff. They understand more about how the students and their colleagues feel and have strategies they can call on and this makes them more confident and willing to start up potentially difficult discussions with staff and students. Webinars and bite size training materials may prove useful for staff to access at home but there must also be opportunities for discussion and reflection.
Supervision and support
In healthcare settings, clinical supervision is mandatory for all staff as it helps to ensure safe and ethical practice is delivered and staff have the opportunity to seek supervision from an experienced professional. However, access to clinical supervision can aid professional development and also support the teachers’ mental health.
Great Barr Academy received input from a clinical psychologist one day a week, and this included training for staff on trauma, attachment disorders and post -traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Having access to a clinician has enabled staff to implement their training and reflect upon their experiences.
It is important that educational staff can engage in reflective practice to learn from experiences and develop self-awareness.
Due to the day to day pressures and busy schedules, educational staff do not have protected time to stop and reflect upon their teaching practices, engagement with students and staff.
Reflective practice does not come easily and we have found that some educational staff are reluctant at first: 'I was hesitant to partake as the sessions took me away from class and children’s learning but as the weeks went by it was great to embrace the moment and have time to talk and share solutions to problems together without being pressured or rushed. This model of reflection can be a helpful starting point for educational staff as they can see the structure and questions that will be asked. It is important that everyone views reflective practice as a non-blaming practice that is aiding lifelong learning and supporting everyone’s’ mental health.'
How one trust is supporting its staff - Using EduPod
Orchard Hill College & Academy Trust (OHCAT) is an academy sponsor of 15 Special Education Need (SEN) schools and academies in London, Surrey and Sussex.
OHCAT are using their safeguarding and well-being forum to bring together the academy’s strategy on mental health. The staff have access to an occupational health practitioner, support from different areas of the trust, and staff come together to learn from each other using the principles from reflective practice and solution focused approaches.
They are using EduPod from Innovating Minds which contains a self-assessment tool that lets schools audit their provision, gather key statistics and evidence, create action plans and measure impact. EduPod will support the team to monitor and review the strategy by using the data collected from the self-assessment audit tool and survey.
The results dashboard has easy to read graphs so staff can see at a glance whether different interventions are bringing results. There is also a library of hundreds of professional, practical resources that centres can share with staff. These have been written by professionals so schools and other settings can be confident that they have expert, up to the minute advice.
The key advantage for OHCAT is that EduPod is not just a reflection of the perspectives of senior leaders. It brings together the views of young people, parents, carers and governors through pre-generated surveys.
Senior leadership teams are now assured that their staff can access reflective practice, training and supervision and that this will support their staff’s mental health and equip them to assist with the emotional and mental health needs of their students.
For more information on EduPod and a range of mental health topics, go to https://www.innovatingmindscic.com/