Teacher well-being is always a huge topic of conversation amongst teachers. All teachers struggle to find the balance between looking after themselves and meeting the expectations of their school, and only a few manage to do both consistently. Many teachers know inherently that with teaching, you can’t do your best work when you are not looking after yourself.
There has been a lot of research on teacher well-being. While the evidence doesn’t necessarily point to teacher well-being significantly decreasing over time, results have indicate that teacher well-being has an impact on the quality of teaching. Why is this though? There are a couple of main reasons why you can struggle to teach as effectively when your well-being is compromised:
You need to react to situations quickly and appropriately.
As a teacher, you are constantly encountering new situations. Your students can often be unpredictable, and if they’re having a bad day, you really need to think on your feet. This is true for behaviour management but also their learning. If a perfect opportunity presents itself for some incidental learning, a good teacher will be prepared to take advantage of it.
It can be very hard to do this when you are tired, overwhelmed, or starting to burn out. When you don’t have the mental clarity or energy to act in these situations, your teaching and the students’ learning suffers. I want to emphasise that this is not your fault as a teacher. Many factors that influence teacher well-being are well outside of your power unless you sacrifice other parts of your job or life. But having poor teacher well-being does impact our students.
If you’re already overwhelmed and exhausted, you are more likely to lose your temper. You may yell at your students or say something that could be hurtful that you will later regret. You need to be able to react quickly in a range of different situations, but you need to react appropriately. Teachers spend years honing their skills to automatically react to sudden situations in the way they want to. This is one of the strengths of introverted teachers; they are often good at introspection and knowing what their knee-jerk reaction will be.
You need to be able to empathise.
When you’re struggling with your well-being, it can be hard to get out of your own head. You get so anxious and stressed that you find it difficult to concentrate on anything else, and you can find it difficult to consider other perspectives.
Empathy is a crucial skill for a teacher. You need to understand where your students are coming from to find strategies to help them get to where they need to be. If you don’t know why they are behaving the way they are, it can be incredibly difficult to get their behaviour to change.
Empathy is natural for humans, but it is also one of the first things to go when we get stressed. It takes a lot of energy to always consider the nuance of how others feel. You may have heard of a concept called ‘flipping your lid’, which demonstrates how when we are stressed or overwhelmed, the thinking part of our brain can shut down, and all that we are left with is our own feelings and reactions. Empathy is a very cognitive thing that our brains do, and it can become impossible to do if we’re not in the right headspace for it.
You need to reach out to students, as well as families.
This is all about initiating contact. If you notice that a student is struggling but hasn’t told you yet, you need to approach them to give them the support they need. If you’re concerned about a student or something that happened in class and you need to contact their parents, it is a lot easier to do when you have the energy to do it.
As a teacher, you often need to be proactive. Students often don’t know what they need at any given point, and you need to initiate the conversation when this happens. Teachers make little decisions to intervene every day, and it can be a lot easier to ignore these signs when you’re exhausted. If you’re struggling to give those students who are asking for support what they need, you’re naturally not going to seek out more students to support. This means that students can be left behind.
What makes this worse is that the students struggling to ask you for support are also probably struggling to ask the rest of their teachers for support as well. This means that it’s not a random selection of students who are unsupported, but they will be the same students for every teacher who is getting overwhelmed. We need to be looking after our teachers’ well-being to be equitable and ensure that all of our students have the opportunity to succeed.
You need to build genuine relationships.
You need to be able to form genuine, lasting relationships with your students to be an effective teacher. You need to be consistent and predictable, someone that your students can trust. This can be very difficult when you are struggling with your workload and the demands of your job.
Being a kind, genuine, and empathetic person can be tough when you’re struggling. You may be able to do this most of the time, but if you slip up and lose your patience just once, you can lose a child’s trust.
Teachers are good at this. Building relationships and trust are a core part of the job. But that doesn’t change that it can be very difficult if your well-being is suffering. In this situation, the best-case scenario is that you put so much effort into building and maintaining your relationships with your class that your well-being suffers even more, and you burn out even quicker.
You need to be patient.
This one links very strongly to a couple of the other points I’ve made, but I think it’s worth emphasising. Being patient with a student when their behaviour is challenging is a vital part of showing unconditional positive regard and has a massive impact on student learning and their perception of themselves. Patience is also immensely powerful when a student struggles to answer a question or complete a task. Only so much learning can occur when the teacher gets impatient and answers the question for them.
Patience in extreme circumstances can be easier than in these smaller, everyday situations. If you know that you need to be patient with a student, you can focus on that and do what needs to be done. If you’re overwhelmed, stressed, and worried, you may not notice when a student needs you to just be patient, or your patience may be limited if it does not seem like a priority. Making sure that you can be incredibly patient will help you make the best decisions as a teacher.
Why do teachers struggle with well-being?
Many teachers struggle with their well-being and need to focus on it explicitly. Because of this, many teachers do let it slip in favour of doing more work to support their students. Teachers (and, more importantly, school leaders) need to understand that teacher well-being is one of the best ways to help our students. Being a good teacher is not about a tidy room and a well-documented curriculum, at least not primarily. It is about the small actions in the classroom and the little things that teachers notice and act upon. These things are difficult to measure, but their impact is clear to anyone who has ever taught in a classroom.