Within Edinburgh Local Association, we’re taking the first steps to organise a staff wellbeing network. This group will connect EIS members across Edinburgh’s schools to identify what matters most for us and play an active role in improving the work done to support wellbeing in our profession. This work will be shaped by the members who join the group.
I’m a secondary English teacher at Liberton High School in Edinburgh and am currently collaborating with Alison Murphy, our LA Secretary, and Eilidh Gittus, our EIS Organiser. As I write, we’re meeting with school reps to build the network and identify where our initial focus will be. In this article, I want to explore some of my motivations for being part of this work in the hope that by naming why staff wellbeing really matters to me, we can build greater momentum, connection and campaigning on this within the EIS. While there is growing consensus around the idea that wellbeing matters, it is still often the first thing to get dropped when hard times hit. It can also be something that feels too vulnerable, too individual and too hard to measure. So, it is spoken about but not operationalised. We don’t necessarily have established models or strong experiences of what good wellbeing work looks like, which can add to it feeling nebulous and something to work on later, once we’ve managed to get through the latest storm. Yet, the research is clear: to learn well we need to be well. Further, for our learners to be well, we, the adults in the room, have to be well. Wellbeing is at the core of everyone’s work.
This feels true now more than ever. Conversations abound around what we might be learning, individually and collectively, from the Covid-19 pandemic. Many of these conversations centre around our health, the need for connection and community, the necessity of kindness and for wellbeing to matter in a way that it hasn’t for quite a while. This awareness needs action to get anywhere and we need to be clear – this isn’t just about a recovery or renewal phase after the experiences of the past year and a half. Teacher wellbeing needed action before the pandemic began and much of what was hard before March 2020 has become harder.
EIS research, commissioned in 2014, was part of ongoing work on teacher wellbeing. This research captured the responses of 7,000 members. It found that only 33% of respondents were generally satisfied with their working life and only 12% of respondents were satisfied with workload. One of the conclusions of the report was that “wellbeing and satisfaction within the teaching profession at the present time are low and stress levels are very high.” In May of this year, The Herald reported a 26% increase in stress-related absences in Scottish schools between 2016-17 and 2019-20 and discussions around recruitment and retention in the profession are ongoing. As someone who wants teaching to be a sustainable and rewarding profession, these statistics make for alarming reading. My guess is that any of us reading this article will be able to think of colleagues and friends whose stories are included in these figures, alongside possibly our own times of struggle and frustration.
Being able to make meaningful connections between our lived experience and the broad snapshots offered in these statistics is another crucial reason for creating a staff wellbeing network. Although people can be quick to nod their head to this idea that wellbeing matters, what this actually means remains very open to interpretation. Too easily this work can be individualised, too narrowly focused, addressed through ad hoc input only and used to sidestep the very real ways in which the structures and relationships we work within really aren’t working for us. We need to disrupt this mis-use of wellbeing. Work on teacher wellbeing must centre around teachers. It needs to be focused on facilitating open dialogue around workload, difficult relationships, systemic challenges and other stressors alongside supporting staff to build and sustain habits which support their wellbeing. It needs to be keenly aware of what wellbeing looks like in a diverse workforce and committed to getting things right, especially for marginalised and oppressed groups. Further, I would argue, we need to get really clear on how it intersects with our pedagogy, our relationships for learning and the values and policies which are driving our education system.
The Scottish teaching profession is, rightly, being asked to get it right for every child. We’re working with complex needs and diverse experiences in our classrooms. We’re developing restorative and trauma-informed approaches. We’re continuously improving our pedagogy to work for more equitable, inclusive outcomes. Each of these asks, and the many more that are made of us, includes a need for us to be well so that we have the resources, creativity and compassion needed to do this work well. However, too often we are moving this work forward without having a meaningful dialogue around our own needs, individual and collective.
For the past four years, I’ve been involved in staff wellbeing in my own school community. We consult at least annually to get clear on what individuals and teams need and then act. We organise at a school level through our staff wellbeing committee. We work to make time and share approaches for meaningful team-level and individual responses to what we learn too. We work hard to make sure the voices and experiences of staff across the full breadth of our team are included. It’s very much a work in progress but it has made clear to me that when we stop and ask how we are, what’s working and what’s getting in the way, there’s a lot there for us to talk about. There’s also a lot for us to do. While I feel like I’m stating the obvious here, I return once again to acknowledge that too often wellbeing is named as important without being given real attention, care and investment.
Through the Covid-19 pandemic, though, we have seen an increased short-term investment around teacher wellbeing. Work led by Education Scotland, Place2Be, Barnardo’s Scotland and the GTCS alongside the EIS’s own Wellbeing Matters programme and others, increased the variety of professional learning and networks available to us. We have an opportunity now to work for deeper, longer lasting investment in our wellbeing. This will not only make our profession better able to deliver the transformational education Scotland aspires to, but will offer us greater meaning, purpose and joy in our working lives.
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