The General Teaching Council for Scotland

For the sake of all, look after yourself

Our pupils and profession are ill-served by a lack of awareness and management of teachers’ wellbeing and mental health

Lena Carter

How are you? No, really, how are you? Have you stopped to notice?

Chances are you are a bit tired and run down. It’s that time of year when we maybe don’t think about our wellbeing as much as we should. The busyness around assessments, reports, parents’ evenings and options, the end of the dark, cold months with little opportunity to see daylight, and the lingering effects of winter bugs – all these can serve to leave us vulnerable to illness.

There has been a lot of talk about teacher wellbeing lately. Much of it has been related to the recruitment issues faced by many Scottish schools and the suggestion that teachers are either leaving the profession or failing to enter it because the job is just too pressurised, leading to stress and anxiety. Pupil behaviour, accountability and workload are some of the factors that are cited as having a detrimental effect on teacher health and wellbeing, and particularly on teacher mental health.

I am absolutely committed to the idea that teacher wellbeing and the mental and physical health of teachers must be a central consideration for teachers themselves and school leaders. The simple image taken from aviation whereby in an emergency you must put on your own oxygen mask before helping others is key; you cannot care for, or be a positive model of wellbeing for, children if you do not look after yourself.

Having teachers who are able to be nurturing, calm, positive, realistically optimistic and caring for children is vital

The education of our children is not something to be taken lightly. Having teachers who are able to be nurturing, calm, positive, realistically optimistic and caring for children is vital. One of the greatest things we can achieve as adults working with children is to be positive wellbeing role models.

In the medical profession, there is a clearly-stated recognition that doctor wellbeing is essential to patient wellbeing. The Physician’s Charter, last updated in October 2017 by The World Medical Association, contains the pledge: “I WILL ATTEND TO my own health, wellbeing, and abilities in order to provide care of the highest standard.”

I know about all of this from connecting with the inspiring Michael Farquhar (@DrMikeFarquhar) on Twitter. Mike is a consultant in sleep medicine and writes passionately about the need for sensible work and sleep patterns for doctors (read more at http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1111/anae.13982/full)

We lack a similar pledge within our Professional Standards for teacher registration. The only reference to wellbeing in our Standards appears in 3.2.2 – “demonstrate a secure knowledge and understanding of the wellbeing indicators” – and this relates to pupil wellbeing.

Absence in school through any type of illness is hard to manage. Getting quality supply can be difficult, and absence can impact on teaching and learning. But school leaders can minimise absence through awareness of their staff members’ wellbeing, early intervention and by creating a culture where it is okay to ask for help.

In the long term, I (and others) would like to see the following implemented in order:

  • to ensure that, moving forward, all schools are happy, healthy environments
  • the inclusion in all leadership and headship development courses of modules on staff wellbeing management
  • the inclusion in all initial teacher training courses of modules on managing emotional health and wellbeing in a highly challenging profession
  • awareness raising around equalities legislation that tells us that it is illegal to discriminate against someone who has health issues (current or past)
  • the development of education-specific occupational health teams.

In the short term, here’s what you can do, today, whether you are a headteacher or a dinner lady:

  • Know yourself and your own wellbeing thresholds. Mine will not be the same as yours. When we talk about mental health we need to remember that there is no normal; my mental health is not necessarily yours. What is important is that each one of us understands what we need to do individually to keep mentally and physically healthy.
  • Be reflective about your own assumptions and prejudices and learn about mental health, what it is and what it is not. Do a mental health first aid course or look at a website like this: https://www. scottishrecovery.net/
  • Engage in all those behaviours and kindnesses that you teach your pupils about.
  • Challenge gossip and rumour about others
  • Challenge bullying behaviour and cliques.
  • Watch out for each other and ask people how they are. Listen to the answer.
  • Ask for help when you need it.
  • Celebrate the wonderful diversity of your colleagues and embrace them for all they are: vulnerabilities and strengths.
  • Connect with the rapidly growing grassroots movement of educators who are pushing to promote teacher wellbeing. They include the #teacher5aday group , the #optimisticEd group, the #healthyteachertoolkit group and the #womened tribe

It is precisely in our busiest weeks that we need to take most care of ourselves. Let’s be honest, as teachers we are always busy. There is always more we could do. There will always be external pressure on us. But we have to learn to manage workload and look after ourselves – and each other – if we are to survive and thrive.

About the author

Lena Carter is Head of Teaching and Learning in a secondary school in Argyll. You can follow her on Twitter as @lenabellina and read her blog at:

lenabellina.wordpress.com