VOICE: Five Questions with Mrs S-W

A transitional professional with a wealth of industry experience, Mrs S-W has been working in education for over ten years having worked previously in the education charity sector. She graduated with a degree in English Literature and Italian from the University of Kent in 1995 and completed the Graduate Teacher Programme, specialising in primary teaching. Based in the West Midlands, Mrs S-W progressed and became an assistant headteacher in charge of Literacy in ten federation schools, a Specialist Leader in Education (SLE) and a head of school. Mrs S-W is currently a part-time reception classroom teacher teaching four days a week and is writing a book looking at outdoor play and children’s wellbeing.

Mrs S-W – thank you for an interview that doubled in time and gave me plenty of new ideas to work with. It was great to see how many parallels can be drawn between children and adults, parallels that unfortunately end up falling by the wayside when they should remain central to everything we do.

1. What does teacher wellbeing mean to you, how would you define it?

Teacher wellbeing is different to different people. Wellbeing is subjective, but there is a basic level of need. I knew two junior teachers who felt unsafe; they were so anxious and so depressed by the stressful situations that had happened to them, they were coming to work feeling panicked, and I think you don’t have that basic level then I think your wellbeing is negatively affected.

But I suppose like any human being, teachers need to feel valued, like they are achieving something and therefore are able to develop a strong sense of worth. My book looks at the importance of children feeling competent, having a sense of autonomy and a sense of relatedness in children for a secure level of wellbeing, and I think that’s true for teachers and adults as well, we need to feel like we’re competent. For example, I have worked in schools where on paper I have done well and was seen to be successful but felt incompetent because of the way I was treated and spoken to, I had this internalised feeling of incompetency and that isn’t a sign of good wellbeing, is it?

Allies – having people who can rally around us and form a sort of tribe and support you is really important, without which wellbeing can be affected quite badly. Feeling safe, having autonomy, an acceptable level of happiness, being trusted, having support, having a secure level of resilience, being respected, all of these things are very important for wellbeing. A good sense of wellbeing also makes you much more able to deal with stressful things in life and bounce back, and that bounce back is the crucial bit, isn’t it?

2. Can you tell me about one of the best working environments in which you have worked where you felt the most secure in your wellbeing?

When I was an assistant head, my head of department was very supportive and I think she really characterised all the things I thought were integral to wellbeing and good leadership. She was humble, extremely good at her job and therefore competent, a really good listener. She had my respect; she would never ask you to do something she wouldn’t do herself. She was also open to challenge, which I found really good because not all leaders welcome that and do that, which I guess came from her confidence in her abilities. She gave us the most autonomy I have ever had in teaching. Some teachers want that close management and guidance but I have never really wanted that, and so it really suited me. She understood that I had come from a managerial background with my own strengths that could be applied to teaching and so she trusted me to get on with things. Some people think that people who come into teaching at a later stage are a blank slate, they don’t know anything, and maybe I didn’t know what a lesson plan was when I started training, but I had other strengths and they shouldn’t be disregarded, so autonomy is really important for me personally.

I was working in an incredible federation with a very good deputy head who sheltered us from the stress that can sometimes be passed down; she was in between us, and I really appreciate the fact that she lessened the stress, taking the stress from Oftsed for example, but not passing it down. The environment and culture was based on hard work but it wasn’t competitive driven to a detrimental effect. She understood us, the way we worked, and played a part in creating that environment, and I think what really worked was the fact that she was teaching and leading at the same time, which therefore made her more aware of situations and the context and that informed her leadership approach and the decisions she made. Sometimes you get some leaders who have been out of the classroom and actual teaching for a number of years, and so her approach was not only well informed but she could empathise with teachers in easier ways.

She was also incredibly loyal. I had an issue once where a parent had complained about me directly to me and I could have kept it to myself but I felt comfortable enough to go to her and discuss it with her because I knew she would have my back, within reason of course, and so knowing I had someone supporting me in those moments also helped.

3. How important are colleague relationships to you?

At primary, we have very close relationships that we heavily rely on. For example, we have teaching assistants who we spend all day long with, so in that particular situation it is really important to have those good and strong relationships. It links to the research I have done regarding connectedness for children’s wellbeing – it is the same for us – having allies and the idea of having allies, so if you have colleagues around you that you can relate to, you can get so much from that and that really boosts wellbeing.

In addition to that, the same can be said with my Twitter friends, and I do class them as friends. I have some really strong bonds there because they are great sources of help and support. I feel really supported by my Twitter community. When I have felt down, it has been people from that community that have picked me up, have dusted me off and have sent me back into the classroom.

4. If you could characterise an incompetent or weak leader, what would they be like?

I once reviewed a lecture that was heavily based on the idea of moral leadership. It focused on humility and the dangers of not having it at leadership level, and I have certainly come across that, a dire lack of humility, which I think shows a lot about their confidence. Some of the best leaders I have come across have been really humble, like Obama. I have never met Obama but he seems really at ease with himself and doesn’t have to peddle to anyone to assert himself.

Challenge is good too – asking questions and challenging is a real strength and I saw this when I was head of school and I was being asked those challenging questions. I think it is so valuable, whether you are the one who asks the questions or the one who is being asked. I remember having one member of staff who was really challenging and I found that really difficult at the beginning, but then I realised, actually it isn’t personal and it doesn’t have to be taken personally, but that it is simply a contrast of perspective. I find challenge helpful and I think some leaders can be closed to that, which I think can cause harm.

Another important thing is doing the right thing and not the easy thing. I know of a leader who has become a good friend who is berated and is called a rebel, a maverick, a nuisance because she makes decisions in which she places the children first and defends their rights, and that is an example of someone being committed to their values and are doing the right thing by them, even though it causes them a load of trouble.

Compassion. In the lecture it was said, “decide with conviction and implement with compassion”, and I think that is so important. That is especially needed right now, teaching through a pandemic, it is not easy and really needs that approach. That being said though, it is incredibly hard to do this; as a leader, I did find it difficult but if you can’t drudge up compassion for your teachers, are you really right for the job? As a leader, there wasn’t much support that I received really to be able to do this or any of it. I didn’t have a mentor or someone coaching me, which is interesting now to think about it. For example, I realised when sat in a room of men that I would automatically become non-assertive and I had no idea I was doing this until a male colleague of mine had pointed it out. So I guess there is something to be said about that, how much training and support leaders are given as well.

5. What do you think must be done to improve teacher wellbeing in England?

Teachers can be martyrs – teachers need to take some personal responsibility as well and have boundaries and self-manage wellbeing. Our wellbeing right now is really being affected by the media. At the moment, you feel quite wary about saying you’re a teacher and I know that is specific to the pandemic but I wonder how long that will last with the media and the government. I think that public perception of teachers being lazy will cause a lot of teachers to leave the profession as well.

I also think things done to help cannot be tokenistic; it comes back to having autonomy and trusted to be yourself. That is really important. It’s really important to see what people are and what they need – everyone’s journey is different; I think leaders need to be able to see the path that each teacher is on.

I think how accountability is viewed is really significant in terms of wellbeing and it is damaging when linked to, for example, the money you earn. We can’t control what grades the students get, it’s more complex than that. I find our educational approach really bizarre, testing students at age four, we’re going back to the colonial educational structures here demanding to start educating children at 4. But we are compiling all this data on children failing or passing and the children don’t even know it. It is just so bizarre to be measuring children from such a young age, with these systems, with phonics tests, SATs and then it just goes on and on. I have two teenage boys and I have noticed with my youngest that it is increasingly test driven; he attends an excellent college, an outstanding college, and I would say he is formally tested every month with quite stringent tests, they are constantly being assessed all the time, and he is consciously aware of this, it is visibly there, and I do think there’s a problem there, definitely.

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