VOICE: Five Questions With Mrs W

Mrs W has been in education for over twenty-five years, having worked as a primary school teacher, an assistant headteacher at a village school in Lancashire and a deputy headteacher at a primary pupil referral unit. She graduated with a degree in English and Education Studies from the University of Central Lancashire in 1986 and achieved her National Professional Qualification for Headship in 1998. Having taken early retirement, Mrs W currently runs her own business offering a consultancy service for behaviour and SEND management and works as a SENCo in two different primary schools on a part-time basis.

Mrs W – thank you for your time, your wisdom and your positivity.

1. In your words, what does teacher wellbeing mean?

Wellbeing means a lot of different things: first and foremost, it’s the idea of being treated with respect as a professional who has gone through a lot of training to assume the important position of being a teacher; professional respect at the core of a school community including SLT, students, parents and the community; the expectation to be treated as you would treat others, including respect, regardless of agreement or disagreement and listening and having empathy with people.

I have worked in a negative environment where divisions were run by strong personalities, the ‘my way or the highway’ sort of approach, with public humiliation of teachers’ methods and clique behaviour. For wellbeing, you can’t let personality clashes get in the way of doing the job for the children. Unfortunately, I have seen quite a lot of that and it does seem to be a feature of schools, or some schools. Sometimes it is the little things that build up and loom large, which then turns, if you are not careful, into a climate of fear.

As teaching professionals, we are bound by professional standards, and sometimes this might be to the letter but not to the spirit because sometimes decisions are made knowing they will have a negative impact on colleagues; all of this can’t be good for wellbeing. If we are looking at wellbeing, we have got to be seen as equals in a way that is purposeful, professional and fair – unfairness is a thread that runs through teacher perceptions. You can’t have favourites and be seen as favouring members of staff. We are all human, but it is very easy to fall into familiarity with some people and leave out others who then feel like they are not a worthwhile person or that they don’t belong.

You also get colleagues who snipe at each other – how can you work in a school where you feel someone will say something nasty to you? The heart of wellbeing in itself is to be comfortable to be able to go in and get on, for example, when I worked in the village school, it was such a lovely ethos, unlike the other places where I was fearful, I went from that and felt “wow, I am being paid to come here”, and I loved everything about it, and it was a complete culture change to the previous negative experience that was led by a weak head, in my opinion. At this school, it was lovely, we all helped each other, we had fun and had events, there was genuine interest from the staff to want to do those activities instead of being negative about it all, and it was because the atmosphere was nice and people wanted to be a part of it. It was the complete antithesis of what I had experienced, which I would define as being one of the most negative experiences I have had and definitive of poor leadership.

2. Over your career as a teacher and educator, what processes and expectations have caused you the most stress?

Schools need to be ran efficiently with compassionate leadership, and that doesn’t necessarily mean collegiate leadership because that doesn’t quite work either, but where the school leader has a positive vision and has the strength to see it through so it permeates through to all the different areas. The cliques and fragmented leadership caused an awful lot of stress. Going back to the negative example I mentioned before, authoritarian leadership, but not in a way that was positive or brought results and heavily relied on crisis management instead of being forward thinking, planned and evaluated and where everything was left last minute, was very difficult to deal with.

Being undermined by senior members of staff; when I was a deputy head, there was one occasion where I had told these two little girls something and they had then approached the head who said, “you don’t have to listen to Mrs W, she’s the deputy and I am the head” and that finished me off completely, I couldn’t stay there a minute more – where do you go when something like that is said?

A lack of organisation and micro management – if you have got good structures in place, there shouldn’t be a need for micro management, you should be able to let people fly and develop their strengths.

3. What do you think good leadership looks like?

Good leadership is about having authority but not in an authoritarian manner. It’s about having a vision and being professionally competent; I think competency is massive. If we can see it in children, we should be able to see it in leaders as well, as incompetent leaders can be taken advantage of.

Compassionate leadership that has strong values, someone who can create a strong positive ethos so everyone feels like they know what direction they are going in. I think if someone can carry the majority of people with them, because not everyone will buy into the ethos, then that is an example of good leadership, to create that effect that people are buzzing in their job, they are excited to go to work and be there. It’s about leading the team, isn’t it? Making sure the team feel valued as individuals and that we are all pulling together, and I think once a head or a senior leader deviates form that, that’s when you start losing people.

I think happiness is key – you have got to feel happy! What we should be striving for is to make things better rather than people leaving.

4. How is your wellbeing right now?

Well, apart from the pandemic, which I think as affected everyone, on a professional basis, my wellbeing is pretty good at the minute. I am physically at work and we are working in work bubbles. I am spending a lot of time supporting my SEND parents and children, looking at workload and engaging students, trying to be really solution-focused, and I am finding a lot of my energies are going into supporting mental health and wellbeing support also. I feel useful. Even though we are in this awful situation, and I am sure if we had the chance to turn the clock back we would all love to, but I am constantly thinking about work and these focuses even on the days I am not working, but it helps me because I feel useful. I feel I can contribute positively to other human beings

My leaders are giving me time to make the right decisions for the children and we are still managing to get things right. I think this time round we are a lot more prepared compared to the first lockdown and a lot more prepared to help. I have my family bubble around me, which includes my cat, and I feel good. I think I feel this way because it comes back to what I spoke about before which is to have the trust of my leaders, and I think that is the crux of good leadership and wellbeing, being able to be trusted to do the best you can do.

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

Scrap Ofsted – no one will miss Ofsted!

I think all the things I have just talked about could be possible if we had constructive leadership and flexible leadership. I think teachers feel really marginalised when you look at media perceptions, parent perceptions, and public commission perceptions and if they were supported, things could get better. There is a lot of anxiety surrounding teachers at the moment, so I think not forcing teachers who are feeling vulnerable to be in, having flexible management, is important, but this has to be balanced with the fact that we have a job and not to sit at home and do nothing, which I think unfortunately what the public perception of teachers right now is. I am going into work and I feel as safe as I possibly can feel and I enjoy it, I am sticking to my bubbles and I am staying safe, and for me, my wellbeing is better for it.

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