What support are teachers currently given, and do they need more support to protect their own mental health? After a trained primary teacher voiced her fears for the wellbeing of new teachers, other education and health professionals have raised their own concerns.
They say teachers are in urgent need of specific wellbeing training and should be given supervision and counselling similar to that of social workers. They also argue the Government should use the pay collective to recognise and value teachers more.
In November, trained primary teacher Sue Robinson wrote movingly about her hopes and fears for her daughter, who will be 25 when she embarks on her own teaching career in 2020.
In her opinion piece, Robinson sets out the risks that exist for teachers, particularly new ones, and urges with the Government to do more to safeguard their wellbeing.
Now an RTLB, Robinson loves her job and sees first-hand the passion, enthusiasm and commitment the teachers show for children. But, she adds, “I also get to see the strain, the stress and the burnout”.
Her daughter’s personal qualities (“smart and innovative, nurturing and understand[ing]”) make her a born teacher. She also knows what she is walking into. Nonetheless, Robinson still worries for her daughter’s stress levels.
As a new teacher, the workload will be overwhelming, particularly in the first two years. Weekends and evenings will be consumed with marking and planning, there will be several meetings a week, students who keep her up at night and parents who want answers.
“So do I tell her? Do I warn her? She will be a fabulous teacher, the children deserve someone like her, but I do have some concerns.”
Young, talented teachers like Robinson’s daughter are entering a profession that is “politically driven and vulnerable” and which puts their mental health at great risk, she says.
Education is now a “combative arena”. Teachers are “judged and critiqued for every decision they make to benefit their students”.
The education system puts teachers “at risk of caring and nurturing too much” yet “dedication and commitment are not acknowledged”.
The profession will “engulf” these fledgling teachers unless relevant support mechanisms and resources are made available to ensure their wellbeing, she says.
As Northland independent personal mentor Philippa Ross puts it: “Social workers get monthly supervision. What do teachers get?”
Ross, who has a background in psychology and education, says teachers “deserve and need to have a skill set to preserve their wellbeing; something that will help them manage the mental and emotional stress that will undoubtedly arise”.
This should be an “integral” part of their training. It would also protect them.
“It is so hard, when you’ve got a heart, to not take personal responsibility for every single child, you can’t help it because of human nature.”
Professionals need a certain amount of self-preservation, she adds. “It can be so hard to put yourself first but that’s what is [required].”
Auckland counsellor Jenny Arnold agrees, saying that teachers need support because of the huge range of tasks they are currently expected to do.
“It’s the workload: teachers do not just teach, they’re being asked to do a whole range of other things, with the children, with the families, with the community. They’re asked to do their specialist area of teaching but also asked to do a lot of other things.”
In theory, teachers are there to teach children, in reality, it doesn’t work that way.
“There can be all sorts of things going on in the children’s lives and the teachers are there to teach them. Or, are they there to do six or seven or 20 other things as well as teach them, like calm them down, teach them mindfulness? I think it’s a big ask and it just makes teachers more stress[ed].”
Teachers should receive relevant support and professional supervision in the way that social workers and counsellors do, says Arnold. It could be similar to the employee assistance provision (EAP) that is provided by District Health Boards (DHBs). Each DHB staff member is entitled to receive several EAP sessions a year.
“We all have a role to play in supporting teacher wellbeing,” says Ellen MacGregor-Reid, the Ministry of Education’s deputy secretary early learning & student achievement.
She points out that, under the Health and Safety at Work 2015, boards are required to meet obligations as employers and do “what is reasonably practicable” to keep teachers safe.
The act outlines everyone’s key roles and responsibilities, she adds.
“The school’s leadership should set the direction of health and safety management in the workplace, while any health and wellbeing programmes that are put in place should ensure that everyone can proactively manage their own health and wellbeing.”
Right from the start of the strikes, primary school teachers have made it clear that their industrial action is not just about money, but about huge workloads and a severe shortage of teachers. Teachers are asking for “time to teach and time to lead” including an increase in classroom release time, with more time for assessment and to plan their lessons.
In the meantime MacGregor-Reid says that an ‘education professionals’ wellbeing framework’ has recently been developed, with the aim of better supporting teachers and principals in their roles.
“The Ministry, NZEI and PPTA have agreed to continue to work together towards developing a plan to share and implement the framework more broadly with the wider education sector.”
There are a number of resources in place to support teacher wellbeing, she says. The Ministry has also established a joint taskforce, made up of representatives of the education sector, to identify ways to free up time for principals and teachers.
The taskforce has just completed the first phase of its enquiry. “It has identified a number of administrative tasks that may be stopped, reduced or their timing changed, to lessen the impact of compliance activities on teachers and principals.”
Arnold says that teachers want support to help children as much as a pay increase.
“Teachers can see there’s a whole load of need amongst the children, but they make referrals and there’s not enough follow up.” Such situations are “heartbreaking”, she adds.
Providing school counsellors in all primary schools, or even one health and wellbeing person for each Kāhui Ako (group of education providers), could potentially help take an emotional load off teachers, says Arnold.
In her original article, Robinson warns that if we don’t recognise teachers’ worth, then we all miss out.
“If we don’t value this profession with the right vision and the right conditions then the children lose out on enthusiastic, energised and innovative teachers. I am concerned that when this happens, society loses.”
Ross agrees, adding that teachers need to be valued as individuals, and for what they can contribute.
“This is the big gripe about the strikes. Teachers are treated like commodities that are churning things out.
“Teachers can teach standing on their heads; it’s their compassion, commitment and ability to form relationships with others that sets them apart and [puts] their students on a path where they believe in themselves.”