Alex Burke, CEO at New Zealand EdTech company, Education Perfect, discusses teacher wellbeing and why it is up to everyone in the community to encourage wellbeing among teachers.

When you fly somewhere (remember doing that?), you’re always shown a safety demonstration, if not by the cabin crew themselves, then on a video screen. One of the key features of these demonstrations is the use of an oxygen mask, where you should attach your own mask before fitting a mask to a child.

This got me thinking: the same example needs to be applied to teachers, when it comes to teacher wellbeing. A teacher’s first priority – and by virtue of the fact, ours – should be to increase their own levels of wellbeing so they have the resilience and strength to help their students.

Researcher and teacher Suskya Goodall recently spoke on the EPisodes podcast with Jimmy Bowens, where she discussed the value of ‘wellbeing’ among teachers being the foundation of better education outcomes for students. She reflected on the lessons she has learnt about teachers and leaders and the importance of them finding ‘balance’ in their lives.

As part of her educational doctorate, Suskya has helped clarify our understanding of ‘wellbeing’. While acknowledging that there is no globally-shared definition of the word, a simple definition of  ‘wellbeing’ is: “feeling good, and functioning well”.

“‘Feeling good’ is about positive emotion in the present, while ‘functioning well’ is more about the long term, and sustainable practices around meaning, purpose and life satisfaction,” she said.

She went on to speak supportively of Sir Mason Durie’s model,‘Te Whare Tapa Whā. It’s based on the idea of a house with four walls, each representing a dimension of wellbeing: physical, mental and emotional, social, and spiritual.

“The idea is that it’s these four dimensions that hold up the roof,” she said.

“All of the walls are necessary, and in balance.”

A similar point was raised by Sue Roffey, in her research paper, where she pointed out how professional development is often focused on academic curriculum targets rather than the equally important pillars of learning to be, and learning to live together.

“For the sake of our children and society in the future we need to keep the conversation about wellbeing top of the agenda,” explains Roffey.

So whose responsibility is teacher wellbeing, anyway?

As a society, our focus needs to be on providing the best possible outcomes in education for students and our teachers form the bedrock of this.

It’s encouraging to see the NZ government making a sizable financial commitment to the issue, with $9 million devoted to counselling support services, online support and Māori education. In June, the Ministry of Education announced a $32 million programme to establish 40 new curriculum leads to work with schools, acknowledging the need for more of a focus in the education system on wellbeing.

Every year, I speak with hundreds of teachers about their work and it is clear that they want to be part of developing wellbeing programmes.

There is less likelihood of success, no matter what the content, if programmes are imposed on participants. Teacher wellbeing programmes that are co-designed by education leaders will be far more effective and produce better outcomes for students.

Teacher wellbeing programmes are not about ticking a box— there needs to be long-term buy-in.

With regards to ‘whose responsibility is it?’, we need to move away from ‘finger pointing’, to focusing on how stakeholders can collaborate for maximum effectiveness.

We’ll need to get educators and education leaders together so they can co-design wellbeing programmes that are appropriate and personalised. To do this, stakeholders should come together regularly and develop deeper relationships.

In Te Whāriki, the New Zealand early childhood curriculum, they have a concept that the wellbeing of each child is interdependent with the wellbeing of their kaiako, parents and whānau (extended family or community).

Wellbeing as a concept is something that forms part of the foundation of a child’s development – something that is crucial for their enrichment and a fundamental aspect of upbringing in Māori communities.

Teachers who have a solid sense of wellbeing are far better equipped to encourage it in their students. If they’re guided by their own experiences, and wellbeing programmes are informed by teacher feedback and needs, they will be better able to lead by example. We, as a community, should be championing this.

It’s up to all of us in the community to reinforce the ideas and encourage wellbeing among teachers. If we do that as much as we impress the importance of the wellbeing of students, a greater result will be achieved.

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