IAN VICKERS shares his fight to get teacher wellbeing taken seriously in New Zealand.

On 1 January 2014, Michael Van Gerwen, a 24-year-old Dutchman, was crowned as the darts world champion. In his victory interview, he said, “It is one thing to dream and talk about becoming a world champion, but it is a different proposition to actually make it happen.”

I wonder if this statement also rings true in education today. The politicians and Ministry of Education constantly talk (and dream) about excellence in all aspects of education, but unless some fundamental changes are forthcoming, then many of the grand ideas and data targets will never materialise. As the Minister of Education stated in a memo at the end of 2013: “If we always do what we have always done, then we will always get what we have always got.”

The silent majority

For the last three years, I have been promoting the introduction of teacher and principal wellbeing programmes in our schools. It has been an incredible journey so far and 2013 was a particularly interesting year, as momentum built in many educational institutions around the country.

However, while many teachers and principals are crying out for better wellbeing initiatives, the key leaders in our profession appear to be sorely out of touch with the role and the demands placed on a 21st century teacher. The pace of change in education has been quite significant over the last five years, and if you have not ‘taught’ in this time, then you are probably well off the pace with regards to the true reality of what a modern-day teacher does each day, each week, and each year.

The teacher wellbeing programme I launched at my school back in February 2012 has truly blossomed and continues to evolve. It is based on a weekly wellbeing theme, such as drink more water, no e-mail week, go home early this week, and tidy your work space, to name just a few topics. In 2013, we introduced new themes and an on-site staff ‘WOF’ medical check which was hugely popular. This year, we will also introduce a weekly on-site massage opportunity.

I have taken our ideas that work and shared them with teachers around the country through PD sessions at staff meetings and conferences. The feedback has been amazing – in excess of 4000 emails, phone chats, and Skype conversations clearly confirms that as a profession we are most certainly in need of some TLC. I have encouraged schools, teachers, and principals to start their own wellbeing programmes and have shared our resources that highlight some of the weekly themes, which can be customised to suit the needs of any institution. There are copies in about 600 educational centres, but this is only a small part, as the main focus is about establishing a teacher wellbeing culture.

Numerous principals have shared their concerns and I have had two experienced male principals speak to me in tears about their stress, burnout, and subsequent mental breakdowns. They are both on the road to recovery but are now fully supportive of having a wellbeing programme. I have received many stories of depression and illness due to huge workloads and numerous notes from dedicated and talented teachers turning their backs on the profession as they are burnt out. Colleagues nationwide have shared their most personal secrets with regards to their own health, many brought on by huge workloads and excessive hours on school work. I have heard of suicides, major health issues, and a general despair about the lack of support and interest in teacher wellness. The most worrying are letters from new teachers who have entered teaching late from other careers and are totally bemused about the lack of teacher wellbeing infrastructure in our schools.

These concerns are from those hard-working, conscientious, innovative, creative, passionate teachers that are the cornerstone of every institution. We are flogging them to death but then expect them to bring their ‘A game’ to the classroom every single day. Why is it that the current Education Review Office focus document (draft published November 2013) on ‘Wellbeing in Schools’, is all about student wellbeing, with not a single word about the wellbeing of teachers?

In August and then again in November, I was laughed at by two key staff from the Ministry of Health. The gist of their comments was that all other professions and workplaces understand the need for a preventative wellbeing programme, but in education, there is nothing. In late November 2013, Sancta Maria College was a winner of an ‘Innovation Award’ at the prestigious Heart Foundation/HAPINZ national workplace awards, in acknowledgement of our college’s wellbeing programme. One of the delegates from the Ministry of Health was delighted that we understood the preventative wellbeing message. However, he was damning about our profession’s lack of action. I thought that his parting statement said it all: “It is 50-50 you know. 50 per cent chance that a teacher gets sick in the first week of their holiday or 50 per cent, the second week!”

The talkfest brigade

After three years of talking to people from the Ministry of Education, the unions, and cling-on consultants and academics, it would appear that no one has the gumption to understand that having superb teachers whose wellness is looked after makes for a happy and productive workforce. Do the research on teacher wellbeing in those countries at the top of the PISA rankings and also look how industry and business get the very best out of their workers by having a preventative wellbeing programme. It is not rocket science.

Let’s look at the All Blacks set-up in this professional era. The New Zealand public demand and expect excellence from the ABs. Play with style and win. They have the best win record of any sporting team in world sport today. So how is this achieved? First and foremost, the best players are gathered together, then they are coached, mentored, looked after. Then the rest of the ABs culture roadshow falls in behind, leading to an excellent brand, an excellent team, and finally, a highly successful and long-standing record of being the best rugby team on the planet.

So where are we at in an educational sense on reaching our desired excellence? The talkfest brigade have decided not to look at the team of teachers and principals first but have been hell-bent on making sure the playing field looks good, the playing uniform is high tech, the corporate boxes are all full, the community and PR aspect is in play, the ball technology has been checked and re-modelled, the signage around the ground looks great, and the television deal is secure, promising top draw performances that will be the envy of the world. With the scene set for excellence, teachers and principals are now expected to do their bit with no excuses. Will this approach lead to excellence? Have you got a workforce of the best possible teachers? No. Do you look after your best teachers? No. Excellence costs money and will never be realised on the cheap!

Reaction from both the Ministry and the unions has been disappointing. The main mission of the unions appears to be to disagree with the Ministry on everything and continue to ignore the silent majority.

The unions say that the wellbeing of teachers is the responsibility of the Ministry of Education, but the Ministry says that ‘the duty of care of staff’ is the responsibility of the boards of trustees. Lots of well-meaning people become involved as BOTs but very few are really involved in the day-to-day running of schools.

The principals’ duty of care for their staff is often lost, as they are overworked themselves, highly stressed and close to burnout. Reports from NZCER confirm that many principals are having a hard time.

My communication with the Ministry has been very mixed. Some staff have never had the courtesy to respond to my phone calls or emails. One person over the phone, when I enquired which department looked after the wellbeing of teachers, asked me if it was a trick question. There is only one reference on the Ministry website to the wellbeing of teachers and that is in reference to Christchurch teachers and the earthquakes. Some of the leadership is not yet convinced that there is a demand for a teachers’ wellbeing programme. However, I have been promised that a focus group of principals and others will talk about it early in 2014.

Where to from here?

Meanwhile, I will continue to promote teacher wellbeing around the country and keep the momentum building. I will keep banging on the doors of the key players and debate the issues and hopefully spark some positive initiatives.

I entered the teaching profession to make a difference. My dream was for every student in the land to have the very best teachers and that these teachers would be supported to keep them fresh, innovative, passionate, and at the top of their game for many years. To dream and talk about this is one thing but to make it happen needs a united focus, to make our profession one of which to be proud.

Ian Vickers is assistant principal of Sancta Maria College. These are Ian’s personal views and opinions. Ian is happy to be contacted to hear from others around teacher wellbeing and the way forward in our educational institutions. teacherwellbeingglobal@gmail.com.


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