Thriving or just surviving? Exploring teacher wellbeing

Megan Gallagher, University of Otago

Another school year is quickly coming to an end. Perhaps this time educators in Aotearoa New Zealand will be more hopeful than they have in the past, given some recent political changes. Nonetheless, the fact remains that teaching is a stressful profession and all too often we get to the end of a term and feel shattered. This stress, however, does not have to be the defining feature of being a teacher.

There is plenty of evidence (see here or here) to support the notion that happy, healthy teachers have happier, healthier classrooms in which learners tend to achieve better both socially and academically. If our desire is to improve student achievement, then exploring what can be done to support teacher wellbeing would be a good place to start.

My background

I am a primary school teacher who specialised in health education for a number of years before returning to the classroom recently. I am hardly a poster child for teacher wellbeing – in fact, at times, I could be a living, walking example of what not to do! Over the last ten years or so, I have become increasingly concerned by the decline in the health and wellbeing of teachers as their stress and workload have increased but support services have been reduced.

My research

For my Master’s dissertation, I interviewed five mid-career primary school teachers who had each reported a positive sense of wellbeing through a short workplace wellbeing survey. I was interested in exploring these teachers’ career pathways, experiences and perspectives with a hope that there might be some teacher wellbeing gems that could be shared.

Why mid-career teachers?

There appeared to be limited past research on mid-career teachers and their wellbeing. However, these teachers will have much influence on the shape of schools in the coming years as current school leaders retire. Given this, I thought it would be worthwhile to find out what factors had helped these teachers maintain their wellbeing over a number of years in all the busyness and pressure of teaching.

Defining teacher wellbeing

As my study was focused on a strengths-based perspective, positive psychology (see here and here) was a useful starting point for exploring concepts of wellbeing. I also drew on Mason Durie’s Te Whare Tapa Whā model of hauora (Māori health; see here and here) which identifies four domains that are needed for health and wellbeing: spiritual, mental/emotional, physical, and social. This model is familiar within the NZ education sector, which made it appropriate for this research. Informed by these perspectives, my initial definition was:

“Teacher wellbeing is when a teacher is flourishing in their workplace, as an individual and in relationships with others, through maintaining a sense of balance between their spiritual, mental/emotional, physical, and social needs.”

So, what did I find out?

No surprises here, but based on the experiences of the teachers I interviewed, there wasn’t one single way to achieve wellbeing as a teacher – there’s no silver bullet, I’m afraid. However, there were some commonalities across the teachers.

For a start, all participants talked about the concept of balance. It became apparent that, much of the time, an even balance between the four domains of Te Whare Tapa Whā was not achieved, but the teachers’ willingness to accept the give-and-take nature of teaching offset this lack of balance. In light of this, I revised my definition of teacher wellbeing to remove the emphasis on total balance, so it now says that:

“Teacher wellbeing is when a teacher is flourishing in their workplace, as an individual and in relationships with others, through ensuring their spiritual, mental/emotional, physical, and social needs are met.”

Along with the reflection on the concept of balance, the following four areas emerged from my study as being supportive for positive teacher wellbeing.

People-centred leadership

“The school leadership sets the tone.”  – Denise

Creating working relationships where teachers feel trusted, supported, included and valued was a key to the people-centred leadership practices that the teachers in my study spoke about. What this looks like in practice may vary from person to person as different people have different needs. Therefore, a challenge to school leaders (not only principals) is getting to know their people well enough to attend to these needs. It was clear in the teacher interviews that often it was the little things that really made a big difference – the small acknowledgements and acts of kindness.

Positive and supportive relationships

“I think we need to ask, ‘do you feel supported?’”  – Evelyn

Teaching is a relationships based vocation; we work with students, colleagues, whanau, community members, service providers and the wider profession. Supportive relationships within the school community can support teachers to achieve a better state of wellbeing, which in turn benefits the learners in their care.

A strong sense of purpose

“I have seen the power of living out your school values and being collective as a whole [staff / team] …”  – Liz

A core belief that came through from all participants was that what they did made a difference for the learners in their care. This belief helped maintain the teachers’ motivation through trying times as well as helping them focus on using their time and energy effectively.

Self-efficacy

“I know I am a control freak, I know I put too many things on, but I know that so it’s my choice.”  – Denise

The ‘I choose’ mindset was mentioned by all participants at some stage or other. This mindset indicated a sense of empowerment that is important in developing a strong sense of self efficacy. The teachers in my study were able to reframe negative experiences as learning experiences that have contributed to their development as a teacher. They were also clear about what their role was and gave a sense that they were able to address the needs of the learners in their care. All of this, along with knowing and addressing their own personal and professional needs, contributed to the teachers’ self-efficacy.

Wrapping up

“I love my job.”  – Paula

The teachers interviewed were passionate about their chosen profession  as am I. While my study was only small, and the group lacked the diversity that would allow us to explore other influences on wellbeing such as cultural identity, my hope is that the conversation around teacher wellbeing will continue and hopefully become even more prominent as we welcome in a new era of educational policy for Aotearoa. In the meantime, for those of us working in schools, let’s focus on doing what we can to improve the environment our colleagues work in so we can support positive wellbeing for teachers in Aotearoa … I reckon it’s worth the effort.


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