There is a tendency to see teacher wellbeing and student wellbeing as competing concerns in school leadership and culture. What teacher wellbeing and student wellbeing have in common is the perception by teachers that they are an ‘add on’ to the principal agenda of academic performance. Initiatives tackling teacher wellbeing are often experienced as piecemeal, and are inconsistent with the overall culture of teacher’s professional expectations in schools (Brady & Wilson, 2021) – for example, a short mindfulness course offered alongside a general CPD (continuing professional development) focus on teaching for ‘performance’. Our research with teachers (Wilson et al., 2023) has found that teachers subsequently experience a sense of incoherence and confusion around how wellbeing fits in as a priority in their work: we found tensions in teachers’ understandings of the aim of teaching, as ‘doing well’ at the expense of ‘being well’, despite their conviction that to authentically ‘do well’, students and teachers need to ‘be well’ as a foundation.
While education for wellbeing is often portrayed as learning a set of knowledge and skills to be obtained by individuals to support their resilience, our study with teachers matched other findings (see for example Billington et al., 2022) which highlight the relational nature of wellbeing in teachers’ understanding and practice. Here, the notion of teaching as care work comes to the fore. The caring role in teaching is theorised by Noddings as ‘a web of care’ (Noddings, 2013, p. xiii), in which care is understood to be dialogic, requiring a response from a student or ‘cared-for’ which buffers the teacher’s own wellbeing. Care is also multi-directional: education staff give and receive care from each other. This perspective is in tension with CPD and secondary teacher training which almost exclusively foregrounds the role of teachers in academic performance.
Our findings suggest that the emphasis on wellbeing as a set of skills and knowledge veils the reality that wellbeing in the classroom and school community is experienced by teachers as rooted in the quality of relationships between students and teachers, and among teachers (Wilson et al., 2023). Our participants conceptualised their own wellbeing as resting on having space for authenticity, purpose and relationships (Wilson et al., 2023), particularly the quality of relationships with students that mean teachers can help support students into areas in which they can individually flourish, ‘pushing into something which they are really good at’. This is something which helps students ‘feel valued’ and contribute something meaningful to the wider community (Wilson et al., 2023). Our research also implied what seems an obvious conclusion, perhaps masked by the realities in schools: teachers who have good relationships with their students, and who are allowed the autonomy to craft learning opportunities according to their specific needs and strengths, experience a greater sense of ‘being well’ in their work and life. This suggests a positive feedback loop between teacher work on student wellbeing and teacher wellbeing.
‘Teachers who have good relationships with their students, and who are allowed the autonomy to craft learning opportunities according to their specific needs and strengths, experience a greater sense of “being well” in their work and life.’
If the relational nature of wellbeing in schools is acknowledged, alongside the importance for teacher wellbeing of teachers seeing their students develop their own specific strengths, two principal conclusions for school practice and policy can be drawn. First, that teachers and students need time and space to grow relationships. Second, that the culture and expectations surrounding the curriculum need to allow for this space for relationality and care. This is illustrated by teachers’ expressions of frustration with dense curricula tied so closely to high-stakes exam outcomes (Wilson et al., 2023):
I think sometimes because we are so … focused on … teaching our students that content that they need in order to achieve grades and things … we forget about the personal side of each individual.
We suggest that recentring the pastoral role of teachers, and the value of their relationships with students may be as important an answer to teacher wellbeing, retention and recruitment as workload and pay. Responses could entail allocating time in CPD provision to teacher dialogue and professional development around culture for wellbeing in school. As our study highlights, this could also mean placing greater priority, time and resources behind teachers getting outside the classroom with their students, for example through outdoor learning or youth social action. Such opportunities were repeatedly emphasised in our research as being central to helping teachers to better know their students, and students to develop their strengths in contributing to their community.
This blog is based on the article ‘“Doing well” and “being well”: Secondary school teachers’ perspectives’ by Rosanna Wilson, Edward Sellman and Stephen Joseph, published in the British Educational Research Journal.
Billington, T., Gibson, S., Fogg, P., Lahmar, J., & Cameron, H. (2022). Conditions for mental health in education: Towards relational practice. British Educational Research Journal, 48(1), 95–119. https://doi.org/10.1002/berj.3755
Brady, J., & Wilson, E. (2021). Teacher wellbeing in England: Teacher responses to school-level initiatives. Cambridge Journal of Education, 51(1), 45–63. https://doi.org/10.1080/0305764X.2020.1775789
Noddings, N. (2013). Caring: A relational approach to ethics and moral education. University of California Press.
Wilson, R., Sellman, E., & Joseph, S. (2023). ‘Doing well’ and ‘being well’: Secondary school teachers’ perspectives. British Educational Research Journal. Advance online publication. https://doi.org/10.1002/berj.3878