Blog: To look after pupils, we also need to look after school staff

Poor staff well-being can lead to increased absenteeism and decreased job satisfaction and motivation.

Illustrative stock photoIllustrative stock photo (Source: Unsplash)

We are all familiar with the safety briefing played when travelling by plane; “If you are travelling with small children, please fit your own mask first”. For a parent who would do anything to protect their child, this is counter-intuitive, but of course it makes sense. What help would the adult be to the child if they were struggling for breath themselves?

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Even before the Covid-19 pandemic, student mental health and wellbeing was a growing area of development and training, but it is now at the forefront of almost every discussion and decision in schools across the globe.

However, for schools to develop students with mental resilience and support them in navigating the strains and stresses of academic and social pressure, we need to also look after the well-being of the teachers who guide young people.

One of the first lessons in mental health training is making connections to how one would respond if physical health were under threat. As teachers, parents, or other responsible adults in a position of care for children, we are at our most effective when we are both physically and mentally healthy ourselves.

Poor staff well-being can lead to increased absenteeism and decreased job satisfaction and motivation. This consequently will affect relationships with colleagues and students, and retention of staff can become a challenge for schools.

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Conversely, when the mental health of school staff is looked after, it will impact particularly positively on students. Staff are part of a more stable and settled community, are more productive, and can better support students in modelling good working habits and healthy coping strategies. Higher job satisfaction and a feeling of being valued at work will make the classroom environment that the students then experience a more positive place.

The Covid-19 pandemic has created new well-being and mental health issues for all professions, but data shows that the impact on teachers has been high. A 2021 Teacher Wellbeing Index Survey conducted in the UK concluded that Covid-19 has had a significant impact on wellbeing and noted that a consistently high percentage of school staff have considered leaving the profession in the last 5 years.

Teaching is an inherently social job and it is the daily interactions with the school community that give us the greatest satisfaction. Our best moments teaching are often those where we can see the engagement and enjoyment from students through their responses and expressions.

The barriers of masks and virtual school have made these rewards less tangible and, consequently, teachers can feel isolated and may find it harder to see the positive impact they still have on their pupils. Even back in the classroom, we miss seeing students laugh and smile due to their face masks.

At The British International School Bratislava, we held a Wellbeing Week where staff were asked to share their thoughts, feelings, and challenges with mental health. Many colleagues found it reassuring to know that they were not facing challenges alone, and we ended the week sharing strategies for self-care and making pledges for the future.

At the same time, we understand that mental health difficulties cannot be eliminated entirely and structural and systemic changes will have the biggest impact on making teacher mental health one of our priorities. Some staff in school have undergone Mental Health First Aid training and are available to support all teachers and non-teachers if they face difficulties either at work or in their home lives.

Our staff and their families have access to counselling services through the Employee Assistance Programme. This year, a further step was taken, and a paid responsibility role of Staff Mental Health and Wellbeing Coordinator was created.

We need to teach students that mental health is a spectrum and that they will experience different levels of good and bad mental health throughout their lives. By looking after those who help to deliver this message, we will create and model a safer and more tolerant environment, where we can all actively listen to each other’s needs.

Tom Finley is Staff Mental Health and Wellbeing Coordinator, a Mental Health First Aider, and a Mathematics Teacher at The British International School Bratislava.

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