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Teacher wellbeing: What is it and why should we care?

Students are fairly integral to running a school, wouldn’t you agree? As English language teachers we have little control over the numbers of students coming into the school or how they’re organised into our classes. We can pray that they’ll have just the right combination of diligence, enthusiasm and humour. We can hope that they’ll get on well and gel as a group.

We might even cross our fingers for even numbers (four and above please, and certainly NOT three, God forbid). So what do we have control over? We have control over the lessons, the content of the lessons and ourselves. More often than not we put all the focus on the first two and don’t really factor in the third.

Is it time to pay a little bit more attention to our own wellbeing? In a time where our mental health is being put through the ringer, perhaps more than ever we need to make sure we’re touching base with ourselves and with each other. WHO has pointed out that

“the pandemic is increasing demand for mental health services. Bereavement, isolation, loss of income and fear are triggering mental health conditions or exacerbating existing ones”.

Not to get all ‘inspirational quote’ with you all but happy teachers make happy students. It makes sense really, when you take the time to think about it. So let’s do just that.


Teacher wellbeing

Why are we talking about teacher wellbeing now?

Teacher wellbeing is always important but this year our collective wellbeing has been tested in more ways than one. Isolation has kept us away from friends, colleagues and our students. It has changed the way a lot of us work, moving us from classrooms to our computer screens with an estimated 70% of students being forced online worldwide.  It has forced us inside and messed with our habits (I can’t tell you what it’s done to my heavily regimented work out routine, ahem).

What’s more, the constant changing of restrictions and rules has meant that we don’t know if we’re coming or going half the time. We’re always mentally prepared for things to suddenly change.

All of this can be said of most professions at the moment (if you happen to own a hand sanitizer company please feel free to smugly click off this article). But when you work in an environment where you really rely on students signing up for classes you need things to be running smoothly and you need to feel like you have a bit of job security.

In Spain we’ve welcomed students back (albeit fully masked up, which is manageable but not ideal) only for the kids and teens to be moved rapidly online again. And throughout all these changes if you suddenly need to isolate yourself it can cause so many difficulties and leave you worried that classes might drop or students might decide that learning during this pandemic is not really worth the effort after all.

It’s no wonder, then, that as a teacher you might be feeling the pressure at the moment. The pressure of delivering engaging classes and keeping students was always there, but now it’s amplified. And let’s not forget that during all this you might, very understandably, feel like you’re not willing to risk teacher wellbeing by spending your days standing in a classroom of people.

Just keeping your head above water might seem like all you can do, but this can take its toll. Maybe things are slowly returning to normal where you are but we have had a big shock to the system and if we can start making some positive adjustments to our own wellbeing now then we’ll be all the better for it when things finally settle down and return to normality. 

But what is wellbeing?

A lot of the time when you throw the term ‘wellbeing’ around people often jump to the conclusion (as I have above) that we’re talking solely about mental health . Naturally that’s a big part of part of it, but it’s only a part. Usually wellbeing is seen as the interplay between several aspects, each one depending on the other. 

Here’s one attempt at outlining the four pillars that keep the wellbeing ceiling from falling down. 

  • Emotional wellbeing – If our mental health is tickety boo we can better handle the daily stress and anxiety that life and work throw at us.  
  • Spiritual wellbeing  – Not totally dissimilar to emotional wellbeing, spiritual wellbeing refers to the how we are connected to ourselves and also the people in our lives. I can’t be sure, but I think ‘connected’ doesn’t simply mean with good wifi connection.
  • Intellectual wellbeing  – Simply put, are we getting enough intellectual stimulation? In terms of work that could mean developing your skills, learning more and upping your game in general. It’s easy to get stagnant. Working against this is key. 
  • Physical wellbeing  – Well, duh. We all know you need to at least attempt to be active and fit in your day to day life. But teaching, especially modern day teaching, offers a few challenges that can test that and also cause a few gripes and even injuries. 

If upon glancing at those four aspects and giving yourself a quick mental checkup you have come to the conclusion that your teacher wellbeing is one fine-tuned machine, bully for you. If like me you have started 2021 with a sense that all four aspects could do with some tinkering, read on!  

Time to be mindful

Mindfulness seems like a bit of a buzzword at the moment and perhaps some see it as a recent fad with apps such as Headspace becoming so successful in the last couple of years with millions of users in over 190 countries worldwide. But bear in mind (hehe), it has actually been around for rather a long time and it’s being regularly used by teachers in their classrooms to aid learning, especially with kids. Not only can mindfulness help teachers to feel less stressed and anxious but it can actually benefit our classes and how we interact with our students. 

We’re not necessarily talking about full blown meditation here, but perhaps you’ve got 5 minutes in the morning to sit in silence, breathe and consider the day instead of shoving a slice of toast in your mouth and running out the door. It can really set you up for the day.

How about simply taking moments in your day to get centred and to reflect on how things are going and why. Did a challenging student act up today? What caused it? Why is that one student always trying to catch me out? What’s behind it, and how can I manage things so they don’t feel the need to do that? These thoughts will not only help you plan your lessons better but potentially strengthen relationships with your students. Reflecting on your lessons gives you a sense of control and that can help everything become a little bit easier. If pausing to reflect doesn’t float your boat, you could always keep a note of your thoughts and worries in some kind of diary. Just the act of writing things down can really crystalise things for you and you don’t even have to look at it ever again!

With you in spirit 

If one part of our spiritual wellbeing is a sense of being connected to the things around us and the people in our lives, then as a teacher that means feeling connected to the teaching community. Needless to say that’s been easier said than done this year.

I’d forgotten how helpful and encouraging it was to have a staff room full of teachers around me to bounce ideas off and to offer words of support on difficult days. Simply seeing teachers experiencing the same pitfalls can seriously put your mind at ease and make you feel like one of the team. It will also help with that pesky imposter syndrome we all face from time to time. 

If you’re a new teacher, having that safety net is integral. That is part of the reason Oxford TEFL created Oxford TEFL Connect. Through this platform you can bolster what you learned on the CELTA, yes, but you’ll also be put in touch with teachers from around the world and have a sense of community that can feel completely lacking from behind your computer screen.  When providing us with feedback, members of Oxford TEFL Connect consistently use phrases such as “helps me stay connected”, “wonderful support network” and think of it as a “opportunity to meet other teachers”. This supports our theory that warm, trusting and supportive relationships are essential for teacher wellbeing and schools with a positive environment and good social support help to reduce teacher stress.

Other ways to stay connected might be to read blogs and attend conferences. Innovate ELT 2020, which is normally held at Oxford TEFL, was moved online this year and provided the attendees with some much needed TLC in terms of peer conversation and networking. Who doesn’t like a collective pat on the back from like minded souls.

Use it or lose it

Learning is a never ending journey, so they say, and feeling intellectually stimulated is an important aspect of self care. It’s easy to feel like you’re going through the motions with teaching and even easier to think you don’t have time to do anything about it.

Yes, doing crosswords and sudokus is not a bad idea. But what is going to push you  forward intellectually and help you to think more creatively and critically? Challenging yourself intellectually will help you to grow as a person and in your career. Attend workshops, read ELT magazines. Adding to your existing knowledge will also give you a bigger sense of pride over your work and that has huge positive knock on effects. Schools can take some responsibility here as well. The Education Hub points out that “teacher learning and development has a positive impact on teachers’ engagement and their feeling of being supported in school, as well as contributing to an improvement in student outcomes”.

If there is an aspect of teaching you feel needs a little help, find a course. Oxford TEFL offers Teacher Development Courses in areas ranging from teaching young learners to teaching CLIL, from teaching business English to teaching exam classes. Sharpening your tools will not only help you in your career and thus help with your overall teacher wellbeing, it will garner a desire for intellectual growth which can be continually built upon.

How can teachers look after their physical wellbeing?

For me, one of the pleasures of teaching is how active and communicative it is. Moving about a classroom, standing up for long periods of time, gesticulating madly and even needing to move around the city between classes help me feel more energised (and also ready for bed in the evening – win-win!) An additional plus is that we usually avoid the physical issues office workers face in terms of neck aches, posture and eye problems. That isn’t quite the case these days as more and more of us are teaching from our computers.

So for the teachers that feel a little stuck behind a computer screen here are a few things to consider: 

  • Play with your computer settings. Make sure the contrast is just where you want it so it feels as comfortable as possible on your eyes. 
  • Think about buying some anti blue light glasses. They may just be a clever marketing ploy, but supposedly taking out the blue glare from your screen reduces eyestrain and the possibility of getting headaches. 
  • Look up how to set up your workstation. Arranging the screen so it’s at eye level, for example, is a game changer. Admittedly it’s a little bit tricky with a laptop but you could always buy a separate keyboard. 
  • Walk away from your desk regularly. It’s all too easy to sit at your computer all day, teaching or not. Make sure you don’t spend unnecessary time staring at the screen. 
  • Have some non-screen time before bed. Studies have shown that people looking at a screen before bed take longer to get to sleep and it can mess around with your circadian rhythm – or sleep cycle. 

And there we’ve hit upon the big one. Arguably the most important thing of all: sleep. We all feel like we’re cracking up when we haven’t had enough sleep. And that’s because we are. Teaching face-to-face and teaching online can be draining in different ways so it’s important to make sure we use sleep as a tool, not just a necessity.

Ariana Huffington has done a TED talk entitled How to succeed? Get more sleep where she talks about how often we brag about being sleep deprived like it’s a badge of honour and the sign of having a busy important life. Teachers are famously tired and we just seem to accept that as the norm. Instead maybe we should start bragging about how we got a full uninterrupted 8 hours last night, or how we managed a quick siesta in between classes. I’ve personally started using the Calm app to help me drift off. There’s something about listening to a story about an arctic cruise read by a Game of Thrones actor that really does the trick. 

There’s nothing groundbreaking about teacher wellbeing there, is there? It all makes sense. But it’s worth being reminded that we should simply think about our teacher wellbeing more often – daily if possible – because that’s half the battle. As English language teachers our jobs are all about our students but they need us just as much as we need them.  Take the time to consider how you’re doing. Look after yourself and the rest should follow. 

Cherkowski, S., & Walker, K. (2018). Teacher wellbeing: Noticing, nurturing, sustaining and flourishing in schools. Ontario, Canada: Word & Deed Publishing.

Are you looking for a supportive and enjoyable international community for teachers? Join Oxford TEFL Connect to develop your skills and pick up some tips and tricks for your classes.

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