Why start-of-term teacher wellbeing matters for everyone

University of New South Wales

Monday, 05 February, 2024

Why start-of-term teacher wellbeing matters for everyone

Research suggests that investing in teacher wellbeing not only benefits teachers and students, but also society more broadly.

Teachers report some of the highest rates of psychological stress. A national survey of more than 4000 teachers, conducted by the Black Dog Institute in 2023, found 70% reported having unmanageable workloads. In the survey, 52% reported moderate to extremely severe symptoms of depression and 59.7% reported feeling stressed (compared to 12.1% and 11.4% of the general population respectively).

Additionally, Australian schools are facing unprecedented teacher supply and retention challenges, only exacerbated by the pressures of the COVID pandemic. Modelling of teacher supply and demand has suggested shortages could worsen over the coming years, with the demand for secondary teachers to exceed the supply of new graduate teachers by around 4100 from 2021 to 2025.

A UNSW study published in late 2023, conducted with Scientia Professor Andrew Martin, examined how teacher wellbeing changes over one school term, and the role of teacher-student relationships in how these changes unfold. It followed 401 primary (56%), secondary (38%) and kindergarten to Year 12 (6%) school teachers from all Australian states and territories, during Term 3 in 2021.

Teachers reported on their wellbeing and their sense of connection with students in weeks two, five and eight of the 10-week term. Teachers reported declines in wellbeing over the term, the research found.

“Teacher wellbeing is of critical importance to healthy functioning at work and to students’ academic development,” said Scientia Associate Professor Rebecca Collie from UNSW’s School of Education.

“Our research found teachers’ levels of wellbeing at these starting points, as well as the perceived quality of their connection with students, are significant in shaping subsequent patterns of wellbeing.

“Importantly, though, teachers who reported more positive teacher-student relationships at the start of term ended the term with higher [rates of] wellbeing than those teachers who started the term with less positive teacher-student relationships.

“Our findings highlight the interconnectedness of teacher wellbeing and teacher-student relationships and underscore the importance of introducing efforts to bolster both.”

Teacher shortage has a huge cost to schools and to society more broadly, according to Collie. It is recognised as a critical risk to improving student outcomes, now and in the future. As such, teacher wellbeing is receiving increasing attention in current reviews of the education sector, including within the Australian Government’s National Teacher Workforce Action Plan and the Australian Teacher Workforce Data initiative, jointly funded by the Australian Government and state and territory governments.

How schools can sustain and support teacher wellbeing

Collie’s research into factors that support teacher wellbeing is contributing to policy development as well as assisting school leadership with practical evidence-driven strategies for improving teacher wellbeing.

Streamlining teachers’ work — reducing administrative tasks and face-to-face teaching time — is important, particularly at the start of term. Similarly, inviting teachers’ input in decisions and school policies and providing rationales for work tasks are some of the ways schools can support greater wellbeing, she said.

“Fostering collaborative relationships between staff also promotes higher wellbeing,” Collie said.

“Providing common planning time, establishing professional learning communities and peer-mentorships, developing a shared mission and cultivating a supportive staffroom are relevant strategies for this.”

These can help teachers experience greater wellbeing and interpersonal relationships in the workplace — leading to more optimal outcomes for both teachers and students.

Schools can promote high-quality student-teacher interactions through ongoing support and feedback as well as teachers’ professional learning and goal setting around improving particular student relationships, Collie said.

“Schools can consider strategies, such as professional learning opportunities on high-quality teaching interactions, considering how content and teaching approaches might be better aligned to student interests, or providing resources and support for managing stress and workload.”

Finally, the role of helpful feedback cannot be underestimated, Collie said. Her recent study of the role of job resources (or forms of support) for teachers from Australia, Canada, England and America found that when teachers felt supported in terms of feedback, they were more likely to be committed to the profession.

“Feedback appeared even more crucial when teachers faced high levels of disruptive student behaviour,” she said. “The results were comparable across all four nations.

“Schools play a huge role in developing these. Promoting positive teacher wellbeing has huge benefits for our society and for our future generations.”

Image credit: iStock.com/skynesher

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