Take a Deep Breath: Why mindfulness won't solve our teacher wellbeing crisis.
With Prince’s “Raspberry Beret” blaring in the background, about 20 New Hampshire educators grabbed wooden sticks and began pounding their tables to the beat.
This was the opening line I read from an article on LinkedIn about teacher wellbeing in the United States. Along with movement and mindfulness sessions, the article talked about rooms created where “teachers could take time off to calm down and chill out, filled with relaxing ambient sounds”. As I continued to read, I felt a real disconnect with each initiative put forward and wondered, “Is this really going to solve teacher burnout?”
Recently, whilst reading Johann Hari’s ‘Stolen Focus: Why you can’t pay attention’ I came across the phrase ‘cruel optimism’. As Hari puts it, cruel optimism “takes a really big problem, with deep causes in our culture and offers people, in upbeat language, a simplistic individual solution”. (Hari, 2021). You tell people that we can solve the problem if we just do these simple things, our wellbeing class for example, but so often the solution is limited and blind to the root causes that people will fail. This is not to say that initiatives like these are wrong or not necessarily helpful but
I’ve come to the conclusion that if we want to solve issues faced by teachers and young people both in Aotearoa and around the world, the solutions we come up with need to be both systems focused and wide reaching.
So what is driving teacher burnout and how can we fix it?
At a recent education conference, I was challenged by the notion that we need to look after both our own wellbeing and that of our students. This felt like an unachievable dichotomy, where educators are forced to choose between their own wellbeing or that of their students. So often we opt for the latter, as many teachers’ personal altruism comes into play. Unsurprising, from a profession that is largely driven by people who are caring and supportive. But here I was challenged to look after my own wellbeing. I felt like I was being told that if I prioritised my wellbeing by downloading meditation apps and switching off my emails after 5pm, I could detox my way into feeling less tired and stressed. So, I drank the Kool-aid and for a while it worked. But now I can’t help but feel I was sold a cruel and optimistic promise.
Here are 5 ways I would address teacher wellbeing that do not require educators to buy into a slew of programmes or initiatives and hopefully provide real meaningful change.
Cruel and optimistic solutions are a distraction from the real issues that face teachers. Wellbeing initiatives inadvertently protect the neoliberal interests of those in power who do not want to value our profession. Recently, I came across the #clearthelist movement on Twitter, where teachers crowdsourced funding for items on their Amazon list. I was conflicted, as a part of me absolutely loves grassroots initiatives like this but another side of me wonders if such movements allow governments to shirk their responsibility to provide teachers with the appropriate resourcing. In order to be sustainable we need to encourage the valuing of teachers through appropriate time and resources.
Collaborative Learning Design
Having learning outcomes and programmes that support good teaching, creates less of a burden on Kaiako. When there is clarity around what is being taught and resources to support this learning, teachers can find more time to innovate without feeling stressed about creating resources each day. However, rolling out programmes with little say in learning design is anything but energising. It’s important that teachers are given time to collaborate, to dream and write and implement programmes together. I’ve written before about how collaborative learning design is an answer to teacher wellbeing as opposed to another educational imperative from on high. On top of this we need educational designers whose focus is on curriculum and not teaching 4-5 classes each week. We need to rethink having Heads of Department who are asked to organise moderation, plan assessments and design curriculum all in 1-2 non-contact periods a week.
Scrap innovation for innovation's sake
The everything new, everywhere, all at once paradigm still seems to plague some schools. Obsession with innovation has led to unsustainable models that do not work for students or teachers. Every term teachers are required to come up with new and exciting programmes for their students, with no regard for their personal wellbeing. Add to this the slew of government change initiatives and the writing is on the wall. Teachers are exhausted. Constantly burnt out by the creative drain of creating or learning new courses, it is no wonder they are contemplating leaving the profession.
If collaborative learning design provides teachers with creative inspiration, then being given the opportunity to refine courses maintains teacher wellbeing. Beyond this, it’s better for the learners. I’m all for innovation that allows for the success of our priority learners but when it’s creating more of a burden on teachers, without evidence of providing equitable outcomes, I do wonder if we need it? Change for changes sake, is not transformative nor is it sustainable.
Prioritising Sick Days
I’m slowly learning it is okay to take a mental health day. However, taking a day off from teaching is often impractical and creates more workload for teachers. Having to set relief, which is often not monitored by the reliever, means that teachers spend an extra hour setting work only to have their classes fall behind a lesson. “It’s just easier to come in,” I’ll hear some colleagues say. I wonder what a culture like this means for our health? If we want to prioritise teacher wellbeing, we need systems that support teachers to be able to take a day off. Having resource banks of relief work that is readily available for teachers to access, lowers the burden on our staff & ensures that teachers feel comfortable to take a day to recharge if they need.
Investing in Teachers
Not only do teachers need to feel supported but they also need to be empowered. One way to do this is by handing over the reins. When teachers are given the opportunity to research teaching methods, it helps build their professional efficacy and motivation. Tailored PLD that gives teachers the support and resources they need to overcome the challenges they face in the classroom is likely to improve teacher wellbeing. One way to empower teachers and support their wellbeing is by giving them opportunities to regularly observe their colleagues and be observed in return. When teachers share and learn from one-another and reflect on their own practice, it allows for growth and ultimately improves the classroom experience for both teacher and student.
Ultimately, the problem is not wellbeing classes. It’s not mindfulness initiatives or zen spaces for kaiako. The problem is that we are using these initiatives to treat the symptoms of a problem that is far deeper and systemic than we realise. Until we are able to value, support and empower teachers in ways that are truly transformative, we’re just offering them a cruel and optimistic promise.