..you think to yourself when you see this title and you smile ironically but you start reading the article because you still want to -slash- need to think positively!
Let’s try to describe what a teacher’s (ir)regular day looks like: It’s Thursday afternoon and you’re heading to work. You have two or three different classes to teach today and you won’t see home before 10.00 p.m.. You’re carrying a heavy backpack with all the books you need for the day, the tests you have marked and the writings that you need to return tomorrow to your B2 students (and which you’re hoping to correct in between the breaks!). You open your backpack and you realise that the tests are not there. Oops! You must have forgotten them on your bedside table because you were meaning to correct them last night but you fell asleep.. Over the past I’ve-lost-the-count months we’ve encountered a completely different reality and, to our surprise, we have started missing these good old days!
By Elena Kladi, Teacher, Teacher Trainer*
Whatever the circumstances might be, each and every one of us has a unique story to narrate on how we struggle daily as teachers. Therefore, in this very article we will try to understand what well-being is, we will examine the factors that influence our well-being, and share some strategies and tips which will help us better cope with our everyday life both personally and professionally.
Defining teacher well-being
It goes without saying that teacher well-being is not just about meditation and good time-management techniques. In simple and more general terms, it is the ability to feel good and function effectively. More specifically, in an attempt to give a definition to this term, Cherkowski & Walker (2018) have described the educator well-being as a state where teachers perceive job satisfaction, experience positive emotions more frequently than negative emotions, and function well both as a teacher and in their other roles in life.
What should not be forgotten though is that a person’s well-being is multidimensional and depends as well on a range of other external factors, namely, social and physical. Teacher ‘bad-being’ has an immediate effect not only on us, as teachers, but also on other parties, such as our students, our students’ parents, our colleagues and our managers. And although there are fewer chances that a teacher’s private life will influence his/her job, the opposite is very likely to happen. Consequently, it is of vital importance to take into consideration the various factors and observe ourselves more closely in order to achieve a more balanced and healthy professional life.
What are the influencing factors?
According to Ofsted’s report (2019), “while most teachers enjoy teaching and are positive about their workplace and their colleagues, self-reported well-being at work is generally low or moderate”. The influencing factors that contribute to low well-being could be the high workload, the lack of work-life balance, a perceived lack of resources in the workplace or the low levels of pay. Although this study applies to England, it can be argued that it is not far from teachers’ perception in Greece. If we attempted to name these factors, we would possibly call them ‘tangible’ or ‘explicit’ factors.
Digging deeper into my unconscious, and Google scholar, I came across some other ‘intangible/implicit’ factors which are worth considering. Stress and fear appear at the top of the list; we tend to be overly stressed as we want to be perfect at everything we do and we are terrified by the idea that we haven’t used the right resources or the best method to teach grammar without teaching grammar! Another reason we are likely to become miserable is perhaps the lack of positive, supportive and trusting relationships with the managers and/or the parents or the insufficient opportunities for development in the workplace. In general, educators feel that teaching is undervalued as a profession and all of the above could lead to what the HR people call ‘psychological contract breach’.
According to Rousseau (1989) the Psychological Contract can be defined as "an individual’s beliefs about the terms of the exchange agreement between employee and employer”. The key word in this definition is ‘beliefs’, that is, implicit perceptions and expectations which, if not met, it is likely that the individual will experience job dissatisfaction, or else, lack of well-being. To explain it further, you would, by no means, turn up to your manager one day and say “I feel it’s not going well between us lately”. You would probably avoid it by blaming him/her for the missing markers in the classroom, which, of course, are important too.
Although in academia there are contradictory arguments on the implicit existence of the Psychological Contract, it cannot be denied that the aforementioned intangible factors are likely to influence a teacher’s well-being.
Strategies and tips
In an attempt to describe a teacher’s life, especially since Covid appeared in our lives, it could be argued that it is pretty similar to the traditional board game Snakes and Ladders. As a child, I played this game a lot and I had mixed feelings when I had to return back to square 1, unexpectedly. As an adult, I’ve come to the conclusion that I can’t avoid the unexpected but I have the power to control how I feel about it. As a result, I have come up with some practical suggestions which could help us improve our quality of life.
A year ago, these suggestions would most likely include eating well, sleeping well, exercising and so on. We would even discuss the benefits of travelling and how it can inspire us to bring new ideas into the English language classroom. All these are still important and we will discuss them again one day but for the time being we can focus on the following:
- Set small goals: set a small and realistic goal each day/week/month/year. Create a to-do list and be honest with yourself. Try not to get disappointed if you don’t cross off the whole list. Remind yourself each night before you to bed that you did your best today and try again the next day.
- Collaborate with colleagues: We are the most valuable resource to each other. We share the same concerns, so why not share ideas and facilitate each other’s work?
- Let students lead: They know technology better than we do and they have interesting ideas to share. If we allow them to be part of the lesson, part of our stress can be taken away.
- Control the amount of screen time: As impossible as it may sound, setting a limit to when we stop reading emails, replying to parents concerns and preparing lessons can only benefit us and keep us mentally stable.
What can be inferred from these strategies is that some of the tangible and intangible factors that appear to influence our well-being depend exclusively on us! Sometimes we are the ‘source of evil’ and we tend not to protect ourselves.
Apart from the above practical suggestions, there are also some realisations which are worth sharing:
- Allow yourself time to adapt: In any change that takes place in our life, we need a particular amount of time to adapt to the new situation. For someone, it can be a week, for someone else a month or two. Observe yourself and how you react to a change and give it the necessary time to take it all in.
- Don’t stress out in advance: This is an extension to the previous realization; I remember stressing out for a presentation I had to deliver last March, but, guess what, something more serious came up and I realised how much energy I had spent on worrying about something that my life did not depend on. In other words, the only thing we can actually control, and we need to start working on, is how much we believe in ourselves. If we do this, there are more chances that our stress levels will be reduced.
- In times of frustration and disagreement, think twice: In an employer-employee relationship, like in any other kind of relationship, challenging moments emerge which we need to cope with. Even if we know we are right, instead of responding immediately and reacting impulsively, we can allow some time to pass before we stand up for our beliefs. This way, we are more likely to come across as more polite and we will have allowed time for the negative emotions to either settle or go away.
Self-reflection is key
Earlier in this article, we attempted to define teacher well-being so that we set a common ground. But the truth is that each individual has different standards and experiences and, therefore, the metrics each one of us uses to assess well-being differ. The following questions might help you understand where you stand -just rhymed!- and possibly see the bigger picture:
- How do I define wellbeing?
- Why did I become a teacher?
- How do I feel at work?
- What do I like about my job?
- What could I do differently?
Food for thought
It is worth mentioning that throughout the research for the purposes of this article, it was noted that most of the bibliography examines the issue of well-being from the perspective of the management team and shares results on how they can lead teachers towards a ‘better-being’. Although this approach is likely to have beneficial results, it should be admitted that teacher well-being does not lie solely in the hands of managers or directors; it’s a rather complex issue which needs to be addressed holistically and, therefore, it’s time we took charge of our own well-being and became more proactive in order to perform better not just as teachers but as human beings in general. After all, it’s worth wondering: since we care so much about our students, why don’t we do the same for ourselves?
Holmes, E. (2005). Teacher well-being: Looking after yourself and your career in the classroom. Psychology Press.
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