Perspectives #8 - "An Individualised Approach to Wellbeing"
"Perspectives" is a series of blog posts written by people different to James, the usual writer of this blog: a white heterosexual non-disabled male. Through this series, we will hear from people from Black, Asian, and Minority Ethnic, LGBT+, and faith communities, as well as women, people with disabilities, and people from a low socio-economic background. Each individual is speaking from their own experiences alone, not speaking on behalf of a group of people. The aim is for all of us to hear voices of those who are different to us, so we can understand and build a culture in our schools and organisations where the wellbeing of all is at the centre, not just the wellbeing of those who are the same as us.
Shuaib Khan is a Teacher of Humanities in Cambridgeshire. He is also a blogger and activist.
For me, the power dynamics of race, gender, ethnicity, sexuality, disability, faith and even social class have had an impact on my wellbeing as an educator. The most salient of these is my faith, which has evoked both unfounded suspicion and also an unwarranted paranoia about disclosing my religious background.
I am a British Muslim and very proud of my faith and heritage. When I began my teaching career in a very non-diverse part of the UK, there were continuous waves of microaggressions from both students and staff alike. Comments were seen as ‘banter’ and when reported, I was considered as ‘too sensitive’ and ‘lacking resilience’. Before I began writing this, I created a list of at least thirty examples of such incidents: below, I will share with you just two.
Firstly, I was told lunch times were for marking and nothing else. My workload was unmanageable anyway and even the thought of the conversation about praying at break or lunch filled me with dread. The Islamic faith requires followers to pray five times a day and our second prayer, Zuhr, is around lunch time. The fact that I wasn’t even given the option to do this and that my faith wasn't catered for really did impact on my wellbeing. I was scrambling to get home early to complete prayers, as, in theory, prayers have set time limits and should not overlap. I was left feeling both disillusioned and considered my position several times before eventually leaving.
My second encounter was a very unsavoury racist incident. I was racially abused by a student, who in fairness, did apologise and realised the full extent of his comments. The school were great, the Headteacher was fantastic, but it did open up a very deep wound. Other students began to use racial slurs and in an appalling way, it seemed to ‘inspire’ other students to use such derogatory language in my vicinity. Again, the school were fantastic and very understanding, but there remained a real sense of unease. There was no training for staff in how to deal with racism: until it happened to me, the school never even had to ask uncomfortable questions about race.
With students, a sense of education is the way forwards, but how do we get staff, many of whom have built up years of these stereotypes, to change learnt behaviours? The three recommendations I would put forward are:
1. Allowing self-definition – School leaders must allow staff to have the autonomy and independence to decide on their own wellbeing needs. How is an after school whole staff dodgeball game beneficial to the wellbeing of a teacher who has a young family? How can 2-hour weekly CPD sessions promote wellbeing when teachers have to make up that time in their own time to catch up on work they have missed? These arbitrary, one-size-fits-all, enforced teacher wellbeing policies and initiatives need to be stopped. It is almost like telling someone how to feel after a traumatic event. Allowing them to have a safe space to really reflect and then articulate how they wish to frame such an event should take precedence. With my experiences of racism in school, I did want to frame my experience and learn from it, not be forced to go to reintegration meetings. Allowing this autonomy would also mean we reinvest in professional trust in our nation's educators. If initiatives are ticking boxes and not getting to the very core of the wellbeing crisis - teacher workload - then they should be abandoned. School leaders must entrust and empower their teachers to, as professionals with professional judgement, decide on their own wellbeing needs.
2. Research-informed decisions – How could we possibly ensure bringing in a yoga instructor or a game of five-a-side football will have the desired impact on the wellbeing of our teachers? There is a vast ocean of literature out there on teacher wellbeing that should not be ignored. We have a teacher recruitment crisis; thus, we need to be doing all we can to keep our teachers. Secondly, in terms of funding, surely if the goal of wellbeing is to help create a better work-life balance for teachers, this funding should be geared towards research-informed training and CPD that will enable staff to attain this work-life balance?
There does need to be an element of differentiation between what is and is not wellbeing, as we all have different needs. These needs vary depending on race, religion, gender, age, sexuality, career stage and personal circumstances. I have created a non-exhaustive list, see below. Ultimately, any investment in our staff should be wholly focused on their needs and the needs of our students.
Caring about the person before the ‘teacher’
Realistic and attainable targets set with contextual factors in mind.
Communication and collaboration
Support with personal circumstances and necessary adjustments made
A supportive staff room
Lunchtime for lunch and not work
Being able to say ‘no’ to extra commitments without fear of repercussions
A transparent and approachable SLT
Teacher autonomy with planning, assessment, and subject-specific pedagogy.
Wellbeing is not:
Being reactive rather than proactive to support staff.
Preference of in-house arbitrary policies rather than research-driven initiatives
Targets set with the ‘data is king’ viewpoint and contextual factors overlooked.
Forced staff gatherings
‘Return to work’ causing greater anxiety and concern
No staff room or place for PPA
Increase in ‘directed time’ or ‘non-negotiables’
More meetings and scrutiny
Rigid teaching and learning policies with the underlying idea of ‘this is our way’
3. Realigning with compassion and empathy – There often seems to be a disconnect between our school leaders and the teaching staff. This disconnect is both physical in terms of the social spaces and circles they share, and also in terms of the demands of their roles. School leaders were once teachers and wellbeing really is about humanising the profession and giving it that human touch. The workload of a teacher is something all school leaders need to consider as they add both internal and external pressures on staff. This disconnect needs to be bridged as we aim to create sustainable workloads and set demands for our hard-working teachers. Compassion and empathy are important values in supporting our teachers and creating an environment that enables them to blossom.
‘Wellbeing’ is a term that is in danger of becoming just another buzzword in education. This standardised approach where forced staff gathering and disjointed peripheral actions become all-encompassing fads must be abandoned. At the very core, wellbeing should be a cultural transition where we consider the needs of our staff, no matter how particular they may be, and make sure they are protected and catered for. Effective wellbeing policies should go hand in hand with reducing workload and promoting professional growth. Wellbeing really is a term schools and schools leaders must take ownership over to help create sustainability and reintroduce compassion to our great profession.
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