Trainee wellbeing – ‘10 things every teacher educator should know’
Increased weekly working hours, a system-wide ‘audit’ culture, endless accountability measures and unrealistic workload demands have led to a workforce of burnt-out teachers who are "too tired to do the things they like."
Retention of early career teachers (ECTs) is essential. Research from Brown University found a steep learning curve of expertise in the first 2-3 years in the classroom. After this, teachers start to have full impact on pupils’ learning. But the number of ECTs remaining in the profession is falling: 2018 saw the first decrease of Newly Qualified Teachers (NQTs) remaining in teaching beyond their first year since 2010, with the figure slipping from 87% to 85%. Worse still, the three-year and five-year retention rates dropped over the same period. So how can initial teacher education (ITE) providers help prevent this? As ITE providers, we’re in a unique position to have an impact on this problem in both the short and long-term.
Research and Evidence
A recurrent theme in research about retention is that poor wellbeing is linked to excessive workload and poor work-life balance, leading to a sharp rise in physical, emotional and mental health issues. The areas that have been identified as the biggest contributors are:
- Marking and feedback
- Data management
- Planning and resourcing
The Department for Education (DfE) has provided guidance on how to bring about change in these areas. Chief Inspector of Education, Children's Services and Skills, Amanda Spielman said, "it is more important than ever for schools to make informed choices about what they encourage teachers to do – and, even more importantly, what they ask them to stop doing". Professor Dylan William also spoke about this quite starkly when analysing the cost of marking and feedback: "if you price teachers' time appropriately, in England we spend about two and a half billion pounds a year on feedback and it has little or no effect on student achievement."
DfE guidance for ITE providers offers a challenge - change our culture and avoid burnout for trainees by responding to key questions linked to workload and wellbeing. The recently published ‘The Teacher Gap’ by Professor Rebecca Allen and Sam Sims is an excellent resource for this. Several areas discussed in the book raise challenges for us as ITE providers:
Self Determination Theory:
This theory suggests that humans are motivated by three “nutrients”: competence (demonstrating and improving our abilities), relatedness (a sense of being valued by others) and autonomy (being the authors of our own actions). We designed our curriculum to ensure trainees are ‘day one ready’ and have an early sense of competence in September. To support a sense of relatedness, we carry out pre-placement visits and training for senior leaders and mentors to guarantee a supportive environment for trainees. Autonomy is provided through significant early teaching responsibility– trainees put their plans into action from day one.
The challenge for ITE providers and teacher educators is to make sure there’s a balance of these nutrients throughout the training years.
This is a fascinating study of how organisations change (morph) to become similar (iso) to each other. There are two types of isomorphism particularly relevant to ITE.
- Coercive Isomorphism, where outside influences can force organisations to be similar. For example, how leaders’ opinions of ‘what Ofsted want’ drive similar behaviours (audit, paper-trail, evidence) across the sector. These behaviours continue despite Ofsted’s ‘myth busters’ and figures such as Sean Harford who vocally challenge incorrect views.
- Normative Isomorphism, where unofficial but accepted norms are developed within a profession. In teaching, we see beliefs such as 'this is an endless job', 'we should be marking and planning in extreme detail', 'we should know the data of every child in every cohort' and 'we should apply every intervention no matter the evidence'. Generally, "it is those who conform with the prevailing condition of 'what it means to be a teacher' who are more likely to be the next leaders," and those leaders who follow these norms become the next inspectors, further embedding these norms into the foundations of our culture.
The challenge for ITE providers and teacher educators is to prepare trainees by sharing good practice and challenging practice that can damage wellbeing.
There are many classroom practices that add to workload yet have limited evidence of impact. Choosing appropriate evidenced-based practices reduces workload and supports wellbeing. For example, our curriculum promotes whole-class interactive teaching at first, rather than more complicated group work or differentiating three ways. We also use the Rosenshine principles, Learning Scientists’ six principles and Teach Like a Champion techniques to allow trainees to concentrate on what’s most likely to help pupils learn, rather than things that add no value and may actually be a distraction (such as pretty PowerPoint animations).
A trainee, who was performing consistently strongly in the classroom, admitted they were ‘struggling’ with the workload of teaching and didn’t know if the cost of the job was worth the outcome. They were seriously considering walking away from the programme
Conversations revealed they were spending significant amounts of time on menial tasks throughout the week, felt like they had no time for themselves, were constantly working during evenings and weekends, spent all day in their own classroom (lack of relatedness), suffered with adverse perfectionism (self-perceived lack of competence) and found anything out of a normal routine difficult to adapt to.
The trainee was visibly exhausted, emotional and ‘spaced out’. So, the priority was to make sure they were well, and the trainee decided to take several days off to recuperate. I also directed them to the Employee Assistance Programme - a phone-based welfare service that provides support for all trainees on our programme.
Following their time off, I met with the school to work on a support plan. The school was extremely supportive and agreed to reduce the teaching timetable, include a wellbeing check-in during mentor meetings, ask another member of staff to be an ‘informal’ buddy and provide a buffer against any additional tasks from the wider school.
I set actions, such as a weekly check-in phone call to help the trainee. We built an awareness of their personal triggers, created ‘coping’ strategies for when they were feeling overwhelmed, created a bank of five-minute, 15-minute, 60-minute and day-long activities that they enjoyed. We also had discussions about controlling perfectionism. I also encouraged the trainee to keep a ‘task log’, where they tracked how long each activity was taking each day. Much of our time was spent planning long-term, to identify heavy-workload times of the year.
The result of these actions was that the trainee was happier, spent time with family and friends and had an increased awareness of when they were having time for themselves. They still found changes to their timetable challenging and there were certain school systems that were non-negotiable, but they had strategies and a shift in mindset to proactively deal with these things.
The challenges raised in this article cut to the core of teaching culture, but also provide an opportunity. We can create a curriculum and culture that produces generations of trainees with an open mindset, helps them to use evidence-based teaching approaches, prepares them to respectfully but forcefully challenge poor and damaging practice and encourages them to lead positive, sector-wide changes.
About the author
Tim is a teacher educator working for Teach First in Leeds.
About this series
We train thousands of new teachers each year, but this is only around 5% of all new teachers. So we wanted to share some of the thinking behind our teacher education in this series of blogs. We hope these blogs will be helpful for the thousands of schools that support new trainee teachers each year, and act as a starting point for conversations with other teacher educators – so we can all keep learning and improving.
This is our current thinking but we’re always reviewing and learning from research, other organisations and practice. We want your views and feedback: What do you agree with? Is there anything you disagree with? What have we missed? Let us know on twitter – you can chat to our teacher education leads @FayeCraster and @Reuben_Moore (and we’re on @TeachFirst)