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Heather Parker
Curriculum Design Manager

What all teachers need to know about wellbeing

Teaching can be incredibly rewarding. But it can also be challenging, especially to personal wellbeing. That’s why we created a wellbeing course for our trainees.

One of the aims of Teach First’s new strategy is to develop a greater number of quality teachers that thrive and feel able to remain in schools that need them most.

This resonates with me. Because when I joined the Teach First Training Programme in 2015, teaching English at a secondary school in Bristol, to those around me it probably did look like I was thriving: I was developing positive relationships with my pupils; my teaching practice was going from strength to strength; and my school was even interested in promoting me to middle leadership.

But inside, I was experiencing symptoms of stress, and my personal relationships were suffering. I couldn’t see a way that I could be a teacher and lead a happy and fulfilling life. 

Ultimately, in 2017 I left the classroom.

In doing so, I joined the 1 in 5 teachers who leave within their first two years. And sadly, many don’t stay much longer than that - almost a third of teachers leaving within the first 5 years (Department for Education 2018a).

This is not surprising when you look at the statistics: 

It’s an enormous challenge. But if we want our teachers to thrive and feel able to remain, so they can continue building a fair education for all, we need to find a solution. A strengthened emphasis on wellbeing is vital.

Since joining Teach First, I have made it my mission to seek out this solution, and I believe that one part of this lies in developing teachers’ emotional flexibility.

Alongside designing an evidence-based curriculum for our flagship Training Programme and our pilot programme, Time to Teach, I have been working with Dr Lindsay Joyce, a 2007 Ambassador and psychologist, to better understand how to support our trainees.

Dr Joyce is the founder of The People Project - an organisation dedicated to helping people perform and feel their best. Together we have created an online wellbeing course that we hope will do exactly that for our trainee teachers. The course centres on our understanding of the emotional regulation systems.

What are our emotional regulation systems?

Despite all the complexity within the brain, when we’re thinking psychologically, it’s useful to understand that we can consider the brain to have two parts – the primitive ‘emotional brain’ and the more advanced ‘cognitive brain’. 

The cognitive brain - or the neo-cortex - is the ‘thinking’ part of our brain which handles all the higher-order skills that we have as humans, such as conscious thought, problem solving and our complex verbal language.

The emotional brain is the part we share with other mammals. It supports a variety of functions we don’t have much conscious control over – like our digestive system, our sleep cycle and our nervous system. But it also supports our ability to recognise danger, our motivation to pursue reward, and our need to rest and experience close relationships with others. 

Within the emotional brain, there are three emotional regulation systems. The People Project calls these: threat, drive, and recovery.

The threat system

The threat system has evolved over millions of years to keep us safe from danger. Put simply, our ancestors needed to have the best chance of survival if they were attacked by a tiger!

This system is powerful and can over-ride our cognitive brain if our body perceives that we are under threat. It is solely focussed on keeping us alive. 

This system, seeking to secure our survival, doesn’t always cope easily with the modern world we live in. Things like commuting, lesson observations and managing pupil behaviour can trigger the threat system on a daily basis. 

The threat system also sets off our sympathetic nervous system – the body’s ‘accelerator pedal’ that gets us fired-up and ready to ‘flee’ or ‘fight’ potential danger.

The drive system

Although keeping ourselves safe is important, our survival also depends on us seeking things like food, water and shelter. When our basic needs are met, we can become driven to pursue things like success, excitement and money. 

This is where the drive system comes in. 

When we get that heady sense of feeling ‘wired’ with busyness at work, it’s our drive system that’s taking over. Again, this system is fantastic in evolutionary terms, but it can easily become over-stimulated in a world full of tech, consumerism, travel and endless choice. 

Like the threat system, the drive system can also trigger our energy-hungry sympathetic nervous system.

The recovery system

The recovery system has two biological imperatives: it allows us to recover from the stress of the threat and drive systems, and it makes us social beings who can rely on one another for the mutual care we need to survive. 

When you relax in front of a beautiful view, hug a loved one, or laugh out loud with a colleague, that’s your recovery system triggering the parasympathetic nervous system – the body’s brake pedal. 

This allows us to replenish our depleted energy reserves, to care for one another, and to have the evolutionary advantage that comes with social bonding.

Optimal performance

To be at our best, we need to experience high levels of drive and recovery, and a low level of threat. 

While we can’t get rid of the day to day ‘threats’ we face at school (pupils will at some point misbehave, we will at some point have a bad lesson), we can make sure we strike a balance between drive and recovery. 

Why not have a go at keeping a record of what triggers your threat, drive, and recovery systems over the coming week? 

To unlock the potential in all children, our trainees need to feel empowered and adequately supported. This is why we have placed a renewed emphasis on wellbeing across all elements of our Training Programme. 

The online wellbeing course, launched in January 2019, is one part of this. We hope it will help our trainees to thrive and to stay in schools where they’re needed most – we can’t build a fair education for all without the amazing work they do on the frontline every day.

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