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Why we must stop putting pupils first

Steve Waters: Founder/Director Teach Well Alliance

As teachers, we are expected to put our pupils first. This expectation often features in the school prospectus, in the school motto, in job descriptions, in recruitment interviews. It is in the very DNA of the school, an unspoken assumption that underpins the academic targets we are expected to enable our pupils to reach and in the daily care we take of them.

So, what’s wrong with this? Isn’t doing the best for our pupils why we went into teaching in the first place? Surely, if we’re not prepared to put pupils first, we’re in the wrong job.

When we’re on a plane, the cabin crew take us through safety checks. If the cabin should lose pressure, they advise that oxygen masks will drop from the panels above our heads. They instruct us:

‘If you are travelling with a child or someone who requires assistance, secure your own mask first, and then assist the other person.’

This is essential advice. If we are unable to breathe ourselves, we are no use to anyone else.

And so it is with our pupils. If we don’t take care of ourselves, of our mental health and physical health, we will be unable to assist our pupils. We may become so ill that we need to take sick leave and won’t be able to help them at all.

According to data released by the Office for National Statistics (ONS), the suicide rate amongst primary teachers in England between 2011 to 2015 was nearly two times higher than the national average of the broader population. In the Education Support Partnership/YouGov report ‘Mental Health and Wellbeing in the Education Profession 2017’, 75% of teachers reported experiencing behavioural, psychological or physical symptoms where their job was a contributing factor, and 45% felt that their organization does not effectively support employees who experience mental health problems. 36% of teachers felt that their mental ill-health affected their students’ studies, and 13% believed that it had a negative impact on their students’ results.

School leaders say, of course, that ‘putting pupils first’ doesn’t mean that the well-being of teachers is not important. But the problem with the statement is that, by definition, everyone else, including teachers, should come second. This is compounded by the guilt that teachers often feel if they put their own needs before those of their pupils. And we know that guilt is often at the heart of depression.

So, how should schools ensure that the well-being of their teachers is given as much attention as their pupils? Here are my top three tips:

  1. Drop the ‘putting pupils first’ language. Replace it with phrases like ‘Everyone a learner’ or ‘Everyone matters’ or ‘Proud to be a learning community’. Wellbeing – including mental health - is everyone’s concern: teachers, support staff, ancillary and site staff, pupils and parents.
  1. Teachers should never have to pretend that they are physically ill to cover being mentally unwell. Mental ill-health is not a weakness. If, as is often the case, it is a product of unmanageable workloads and impossible expectations, the school should be prepared to explore organizational causes, rather than attribute blame, or wonder if the teacher is ‘up to it’.
  1. Include mental health in the pastoral/core/PHSE curriculum. When teachers talk to their pupils about mental ill-health, including their own experience of it, the culture of the school changes.

If schools stopped putting pupils first and implemented these three strategies, I would sleep more easily at night.

Steve Waters

Teach Well Alliance

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