Pupil Wellbeing must start in the Staff Room. Here’s why and how...
Article by Dr Pooky Knightsmith

There’s been something of a mental health revolution in our schools in recent years.  Schools are increasingly keen to ensure that they are promoting the wellbeing of their pupils both through their curriculum and through their pastoral support. 

However, it’s becoming increasingly apparent that whilst we are working hard to boost the mental health of our pupils, the mental health of our staff is waning.  This is sometimes as a direct result of the initiatives designed to support our pupils which can result in increased teacher workload, staff having to teach about topics which they feel unfamiliar or uncomfortable with and staff acting as a supportive ear to pupils in need of support.

The declining mental health of our school staff must be addressed – positive mental health must start in the staffroom and it can’t wait any longer; the reasons are twofold: one is that our teaching is less impactful if it’s not backed by our actions and the other is that we cannot pour from an empty cup… and the word from the staffroom is that our cups are running dry.

We teach more through our actions than our words
Increasingly, schools incorporate mental health and emotional literacy into their curriculum and many staff find themselves teaching these topics as part of their PSHE education provision.  Many teachers I work with are great at helping pupils identify the steps they need to take to promote their mental health.   Many of these steps aren’t rocket science and include the importance of things like relaxation, a healthy diet and getting enough sleep.  But trying to impart these skills when you yawn your way through a lesson that comes after your skipped breakfast and before the snatched lunch you’ll eat whilst carrying out other duties makes it clear to pupils that you’re not living the values you’re trying to impart.  This makes your pupils much less likely to take onboard the lessons you’re trying to teach. 

You cannot pour from an empty cup
Teaching is a vocation for many and I’m often amazed by the lengths that staff I work with go to support the pupils in their care.  But even the most dedicated, most passionate, most well-adjusted teacher can only go on giving for so long.  As the role of teacher expands to incorporate more care-giving and support, our pupils win, especially those who may not have other trusted adults guiding them or who may not be able to access over stretched mental health services.  However, this takes its toll on our already over stretched school staff and increasingly I hear of staff who have reached breaking point and end up having to step away from the profession they love.

So what can we do?
There is no quick win here; but there are simple steps we can take to promoting our staff’s mental health which in turn better enables us to promote pupil wellbeing.

Start the conversation
The first step is to acknowledge the issue and start an open dialogue with colleagues in the knowledge that we might not be able to instantly fix things, but that we’d like to implement meaningful change together.  Many schools find that an anonymous survey of staff can help highlight current strengths and challenges and provide a good benchmark to measure progress against. 

Create the space and time for brief breaks
Working with staff to develop the space in which they spend their downtime in can be a tangible win that will have an impact right away.  The school day is busy so we’re looking for quality rather than quantity downtime and having a space for staff that feels comfortable and inviting and actively encouraging staff to take brief breaks can make a big difference in a busy school day.

Lead by example
Senior and middle leaders can have a powerful impact on the habits of the whole staff when they proactively lead by example.  Positive role modelling might include sitting down for a few minutes to have a proper break at lunchtime, not sending or responding to emails outside of agreed hours or seeking support when needed.  When senior leaders prioritise actions that promote self-care and positive wellbeing, it gives the whole staff body permission to do the same.

Reset Weeks
There are peaks and troughs in the school year; a powerful yet simple way to boost staff morale can be to pinpoint the week each term when morale tends to be running at its lowest and  take steps to allow staff to take their foot of the pedal a little that week by minimising out of hours meetings and decreasing planning and marking by team teaching or having themed days or weeks with pooled planning. 

Increasingly, our school staff are risking their own mental health in a bid to promote the wellbeing of their pupils. This has to change; pupil wellbeing matters, but if we’re to support the mental health of our learners in the long-term, we must start with the mental health of our staff.  We need to change the narrative and make self-care something that we not only teach about, but that we do, with pride.

Supporting staff in school
Entrust recognises the issues staff in school are facing and we aim to offer products and services which will support staff and reduce workload. We will soon be launching SENDSpace a whole-school development programme that will support you to successfully implement the graduated response and create better outcomes for your pupils. This online tool will give access to self-evaluation tools, professional development and resources designed to enhance skills and save time.