Although reforms to the Health & Safety Act have triggered anxiety for many educators, some consider it a giant step forward. Ian Vickers, deputy principal at Sancta Maria College in Auckland, is passionate about teacher wellbeing and has spent years lobbying the Ministry of Education, unions, academics and other key players to improve support for educators.
“Five years ago, when I asked the Ministry of Education how they looked after teacher wellbeing, they put me on hold, passed me around various departments and then finally asked whether it was a trick question!” recalls Mr Vickers. He considers the HSWA 2015, specifically component nine – “Schools must take a proactive approach to ensuring that workers can actively manage their own health and wellbeing” – to be a huge victory for common sense and the teaching profession. Here Mr Vickers takes a look at ways schools can implement the new guidelines.
People are the most important part of any school, both students and staff. Teachers are hardworking, highly motivated and innovative, but some of us also have our moments of being indifferent to our own health and wellbeing.
In most schools, there is usually one teacher who boasts about the number of sick days that they have stockpiled over the years. They declare that they are never sick and hence never need time off.
This is just plain wrong, these are the colleagues who go to work sick and selfishly spread their germs and bugs to everyone else.
What about the principal who wanted to look after her staff by restricting access to work during school holidays? Locks on the front door were changed, remote access to the school’s computer system was restricted, and teachers were instructed to rest and relax during the break. A noble stance, but sadly she did not take her own advice, worked weekends and holidays then had to leave the profession early because of ill health. A very sad situation.
Yes, the teaching profession is in need of a makeover and a cultural change is required regarding teachers taking care of themselves, particularly at work.
We now have the backing of the legislation to get this happening. It’s a great time to look closely at the culture within your educational institution and make a start on positive change. Here are some ways you can improve your teaching life:
Avoid email for a week
Will you miss those time wasting notes that for some reason you have been copied on, those reminders to return all coffee cups to the staffroom, or some of the educational junk mail that makes its way to your inbox? No you will not and it will be a week of bliss for you and your colleagues.
Tea and coffee
Still paying for tea and coffee at work? I sincerely hope not. If your school still demands payment to cover costs of refreshments at break times, it’s time to start some discussions with your principal or move schools. I remember a two-hour staff meeting one hot afternoon. The principal told the staff about all the strategic thinking, targets and developments for the year. There were student academic achievement initiatives, a focus on engaging with parents and the wider community, the refurbishment of the office/reception area, a new student garden, roof repairs, details of the groundsman’s new tractor and finally, how delighted we should all be to have new plates and cups in the staffroom. Not a single word on looking after the welfare and morale of the staff (though new coffee mugs excited some!). On departing the lengthy meeting, the teachers trudged past their cubby holes, now filled with bright orange invoices for our tea/coffee for the year. Oh happy days!
Brighten up your surroundings
How is your staffroom looking? Time to upgrade this often overlooked area of the school? A new carpet? New furniture? Are there any plants? A chilled water cooler? A modern kitchen area? What about the noticeboards and cupboards, need a tidy up and a touch of colour? Talk with the key people and give the staffroom a makeover.
Review the meetings schedule
How is the meeting schedule at your school? On my way home, I stop at traffic lights across from another school and I often see the teachers meeting in the staffroom up to 6pm, particularly on Mondays and Tuesdays. Full teaching days followed by late meetings, is this the most efficient way and what is the impact on teaching and learning the next day?
Set boundaries for work at home
What are your expectations and rules about doing school work at home? Do you need to reduce the time you spend on work-related activities? Some of my colleagues are often working up to 11pm, not good on so many fronts.
Remember to have fun
Is your school a place of laughter? Look at ways to bring humour, fun and laughter to all areas of the school day. Spend time with the positive and cheerful colleagues and avoid the moaners, they are not good for the soul!
Review the assessment load
Assessments coming out of your ears? This is a massive issue for both students and teachers. The workload associated with National Standards and NCEA assessments has been identified by ERO’s ‘Wellbeing in Schools’ project and the call was made for the Ministry and NZQA to have a serious re-think around the vast number of assessments that our young people are having to do and the considerable hours that teachers spend marking these assessments and then feeding back. Is it time to have a school wide discussion? In my school, at the end of last term, many of the senior students were hugely stressed and so were the teachers. Time for a thorough review on the number of NCEA internal assessments we do each year.
Remember your physical health
Do you receive a free flu injection at work? Do you get any health checks at work? How much would it cost the school to bring in a local medical professional to do some basic health checks for the staff WOF? A check of blood pressure, hydration levels, Body Mass Index, blood sugars and a general check-up. Now that would be a proactive approach to looking after staff health and wellbeing.
Cardio is key
Do you get any exercise during work hours? What about a circuit from your classroom to and from the staffroom via a staircase, or long strides or a quicker pace? Can you exercise before or after school, walk to school, make a commitment to a gym or swim 20 lengths? Find a way to quicken your heart rate and take in some cardio exercise.
Take a water bottle to your classroom. Strive to drink about two bottles a day. Last spring, we held a ‘Wellness Clinic’ for the staff at my school. More than half the staff were found to be dehydrated during their working day with the main excuse being that the hot weather had not arrived so there was no need to drink lots of water yet. Water intake is very important.
Get the ball rolling
Make some enquires with your principal and board chair about the component nine and what a staff wellbeing programme might look like in your school. A considerable number of schools nationwide have already started their own workplace wellbeing programme and it would be fantastic if you play a part in introducing such a programme at your place. If you need a starting point, please email me at firstname.lastname@example.org for a free copy of The Good New Habits Book 2016, an electronic resource.
Ask for union advice
If you are a member of a teacher or principal union, you might like to contact them to see if they have resources to support your health, wellbeing and general wellness at school. Similarly, the BOT chair might like to approach NZSTA for the resources to support the introduction of Key Component 9: a proactive staff health and wellbeing programme at your school.
Please share your new initiatives with fellow colleagues through the Teacher Wellbeing NZ Facebook page.
Have a fantastic term and good luck with your staff wellbeing programme.