NewsTeachers' Desk

Prioritising student and educator wellbeing

We explore the link between student and educator wellbeing, and suggest strategies to make wellbeing a whole of school priority.

Although wellbeing is often thought of as an individuals’ responsibility, it can be contingent on the community. This is especially true of schools, where teacher and student wellbeing can have significant impacts on each other.

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Education can be a stressful industry. In recent years, the demands of the job have increased for teachers and support staff at all levels. Between increased workload, covering for absent colleagues, juggling deadlines, class plans and supporting students with pastoral and additional needs, many educators are feeling burnt out. Besides the professional demands placed on educators, many are also experiencing the recent general stressors of the pandemic, raising families and the increasing cost of living. 

On the other side of the coin, it isn’t easy to be a young person in the modern age. For some tamariki, the “new normal” of the pandemic years may make up the bulk of their memories. For older children, coming of age during COVID was likely difficult, and many may be feeling like they’ve missed out on crucial experiences. Online learning can be disenfranchising, and the rising cost of living means many rangatahi are taking on part-time jobs to help make ends meet for their families. 

In such high stress circumstances, it can feel like an impossible task to both maintain one’s own and support others’ wellbeing. Still, contrary to how it might seem, supporting others’ wellbeing doesn’t need to be incompatible with supporting one’s own. In fact, one can often lead to the other.

The Australian & New Zealand Mental Health Association recognises that educator wellbeing is invaluable because it is directly tied to their ability to educate. Children and young people’s wellbeing and achievement have been found to correlate with educator wellbeing. The wellbeing of the individual therefore shapes the wellbeing of the community and vice versa. This means that ensuring educator and student wellbeing is not just about individual strategies, but also community-wide systems that prioritise wellbeing. 

The first step in addressing health and wellbeing is getting in touch with one’s own emotions. How does someone recognise they’re stressed, and how does one recognise stress in others? Stressors can be any number of things, and a big one is often change of any sort. Even positive events can be stressful, resulting in physical responses that are your body’s way of telling you to slow down. Learning to recognise and manage these can be a positive first step in ensuring wellbeing. 

Physical symptoms of stress may include unexplained aches and pains and increasing fatigue. Exhaustion and issues with sleep can be self-perpetuating symptoms of stress. Digestive issues, headaches and feeling run down or becoming easily ill are other tell-tale signs of stress. A decrease in wellbeing could also lead to symptoms such as being anxious, irritable or becoming depressed. 

Learning to recognise the symptoms of stress in yourself can mean it’s easier to identify stress in others. School leaders and educators may wish to look out for people becoming suddenly withdrawn or disengaged compared to their usual selves. Stressed individuals may also be more easily irritable or frustrated. Missing deadlines or important engagements can also be a sign that something is wrong, as can lateness and absence. Any of these signs, though, need to take an individual’s usual baseline behaviours into consideration.

© Rudzhan, Adobe Stock

Being in tune with your own feelings, as well as the feelings of those around you is the first step. But that doesn’t mean that educators need to wait until something is wrong to prioritise wellbeing. Improving wellbeing in a school community can be a proactive exercise. The National Mental Health Commission (2022) from the Australian & New Zealand Mental Health Assocation found that there are three pillars to communal wellbeing in any workplace: Promote, Respond and Protect. 

On the first, educators’ wellbeing improves when leadership provides an example. Supportive leadership that promotes inclusivity, open communication and clear direction can have a huge impact on promoting the wellbeing of educators. Leaders can also promote wellbeing by role-modelling appropriate behaviours and prioritising their own needs. Leaders should keep in mind that structural factors such as resourcing and behaviours can have a marked impact on community wellbeing.

The school community should encourage connections between people to build a strong foundation for wellbeing. A positive workplace culture can both result from and reinforce positive leadership, creating a positive feedback loop that bolsters wellbeing.

Of course, culture is shaped not only by people, but also by policy. Again, there are structural factors that can either benefit or detriment individual or community wellbeing. Policies that ensure educators’ time and boundaries are honoured, as well as supporting their professional and personal development can boost educator wellbeing. Access to counselling or other support through the workplace is a structural factor that impacts educator – and therefore student – wellbeing. There is some national policy that takes some of these structural factors out of a schools’ individual control. Where possible, though, it is important to consider the structures in place at the school-level.

© impro-studio, Adobe Stock

Wellbeing strategies can be employed by individuals within this supportive context to boost personal mental health. These include exercise, a balanced diet, healthy boundaries and help-seeking. When one is stressed, an effective intervention may be as simple as going for a short walk. Educators may also like to practise and share wellbeing strategies with their class in a spare moment. These could include practising gratitude, short meditations or time set aside for journaling. 

To implement these interventions, educators will need the support and understanding of school leadership. Educators may wish to extend this to young people in their care. This is part of creating a healthy, thriving school environment which prioritises health and wellbeing, and ensures people feel seen, heard and respected.  

Some schools and educators may need some additional support in creating a culture of wellbeing and a robust community. There are many programmes – some backed by government education departments – that can help educators and school leaders support themselves, and their staff and students. Some programmes involve a wellbeing professional who can provide coaching sessions to students with the supervision of staff. These can be like group counselling where a broad overview on general wellbeing management strategies is provided. Strategies could then be incorporated into class-time.

Other programmes may be akin to a PLD course, where educators and school leaders themselves are coached on stress management and implementing structural wellbeing strategies. 

While we can all take proactive steps to manage our wellbeing, it is important to know when to reach out for extra help. If you need support, please talk to a friend, or visit your GP or health professional.

Naomii Seah

Naomii Seah is a writer and journalist from Tāmaki Makaurau Auckland, Aotearoa New Zealand. She enjoys crochet, painting, and a coffee or two at the beach. Her work can be found at The Spinoff, The Pantograph Punch, Stuff, and of course, School News NZ.
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