Bridget Grenville-Cleave, MAPP graduate of the University of East London, is a UK-based positive psychology consultant, trainer and writer. She is author of Introducing Positive Psychology: A Practical Guide (2012), and The Happiness Equation with Dr Ilona Boniwell. She regularly facilitates school well-being programs and Positive Psychology Masterclasses for personal and professional development. Find her on LinkedIn, Facebook and Twitter @BridgetGC. Website. Full bio. Her articles are here.
Schooldays by The Kinks (1975)
Do you remember only happy days,
Full of flaming Junes and summer holidays?
Or do you remember those stormy Novembers
When we walked in the wind and the rain?
Schooldays were such happy days
Now they seem so far away,
I remember and I’ll always treasure.
Schooldays were the happiest days of your life
End of School Year
This week marks the end of the current academic year for the majority of state schools in the UK and the start of the long summer vacation. Our seven year old’s primary school signed off on the 17th July, giving him six and a half weeks of fun, friends and freedom, plus days out with mum and dad, weekends with grandparents or chilling at home with the occasional Nintendo game, party or trip to the cinema thrown in for good measure. Oh to be a child again!
And lucky, lucky teachers! In no other profession do you get 12 weeks paid holiday a year , and that’s on top of a remarkably short working day and a half-decent salary and pension to boot. No wonder both college graduates and experienced business people are flocking to the profession right now – it’s seen as the safe option in today’s economically turbulent world. Teachers have never had it so good.
The Well-being of Teachers Versus Other Professionals
But all is not as it seems. At least, not in the UK. My mixed methods research, conducted last year with 150 teachers and 148 other professionals, paints a different picture of teachers’ well-being.
On all six measures used in the quantitative study (brief Levenson Locus of Control (LOC) scale, generalized self-efficacy scale, life orientation test-revised, satisfaction with life scale, subjective happiness scale and ego resilience scale), teachers came off worse than other professions surveyed, including those in the health sector (e.g. doctors, surgeons, psychologists) and those in business (e,g, accountants) as well as other professions such as lawyers and chartered surveyors. Independent t-tests showed that teachers’ mean scores were significantly different on all scales, that their perceived control and well-being was significantly lower than non-teachers (p>.001), and that older teachers had lower internal control than younger teachers (p=.028).
The qualitative analysis revealed four themes related to well-being:
3. connection to others
Not surprisingly given the nature of professions, there were similarities between them in terms of need for control at work, but teachers valued relationships more highly and non-teachers valued authenticity and autonomy more highly.
The qualitative interviews were invaluable for breathing life into the statistics – I got a much better insight into how these participants really felt about their jobs, what was important to them and what gave them real meaning. I saw what Galton and MacBeath meant when they said “teaching is not what it used to be.” and not in a positive way either. Whilst the teachers I interviewed acknowledged that some things had improved, the overwhelming feeling was that the overall change in the UK education system was negative. In short, something in teaching is being lost.
Does Every Teacher Matter?
At this point you may be thinking, “So what?” or “If teachers don’t like their jobs or job conditions, they should do something else.” In a society which encourages people to take control of their own lives and make their own decisions, I can see where you’re coming from. There is always a choice to be made, isn’t there?
So let’s talk about the implications for a moment. Why should we non-teachers care about the low level of teacher well-being in schools? Surely there are more important considerations, such as achieving higher standards, pupil safety, and balancing the overall education budget? Well, on the subject of finances, we do have to consider the direct and indirect costs of teacher recruitment, retention, absenteeism, and sickness, all of which are worsened by low teacher well-being. In the current recession, that’s at least one sound reason why we need to take the subject seriously.
But to really get to the heart of the matter, I’d like you to think back to your own school-days – those ‘best days of your life’. Can you recall teachers who had positive impacts on your life? Who were they? What was special about them? What did they do that made a real and lasting difference to your life?
At a family get-together recently, the conversation got around to those teachers we remembered – those we most admired and looked up to, who were passionate about their subject, who inspired us and planted ideas about what might be possible (Mrs Brasier!) and also to those we loathed, who made us feel helpless, incompetent or frightened, and who quashed any dreams as a waste of time, flights of fancy or mere day-dreaming (Mr Coles!). What is so interesting is that we could still vividly remember these teachers as if it were yesterday. Their impacts on our lives, for better or worse, were enduring.
This is surely the point. Like it or not, teachers are our children’s most important role models. In at least ten of their most formative years, our kids spend more time with their teachers than they do with us, their parents. Furthermore, Briner and Dewberry show that teacher well-being is linked to school and pupil performance. For the sake of a better society, it’s in all our interests to ensure that teacher well-being is taken seriously, even if we’re not parents ourselves.
You may also be thinking “This is just UK research and irrelevant elsewhere.” I was fortunate enough to present a poster of this research at the IPPA conference in Pennsylvania, USA in June, and met a large number of teachers and others in the education field from across the world. Certainly from these informal discussions, my research struck a chord. It seems as if teachers and schools in other developed countries may be facing similar challenges.
So what can be done about it? My own background in organizational change management leads me to conclude that the school culture is key, and whilst schools are not businesses, they are organizations made up of people. It’s the relationships among people in various parts of the education system that make the school culture what it is. So if we can support teachers in becoming more optimistic, hopeful, and resilient using a combination of positive psychology approaches, and in the process create school days which teachers and pupils alike can treasure, then that is what we should do.
All in favour raise your hand.
Block. J., & Kremen, A.M., (1996). IQ and Ego-Resiliency: Conceptual and empirical connections and separateness. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 70 (2). 349-361.
Briner, R. & Dewberry, C. (2007). Staff well-being is key to school success. Department of Organizational Psychology, Birkbeck College, University of London, in partnership with Worklife Support.
Diener, E., Emmons, R. A., Larsen, R. J. & Griffin, S. (1985). The Satisfaction with Life Scale. Journal of Personality Assessment, 49(1), 71-75.
Galton, M & MacBeath, J. (2008). Teachers Under Pressure. London: Sage.
Grenville-Cleave, B. (2009). UK teachers in 2008: Surviving or thriving: Do UK teachers have lower perceived control and well-being than other professions? Unpublished MSc dissertation. University of East London.
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 Politicians in the UK have a 2 month paid “recess”, during which they catch up on constituency business, but they don’t have to account for how they spend their time.