In May 2016, shortly after leaving her role as Mental Health Champion for Schools, Natasha Devon (@NatashaDevonMBE) said the following:
“Above all, I kept repeating what I still consider to be the most crucial point of all during discussions at government level and that is that the mental health of teachers is suffering. We cannot delegate responsibility for the mental health care of an entire generation to a group of people who aren’t being looked after themselves”.
In some rather blunt blogs and other articles Natasha quite accurately portrayed the worst excesses of our current educational world and the impact on mental health for children, young people and their teachers that has resulted from a system that is unsustainable. Those of us working closely within the system, whether teachers, trainers or leaders, know what she says to be true; unrelenting pressure, a lack of understanding of the many who struggle to maintain their own wellbeing within an unforgiving culture in schools. This might realistically be characterised by authoritarian and heavy handed micromanagement of staff by overconfident young senior leaders striving to make their mark; it is about close monitoring of all staff, endless data trawls, regular mock inspections, a lack of trust in the professionals we employ and a corporate drive to ensure the staff meet expectations with uniformity. In the worst cases, it amounts to a “fish – and – chip shop” approach to leadership, you know, the one in which everyone is battered and comes out of the fryer looking the same!
It is then timely that Theresa May has drawn attention to the mental health of our young people and that schools will be asked to ensure staff are trained to understand and refer children and young people onto appropriate services. Without being drawn into the whole worrying scenario of whether the resources will be in place to run quality training and more particularly whether the mental health support will actually be there for the young people we refer, there is a simple but profound truth about the way forward for schools and leaders.
It is this. We can only expect teachers to be able to give quality support to our pupils on mental health and wellbeing by looking after our staff as the first priority. This starts with headteachers and senior staff setting out a CPD entitlement for staff to explore and learn about such issues as emotional wellbeing, how to recognise and manage stress, how to develop techniques to boost resilience, gain a sense of calm and control, and develop a culture in which there is trust, openness and a collegiate approach to supporting wellbeing for everyone. Incidentally, this includes headteachers and senior leaders who often put themselves last in the line for support, frequently neglect their own needs and set a poor example of self – care to staff. Teachers who are supported and trusted to do a professional job by senior leaders who take their own needs seriously and are mindful of staff wellbeing, and actively to seek to build on the strengths and goodwill of staff, can only be effective teachers and great role models for our young people.
I am very grateful to those many headteachers and senior leaders I have worked with over the last two years who have taken their courage in their hands and have grasped the opportunity to do something different with their staff. It is absolutely possible to create schools which are great places to work, where teaching and learning are first class and where everyone can thrive rather than survive!