8 July 2020

The Importance of Observing a School as a Workplace Setting

The motivational process between a healthy and engaged teacher seems to be an effective means of creating curiosity, energy and interest in students.

The World Health Organisation defines good mental health “as a state of wellbeing in which every individual realise his or her own potential, can cope with the normal stresses of life, can work productively and fruitfully, and is able to make a contribution to her or his community”.  

The whole area of well-being has mushroomed in all sectors in the past two years and Irish schools are no different. Work-related stress is often an antecedent to anxiety and depression. Schaufeli and Bakker (2004) describe work engagement as feeling vigour, dedication, and absorption in your job.

Well-being in our schools seems to be particularly weighted towards the children in our care.  Unarguably, their well-being is critical to their learning. The resilience building tools that they learn in schools will hopefully equip them for their futures in a world that is rapidly changing and evolving.  The Wellbeing Policy Statement and Framework for Practice 2018-2023 is certainly a step in the right direction.

However, schools are a unique setting.  We have a highly interdependent system of well-being going on.  Student well-being is influenced greatly by teacher well-being.  

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Darmody and Smyth demonstrated that there was a clear relationship between student engagement, happiness and behaviour with Irish teacher stress (poor well-being) and also teacher stress and the stress experienced by their principal.

Internationally, Shernoff et al and Bakker have also suggested that high quality instruction from an engaged teacher is correlated to the academic achievement of students.  The motivational process between a healthy and engaged teacher seems to be an effective means of creating curiosity, energy and interest in students.

Therefore, it could be argued that teacher well-being is an area where large-scale investment in resources is needed to support teachers in maintaining their own personal well-being to enable those teachers in supporting the students in their care.

But what is the current picture of the well-being of Irish teachers?  Last year, the author sent out a quantitative questionnaire to Irish primary school teachers to measure their psychosocial working conditions, well-being, engagement and risk of developing anxiety and depression using internationally recognised instruments of measurement. 

Teachers’ psychosocial working conditions (work demands, control, supports, resources and relationships) were measured against classroom settings, school locations, type of employment contracts, gender, years teaching, number of teaching staff,  principal (administrative or teaching) and level of qualifications.

These socio-demographic variables were then correlated to scales of well-being, risk of developing anxiety and depression and work engagement.  The results from the 362 teachers that completed the survey were remarkable. The Irish primary teachers who experienced positive psychosocial working conditions in their schools in turn had greater well-being and greater work engagement and had a lower risk of developing anxiety and depression.

The study also highlighted that teachers on average were spending seven, with some recording thirteen, additional hours a week on school-related work.  These additional hours impacted negatively on the psychosocial working conditions of teachers and decreased the well-being (increased risk of burnout) and increased the risk of anxiety and depression in the teacher participants in the study.

The administrative burden on teachers has increased teacher workload in addition to the typical classroom duties of educators.  The necessity for compliance with an evolving curriculum, in-school policies, self-evaluation and legislation in schools has the ability to place further strain on teaching staff and can often result in greater stress amongst teachers. Minister McHugh has himself discussed “initiative overload” on teachers at a recent INTO conference.

Female teachers were more negatively affected in the study than male teachers in both their psychosocial work conditions and wellbeing.  Researchers have begun to establish the link between gender and occupational-related workload and stress (Klasesen & Chiu).   Elevated occupational stress in female teachers could possibly be attributed to a higher workload through the combination of occupational and domestic workload which could cause Work-Family Conflict (WFC) for female teachers. 

WFC is a workplace challenge across all sectors internationally.  EU-OSHA recently highlighted that only twenty percent of informal caring (child-rearing, caring for the aged and those with disabilities) is undertaken by males.

Special Education Class Teachers (SETs) experienced negative psychosocial working conditions, poorer wellbeing and poorer engagement in contrast to classroom teachers. Morgan and Nic Craith’s 2016 Irish study highlighted that SETs perceived teaching as having become a more stressful occupation.

Possible explanations for this could be lack of physical space in classrooms, inadequate training in the specialised and changeable Special Educational Needs methodologies and the limited physical and educational resources available due to financial constraints of school budgets.

Greater emotional demands are also placed on Special Education Teachers through an increased amount of time meeting and preparing for Student Support Files with stakeholders to ensure access to a full and meaningful curriculum for children with additional needs.

Overall, it is worth noting that on the whole, the majority of Irish primary teachers are experiencing a positive working environment, have moderate wellbeing and are very engaged in their teaching. 

Yet, it must also be acknowledged that the maintenance and investment in the occupational working conditions for teachers must continue.  Teachers must be supported in their individual well-being to be effective in building the frameworks in their school community for better student well-being, resilience and engagement.

Dorothy Scarry is a primary school teacher in Co. Roscommon for the past 17 years.  She is a AP2 post holder that has taught all class levels including SEN. Dorothy is passionate about creating positive workplace changes to support teacher resilience and wellbeing.

She completed her MSc in Workplace Health and Wellbeing in 2018 and has worked with the INTO delivering training on the psycho-social working conditions and wellbeing of Irish teachers to their national committees in Newry in April 2019. Dorothy co-wrote the INTO’s recent online summer course on Leadership and Wellbeing.  Dorothy is taking a career break in the coming year to spread her reach on good workplace practices for a thriving workforce through her company Workplace Health and Wellbeing Ltd @ www.workplacehealthandwellbeing.com .  Dorothy is also the founder of www.nextstepforward.ie , a social enterprise, supporting children and young adults in school transitioning through evidence-based resilience and wellbeing workshops.

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