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TEACHSTRONG BLOG

IDEAS TO INSPIRE

By SAMUEL HART

At the Education Show in January, TeachStrong were invited to be a part of the “Creative Health and Well-being Panel”. To kick off the discussion, I presented my ideas around the panel’s topic: “Effective, creative and practical solutions to ensure a safe and happy learning environment for both students and teachers.” I’ve rewritten my presentation for you to read:

Student and staff well-being are inextricably linked. By addressing one, we address the other. The direction of this relationship I want to explore is how school staff influence pupils. Many of you will already believe that staff well-being influences pupil well-being and we now have studies proving that this is the case (1). Staff that are stressed, anxious or depressed can have a negative impact on their pupils’ well-being, progress and attainment. With that in mind, let’s look at the prevalence of stress amongst staff. The Teacher Wellbeing Index (2019) found that 72% of educational professionals would describe themselves as “stressed” and over half have considered leaving the profession in the last two years because of pressures on their health and well-being (2). How can we hope to ensure a safe and happy learning environment for students if almost ¾ of teachers and TAs are stressed?

There are many aspects to our job that need improving to reduce stress such as workload (cited as the main reason for teachers considering leaving their job), accountability, and pupil behaviour. These are major factors that are affecting our environment and we all need to be a part of this conversation moving forward. Alongside these changes, there is a more empowering approach we can take to well-being: what we can change right here, right now. Things that we do every day so, despite our current working conditions, we can give ourselves the best fighting chance of feeling happier and healthier and create that environment for us and for the pupils as soon as we walk in the classroom.

At TeachStrong we believe that while we are striving for change to lessen the burden of workload, we cannot let our health deteriorate until things get better. We have a duty to take care of our well-being and when we start taking care of ourselves we are helping to take care of our pupils.

Many people have been led to believe that addressing their well-being is complicated, time-consuming, expensive and would mean adding to their workload. In fact, taking care of our well-being is easy! Marketing might have convinced us otherwise but it’s just a case of some quick tweaks to our routine and our environment to create Simple & Sustainable habits.

One of the most effective and practical things we can do with staff across the country is look at five key components for a happy, healthy life. These components are: Nutrition (what we eat), Movement (how much we move during the day), Inner Well-being (our feeling of inner peace and calm), Sleep (the quality and quantity of our sleep) and Community (our relationships with those around us). When we tackle these five areas of life, we’ll be happier, healthier, calmer, less stressed and sleep better. That’s how we’ll create a safe and happy environment for us and our pupils.

Let’s look at each aspect and how they can be improved in the most effective and practical way possible.

NUTRITION

More plants, no matter what your diet is. More fruit, more vegetables and more beans equals more fibre. This creates a feast for the good bacteria in your gut which play a huge role in your immune system and your mental health (3, 4). More plants also means more vitamins, minerals, antioxidants and phytonutrients which are all essential to good health.

Some practical tips:

  • Start your day with plant-powered overnight oats – this will keep you full until lunch and give you a big dose of whole grains, fruits, nuts and seeds to start the day.
  • Add beans where possible – Chuck them in your salads and soups. Many people around the world who live the longest, happiest lives eat beans every day, so why don’t we?
  • Cook your favourite dish but swap out animal protein for plant protein – e.g. in your spaghetti Bolognese swap beef for lentils or in your curry swap chicken for chickpeas. This might well lead to reduced blood pressure, cholesterol and promote natural weight loss (5, 6)

MOVEMENT

Move naturally throughout the day. No gym, no weights, just move. We know there’s a link between exercise and happiness (7) but we think this means we have to join the gym or enter a half-marathon when actually just regular, simple natural movements will do the trick.

Some practical tips:

  • Try adding a quick 10-minute bodyweight workout to your morning.
  • Start an after-school walking club with colleagues.
  • Swap an evening Netflix binge for a podcast and stroll in the evening.

INNER WELL-BEING

We know that mindfulness meditation can be a quick but powerful tool for reducing stress and anxiety and boosting mood (8).

Some practical tips:

  • Use opportunities throughout the day to be mindful. While you wait for the kettle to boil, just pause, relax and become aware of your surroundings.
  • Take a deep breath before you enter the classroom. 
  • Download a meditation app and make just 5 minutes in the evening before bed for a short session.

SLEEP

A common complaint among school staff and one that has a huge impact on health and well-being. Dr Matthew Walker says that sleep is the “foundation of health” (9). He’d argue that even if we eat well and exercise we will not improve our health if we don’t make changes to help us sleep soundly.

Some practical tips:

  • No electronics in the bedroom. Eliminate this distraction. Your bedroom should be a sanctuary away from work, social media and the news.
  • No screens an hour before bed. Screens emit blue light which interrupts the production of the sleep hormone melatonin.
  • Blackout curtains if possible. Light during the night can affect our chances of getting into a deep sleep and staying there.

COMMUNITY

Much like sleep, another underappreciated aspect of our well-being. According to the Harvard Study of Adult Development, our connections with others form an integral part of our well-being (10). We must be steadfast in our commitment to surrounding ourselves with positive, inspirational people. They say you are the average of the five people closest to you. Take time to consider the impact the people around you have on your well-being.

Some practical tips:

  • Make time every week for those friends that lift you up.
  • Assess and eliminate negative accounts from your social media.
  • Join a club (book, chess, knitting, running, it doesn’t really matter!). Just make time to see people face-to-face outside of school.

When we tackle these five areas of our life in and outside of school then staff can reduce stress and anxiety and improve mood and energy levels. Positive, productive and passionate teachers and TAs will inevitably have an impact on the well-being of pupils and their progress and attainment. This is how we can create that safe and happy learning environment for us and our pupils.

“You are important to other people, as much as to yourself. You have some vital role to play in the unfolding destiny of the world. You are, therefore, morally obliged to take care of yourself. You should take care of, help and be good to yourself the same way you would take care of, be good to someone you loved and valued.”

Jordan B. Peterson

References:

1. Harding, S, Evans, R, Morris, R, Gunnell, D, Ford, T, Hollingworth, W, Tilling, K, Bell, S, Grey, J, Brockman, R, Campbell, R, Araya, R, Murphy, S & Kidger, J 2019, ‘Is teachers’ mental health and wellbeing associated with students’ mental health and wellbeing?’, Journal of Affective Disorders, vol. 242, pp. 180-187. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jad.2018.08.080

2. The Teacher Wellbeing Index – https://www.educationsupport.org.uk/sites/default/files/teacher_wellbeing_index_2019.pdf

3. De Angelis, M., Ferrocino, I., Calabrese, F.M. et al. Diet influences the functions of the human intestinal microbiome. Sci Rep 10, 4247 (2020). https://doi.org/10.1038/s41598-020-61192-y

4. Beezhold, B.L., Johnston, C.S. Restriction of meat, fish, and poultry in omnivores improves mood: A pilot randomized controlled trial. Nutr J 11, 9 (2012). https://doi.org/10.1186/1475-2891-11-9

5. Benatar JR, Stewart RAH (2018) Cardiometabolic risk factors in vegans; A meta-analysis of observational studies. PLOS ONE 13(12): https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0209086

6. Hana Kahleova, Susan Levin, Neal D. Barnard. Vegetarian Dietary Patterns and Cardiovascular Disease. Progress in Cardiovascular Diseases. Volume 61, Issue 1. (2018), Pages 54-61, https://doi.org/10.1016/j.pcad.2018.05.002

7. Sammi R Chekroud, Amanda B Zheutlin, Martin Paulus, Harlan M Krumholz, John H Krystal, Adam M Chekroud, Association between physical exercise and mental health in 1·2 million individuals in the USA between 2011 and 2015: a cross-sectional study. The Lancet Psychiatry. Volume 5, Issue 9, p. 739-746 (2018). https://doi.org/10.1016/S2215-0366(18)30227-X

8. Bassam Khoury, Tania Lecomte, Guillaume Fortin, Marjolaine Masse, Phillip Therien, Vanessa Bouchard, Marie-Andrée Chapleau, Karine Paquin, Stefan G. Hofmann. Mindfulness-based therapy: A comprehensive meta-analysis. Clinical Psychology Review. Volume 33, Issue 6. (2013) Pages 763-771. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.cpr.2013.05.005

9. Dr Matthew Walker – https://www.humansleepscience.com/

10. The Adult Development Study – https://www.adultdevelopmentstudy.org/