When our school decided to focus on the causes of teacher stress, rather than skipping straight to the solutions, we were able to both improve teacher wellbeing and achieve better outcomes for our pupils.
The wellbeing of teachers has always been a topic of conversation, but in recent years it has gained great traction with government and school leaders. It is not uncommon to hear of schools running teacher wellbeing programmes or making special offers available for staff to escape the stress of the classroom.
While I always welcome food, staff badminton or a massage, I don’t believe that these initiatives deal with the causes of teacher stress. To improve teacher wellbeing we need to revolutionise the workplace by tackling poor habits and resetting the culture with brave and ambitious leadership. This is what we have been doing at Waterhead Academy in Oldham, part of the South Pennine Academies.
Heavy workloads and stress can be caused by complicated school systems or outdated policies. In our school, our marking and feedback policy had grown into a beast that devoured all available staff time. It became clear that marking and feedback was a high intensity, low impact exercise that benefited policy more than teachers and pupils.
We decided to change our marking and feedback policy, a decision bolstered by a growing bank of evidence calling for a reduction in written feedback, and the potential impact of developing high-impact formative assessment strategies.
Setting out strategies
We shifted our focus to high-impact strategies that encouraged pupil responsibility and resilience in taking ownership of their learning. The outcome was a set of four formative assessment strategies that tackled pupil misconceptions and aimed to challenge and stretch pupil learning. We call them our ‘big four’ – dot round, testing frequently (low stakes testing), exit tickets and extended writing.
One strategy was the introduction of testing with a focus on regular low-stakes approaches such as quizzes. Studies by Daniel Willingham and blogs by David Didau suggest that this approach is effective in helping pupils retain and recall knowledge.
It also provides rich data for teachers to use for planning and drastically cuts teacher workload. Quizzes are low intensity and high impact and are a long term resource that saves more time for teachers in future years.
The pupil response to these changes has been surprising but refreshing. They really enjoy the frequent testing but found other strategies more challenging.
‘Dot round’ was agreed to be the most difficult for the pupils. This is a strategy used when teachers are circulating the classroom helping pupils. If they see an area for development in the pupil’s work the teacher has the option to place a green dot in the margin and walk away. The expectation is for pupils to look back through their notes and to think of how to improve their work – but some pupils want the old policy back because they like being spoon-fed!
The strategies were welcomed by staff who played an important role in shaping the implementation, and this was fundamental to revolutionising the workplace.
Many teachers believe that the policy allowed them more time to plan for pupil needs and genuinely feel that they are receiving a better return with pupils. Our staff are very engaged in wanting the new policy to be a success.
Our new policy also caught the attention of the wider trust, with other leaders from the South Pennine Academies coming to visit our school to see the policy in practice.
Middle leaders regularly perform learning walks to quality assure practice, and supportive professional development is on offer to all staff which is led by our Teaching Leaders participants.
As well as alleviating teacher workload, the new policy was put in place to improve pupil outcomes. We are not expecting results overnight but we have already seen some improvements and our new low intensity, high impact marking and feedback strategies are playing an important role in making it happen.
One colleague said, “I have found that the learning status of both the teacher and the student is 'live' and 'buoyant'. It is collaborative; there is no sense of isolation in the learning and feedback process and I no longer have to sit at my kitchen table for three hours every night. Ultimately, that niggling sensation that my time has been wasted marking has disappeared.”
This is an example of one change and there are many more to be considered. Improving teacher wellbeing takes hard graft and ambition, and in some cases you may get pushback from the wider educational community if they see your changes as a risk or you go against the tide of popular opinion.
Being revolutionary is about being ambitious in your goals, clear in your expectations and pragmatic in your approach. Never has anything great been achieved without hazards.
Improving teacher wellbeing is more than a tick-box mentality, it’s about creating a culture that challenges, supports and motivates staff. Yes, pupils are at the heart of what we do but we must not forget that the most valuable agent for change in a child’s education is their teacher.