Start of Term Support Critical for Teacher Wellbeing

Boosting teacher wellbeing at the start of term helps combat attrition and burnout.
Feb 2, 2024
Teachers who are happy at the start of term tend to stay happy.

Understanding how to better support teacher wellbeing and how it changes over time will help reduce burnout and attrition rates.

Streamlining teachers’ work - reducing administrative tasks and face-to-face teaching time - is important, particularly at the start of term. Similarly, inviting teachers’ input in decisions and school policies and providing rationales for work tasks support greater wellbeing.

Fostering collaborative relationships between staff also promotes higher wellbeing. Providing common planning time, establishing professional learning communities and peer-mentorships, developing a shared mission and cultivating a supportive staffroom are some strategies that work.

“Importantly though, teachers who reported more positive teacher-student relationships at the start of term ended the term with higher [rates of] wellbeing than those teachers who started the term with less positive teacher-student relationships,” Scientia Associate Professor Rebecca Collie from UNSW’s School of Education says.

“Time pressure, disruptive student behaviour and a lack of relevant professional learning opportunities are all common challenges for teachers.”

“Conversely teachers who experience social supports, such as school leadership that encourages teacher agency and initiative at work - and positive relationships with both colleagues and students consistently demonstrated higher rates of wellbeing and lower intentions to leave teaching.”

Schools can promote high-quality student-teacher interactions through ongoing support and feedback as well as teachers’ professional learning and goal setting around improving particular student-relationships.

“Schools can consider strategies such as professional learning opportunities on high-quality teaching interactions, considering how content and teaching approaches might be better aligned to student interests, or providing resources and support for managing stress and workload."

The role of helpful feedback is vital. A/Prof Collie’s recent study of the role of job resources (or forms of support) for teachers from Australia, Canada, England and America found that when teachers felt supported in terms of feedback, they were more likely to be committed to the profession.

“Feedback appeared even more crucial when teachers faced high levels of disruptive student behaviour. The results were comparable across all four nations.”

These supports and challenges tap into the basic psychological needs related to autonomy, competence and connection essential for optimal human function. “It’s a social imperative that we take care of workers in any field; low wellbeing negatively affects our interpersonal relationships and quality of life, increases the burden on medical services, and reduces economic productivity, among other reasons,” she says.

Teacher wellbeing can be understood as a combination of feeling good and functioning effectively at work. “The ‘feeling good’ part is captured by factors, such as job satisfaction, a sense of vitality, and low stress or burnout at work. In contrast, the ‘functioning effectively’ part of the definition is captured by factors like work engagement and occupational commitment.”

Prof Collie investigated the relationship between social supports at work (job ‘resources’) and common challenges for teachers (job ‘demands’) with teacher wellbeing and their intentions to seek alternative employment (turnover intentions), 426 Australian school teachers participated in the study.

The study published in late 2023, conducted with Scientia Professor Andrew Martin from UNSW, examined how teacher wellbeing changes over one school term, and the role of teacher-student relationships in how these changes unfold. It followed 401 primary (56 per cent) secondary (38 per cent) kindergarten to year 12 (6 per cent) schoolteachers from all Australian states and territories, during Term 3 in 2021.

The emotional, cognitive and behavioural elements of well-being were examined in the study using the Tripartite Occupational Well-Being Scale, developed by A/Prof Collie. The scale identifies three types of wellbeing as key to teachers’ healthy and effective functioning: vitality - the energy and vibrancy that teachers feel in their work; engagement - the dedication and exertion that teachers channel into their job; and professional growth - teachers’ commitment to enhancing their expertise and competencies.

The research found all three types of well-being declined over the course of the term. “This applied to all different types of teachers [regardless of age, gender and experience], highlighting the need for ongoing efforts to support teacher wellbeing,” A/Prof Collie says.

Teachers reported on their wellbeing and their sense of connection with students in weeks two, five and eight of the 10-week term. Teachers reported declines in wellbeing over the term, the research found.

Teachers report some of the highest rates of psychological stress. A national survey of more than 4000 teachers, conducted by the Black Dog Institute in 2023, found 70 per cent reported having unmanageable workloads. In the survey, 52 per cent reported moderate to extremely severe symptoms of depression and 59.7 per cent reported feeling stressed (compared to 12.1 per cent and 11.4 per cent of the general population respectively).

Image by Jennifer Moore