The funny thing about being a teacher is that you’re always learning. Learning as you go from your colleagues, learning from your students but also by actively pursuing your own professional development.
This concept of the teacher as a learner is at the core of this guide. Developed with the help of leading experts from the education sector, it explores a range of concepts which you can draw on to enrich your teaching practice. It has a particular focus on the wellbeing and is packed with practical ideas you can try out in the classroom. As Robert John Meehan, dubbed the ‘Voice of the American teacher’, put it: "Your life as a teacher begins the day you realise you are always a learner."
You teach because you care about children, about their happiness now and their success in future. But sometimes it’s not as straightforward as simply getting on with teaching, because a child’s wellbeing can be impacted by various factors, such as physical or mental health disabilities, which impact their learning as well as their experience of the social side of school. This in turn can impact their success. No two children are the same, so the challenges and solutions will always be a bit different.
Wellbeing. That’s happily something we’re talking about a lot more. But what exactly is it? The government’s Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs have described it as “a positive physical, social and mental state; it is not just the absence of pain, discomfort and incapacity. It requires that basic needs are met, that individuals have a sense of purpose, and that they feel able to achieve important personal goals and participate in society”.
As a teacher sooner or later you are going to encounter complex wellbeing issues, ones that you can’t deal with alone. Your role as the teacher is to help the child, and their family, to get the support they need. You can be a catalyst, playing your part to activate specialist support services. Some families find they must fight very hard to get their child the help they need to thrive. A supportive teacher in their corner can really help them to navigate the system to access the expert support that their child needs. When the appropriate services are put in place to support the child’s wellbeing it maximizes their success and minimises negative experience. You can make a huge difference.
According to the Mental Health Foundation, mental health problems affect around one in six children. They include depression, anxiety ,self-harm and behavioural problems, and are often a direct response to what is happening in their lives.
Mental health conditions in children and young people can often be treated, with the right help, especially when there is early detection and intervention.
The opening line of Promoting children and young people’s mental health and wellbeing 2019, a report by Public Health England and the Department for Education, reads: “Mental health matters because a child’s emotional health and wellbeing influences their cognitive development and learning as well as their physical and social health and their mental wellbeing in adulthood.”
The report advocates for a whole school and college approach to mental health and wellbeing. It seeks to wrap resilience into the curriculum, enable student voices to influence decisions and champion “an ethos and environment that promotes respect and values diversity”.
One whole school approach to this is that of trauma informed schools. In these schools, members of staff are trained specifically to support children and young people with trauma or mental health conditions. Their role is to support the child in dealing with barriers to learning. For example, all schools in Cornwall now have teachers who have attended for wellbeing training, equipping them to better help children and young people to build resilience and mental wellbeing.
Whatever your school approach to wellbeing, there are many practical things you as a teacher can wrap into your own practice that will immediately start making an difference to your children. To understand the child mental health situations you see, it helps to have a basic understanding of some of the key theories that relate to child mental health and how they apply to school settings.
It not what a child does that matters, but why they do it. Each child is an individual so to support them you need to get to know them. Gone are the days, we hope, when some adults would simply dismiss children as ‘naughty’. It is now much better understood that consistent defiant, disruptive and unkind behaviour could be signs of a mental health struggle. Equally behaviour is often learnt and it takes time and encouragement to change it.
It isn’t necessarily easy to know whether a child is angry or upset about something for a while but essentially coping or experiencing mental health issues. But there are techniques to help you work it out. The first step in supporting children with mental health conditions in schools is getting to know them. This enables you to spot significant changes in a child’s behaviour and to name the emotions you’re seeing. What are they feeling? What are their triggers? Why are they are behaving as they are?
As a teacher you're part of a team and your school will have a process for supporting children with mental health conditions. It’s crucial to know that process and to note any concerns so that collectively the school team sees the bigger picture of what is going on with a particular child.
Inclusive education is education that includes everyone, including those with special education needs and disabilities, learning together in mainstream schools.
Inclusive education flows from the social model of disability which has been incredibly influential over the last 50 years in shaping the experiences of disabled people. It emphasises the barriers in society, like buildings or information not being accessible, that disable people who have impairments. It does not emphasise the impairment itself. The model says it's society that disables people by not making these environments equally accessible to everyone. In schools this translates to ensuing that everything - from the curriculum, to resources to the built environment - should be accessible to disabled learners.
Our understanding of disability is rapidly evolving. For example in recent years it has become much more widely recognised that some people need support with invisible disabilities that cannot be obviously seen. Equally it is starting to be understood that some so-called ‘learning disabilities’ can equally be thought of as superpowers. A teacher who understands this, can truly change lives. To explore this further see how to support children with special education needs and disability (SEND).
You might have heard it said that people with ADHD have difficulty focusing on tasks and an inability to control their impulses? But did you know that given the right task, one that really interests them, people with ADHD can be super focused and highly creative? They’re also often super-resilient because of all the times they have to overcome challenges or steel themselves to focus their mind.
In addition, do you think of dyslexia as being all about problems with reading and writing? That’s not right either. It’s an alternate wiring of the brain, one that dials up certain strengths and weaknesses. It effects how you decode and process information, be this spoken words, written words or even the ideas in your own head. Alan Sugar, Bill Gates, Steve Jobs and Jamie Oliver are all dyslexic, and all famed for thinking differently. Dyslexic individuals have certain strengths because they are dyslexic, not despite them being dyslexic. To find out more check out free training for teachers from Made By Dyslexia on spotting dyslexic strengths and supporting dyslexic children.
What can teachers do to support wellbeing amongst their students? A good start point is to be familiar with the Five Ways to Wellbeing by the New Economics Foundation. It outlines five actions we can do in our day-to-day lives that support wellbeing – they are:
Nature is central to our wellbeing. According to the Mental Health Foundation, research shows that people who are more connected to nature tend to be happier in life, and that nature connectedness is also associated with lower levels of poor mental health, in particular anxiety and depression. They also report that people with strong nature connectedness are more likely to have pro-environment behaviours, which in turn can have further benefits for the wider society. Nature truly is the great outdoors.
Teachers can foster a connection to nature, for both their own wellbeing and that of their students, by either taking their teaching outdoors or by bringing nature into the classroom. So, how might you do that?
The answer lies in the small things. You don’t have to go far to wrap outdoor education into your teaching, don’t need to leave the school site. You don’t even need a forest to teach forest school.
Dr Mark Leather, Associate Professor of Adventure Education and Outdoor Learning at Plymouth Marjon University, says: “The first question of outdoor learning is always why are you here, for what purpose? We’re in the woods, or in a green space on the school grounds. But why? Often, outdoor activities are perceived as ‘just a bit of fun’ but for me fun should be taken as standard. In a fun learning environment, we’re learn stuff without realising it, and a good teacher will draw out that learning.
"The joy of outdoor learning is that we can work on multiple levels. You can go to the beach to do some science around understanding tides and different zones of the beach, and couple that with learning how connecting with nature helps us to look after ourselves, so do some breathing exercises too. Always be clear as to the purpose for which your students are out there.”
So how do you start to put these ideas in practice? Look for the biodiversity around your school site. Is there a bird box, a log pile (aka bug hotel), a wildflower area or a pond? Now map those back to curriculum topics, for example you could go outdoors to teach drawing, forces and motion, habitats, looking for shapes and angles, measuring and sampling, poetry, storytelling and use of tools. Or simply take drama and PE lessons outside.
Resources to expand your outdoor learning practise:
So far, we’ve looked at ideas that you could wrap into your teaching practice pretty much tomorrow. Let’s now look at more structured options for career progression…
Continuing Professional Development (CPD) is the term used to describe learning activities that educators engage in to develop and enhance their abilities throughout their careers. It is conscious and proactive learning, not passive and reactive learning. It sees educators take control of their own professional learning and combine this with continuing self-reflection. CPD spans a great many activities such as further study, training courses, mentoring, shadowing, exploring new pedagogical ideas and more recently digital learning through blogs, podcasts and webinars. It has been found to increase teacher’s confidence and motivation, and to improve teacher retention.
Plymouth Marjon University offer MA Education (taught in Plymouth and Truro) and MA Professional Education Practice (taught 100% online). If you're considering doing a Master's degree in Education, at Marjon or anywhere else, then check out the Master’s survival guide with top tips on balancing study, work and wellbeing from Master's of Education students.
Whether you’re just starting out in teaching, or you’re a senior leader, a bit of extra support is always welcome. Let’s take a look at some emerging ideas that might support your practice.
Positive changes are happening in the realm of teacher development, from the launch of the new Early Career Framework for new teachers to the rise of communities of practice for more experienced educators.
The Early Career Framework is big on mentoring, ongoing professional development, and training. It has been designed to retain teachers in the profession by providing focused support in the early days. Mentors in schools will support new teachers, helping them translate the best available evidence around how to teach into their own teaching practice. By putting mentoring at the heart of things, it also creates new opportunities for experienced teachers to get into mentoring and pass on their knowledge, or even to step up into new specialist teacher mentoring roles.
But what about senior teachers and school leaders, it’s certainly tough at the top so what is out there for you? If you’ve got this far then you’re probably a pro at creating vision and you’re top of the class for reflective thinking. You’ve likely got strong skills in terms of coaching, community building, data, relationship building, resilience, leadership. But how can you take this to the next level? That can be a tricky, but one answer lies in communities of practice. These are groups of people who share a concern or a passion for something they do and learn how to do it better as they interact regularly.
School leadership and can feel isolating, but there is scope to collaborate with other leaders to bring about better outcomes for all. Belonging to a community of practice empowers the leader to create enough space to stop the bad stuff and get on with the good. Other leaders can challenge how you think about things, enabling you to see them in other, potentially better ways. Thinking differently is often a good thing in leadership, but it can feel risky if you are doing it on your own. Having other experts to act as sounding boards for your thinking potentially opens the way for new practices to emerge. The first use of the old saying ‘two minds are better than one’ can be traced back nearly 500 years, so just imagine what a community of leaders can achieve today!
We started with Robert John Meehan so we’ll return to him for the last words: “Don't struggle to be a better teacher than everybody else. Simply be a better teacher than you ever thought you could be.”
But this is just an intro, we'd love to keep in touch with more opportunities and resources.