NQTs: Supporting good mental health

Written by: Pearl Gibson | Published:

Supporting trainee teachers with their mental health and helping them to develop good habits for the future is vital – but are we doing enough? Pearl Gibson looks at work in Essex to support new teachers

Research into the mental health and wellbeing of teachers has led to us reflecting, as a large initial teacher training (ITT) provider – training around 150 trainees each year in primary, secondary and special schools across the Eastern region – on whether we as an organisation are doing enough to support our trainee teachers.

One recent study, funded by the Nuffield Foundation and published in January (Jerrim et al, 2020), was the first to examine the mental health and wellbeing of teachers in England over a period of three decades based on data from more than 20,000 staff.

It found that one in 20 teachers have mental health problems lasting more than a year and, according to the report, a third of new teaching recruits leave the job within the first five years.

And since reading the Teacher Wellbeing Index 2018 (Education Support, 2018), which recommended there should be mandatory personal mental health and wellbeing guidance within ITT, we have made changes to our own provision.

We had been noticing an increasing number of trainees needing to withdraw or defer from their ITT programme due to mental health-related issues. So, we were keen to start the conversations around what we could do better to support trainee wellbeing.

Initially considering the issue of workload we looked at introducing an e-portfolio system to streamline the collection of evidence for qualified teacher status (QTS), along with a reduction in the paperwork associated with evidence-gathering. This has been well received, but it is not the only solution. So what did we do?

Reflection, with some honest questions

Looking at individual cases of withdrawal we considered the usual questions: Did we miss anything at interview? Is there more we could have done to support the trainee? Did we act quickly enough?

Some trainees declare mental health issues on their application form or on their Fitness to Teach declaration. If trainees do declare a health issue, we refer them into the occupational health service to seek advice on how to support them during their time on the programme. However, the bigger issue is trainees not declaring.

This reluctance to declare a mental health issue is mirrored in the findings of the Teacher Wellbeing Index 2019, which reported that only 34 per cent of educational professionals felt confident in disclosing mental health issues to their employers (Education Support, 2019). So this flagged to us that there was definitely more to be done to encourage the conversation to begin internally.

Training to encourage a culture change

Some trainees are very self-aware and can recognise the triggers and seek support, but for others we realised we needed to do more to develop a culture where trainees felt confident in sharing any difficulties and staff were more able to spot the signs and know how to support those who are struggling.

As a regional group of ITT providers, we organised two days of mental health first aid training for us as teacher educators, delivered by Mental Health First Aid England (MHFA).

Taking inspiration from this we invested in training both our primary and secondary programme leaders to become MHFA trainers so that they could begin to train our tutors and to raise the importance of mental health awareness and wellbeing with our trainees. All core staff have also had the opportunity to attend either MHFA awareness training (half-day) or MHFA champion training (one day). Our staff now proudly display their MHFA badges on their email signatures, so trainees know that they have trained and sympathetic staff to come to for advice, support and guidance.

For the trainees themselves we have begun to include aspects of the MHFA training into our programmes and have ambitious plans for the future. We have delivered Youth MHFA training to our trainees so they can better support pupils in their classes and we will be delivering MHFA awareness training to our school-based mentors, external tutors and trainers, so they are better equipped to spot the signs and symptoms of a trainee experiencing mental ill health and offer the necessary support.

Increasing opportunities for disclosure

Trainee wellbeing and support is discussed throughout our programmes, from recruitment events to all mentor and tutor meetings and at key pressure points throughout the year.

We discuss the Five ways to wellbeing document, produced by the New Economics Foundation (Aked & Thompson, 2011), with our trainees and encourage them to see opportunities both within and outside their training to connect, be active, take notice, learn and give.

We also aim to model these approaches within our central provision. At recent interviews, candidates have told us they want to train with us as they know someone who is currently on one of our programmes who has told them of the supportive environment we provide.

We use online questionnaires (with the option of anonymity) to survey our trainees’ wellbeing and stress levels and to increase the opportunities for disclosure. We have also revised the collection of emergency contact details for our trainees to include an optional mental health emergency contact, which has been well received too.

Our trainee handbook contains a section on wellbeing and signposts websites and support groups, such as the Public Health England’s Every Mind Matters campaign and the Mind website, which encourages self-care.

Additional in-school mental health support

While on school placement, trainees have had access to any specific programmes our schools have been running for their staff on wellbeing. We have also offered guidance to schools on managing their and the trainees’ expectations around workload, ensuring trainees are afforded time to carry out the required activities to demonstrate meeting the Teachers’ Standards (DfE, 2011).

The result of these steps combined has seen a reduction in the number of trainees withdrawing from our ITT programmes and an increase in the number of conversations around mental health. Many trainees have said they feel more confident in discussing their wellbeing with their tutors, mentors and programme leads so issues have been highlighted early and support has been put in place.

We know there is more work to do but each conversation or initiative is a step in the right direction to creating a culture which encourages people to want to train to be teachers and subsequently stay in the profession once qualified. There are important learnings to be shared with others.

Top five tips

Here are five tips that practising school leaders can take away for how they can – and should – support trainee teachers on placement or how they might work with their ITT provider to support trainees around mental health:

  1. Support: Have an open-door policy. Ensure trainees know who to speak to in the school if they have concerns and reassure them that no concern is ever too small.
  2. Demand: Be mindful of asking too much – trainees will be very keen to be involved in wider school life and are often too keen to say “yes”. Remember they are a trainee teacher so asking them to be involved in every school production and after-school club puts an enormous pressure on them to say yes, and reduces the time they have for planning and studying.
  3. Role: Have a clear partnership agreement with your ITT provider – agree with the training provider about what their expectation is of a school when hosting a trainee so that the trainee does not receive conflicting information.
  4. Relationship: Select mentors who are experienced and have capacity to support – the relationship between a mentor and trainee is a key factor in trainee wellbeing. Make sure that mentors are trained, have realistic expectations and build relationships rooted in trust and shared values.
  5. Knowledge: Ensure trainees have access to any wellbeing programmes in your school – trainees must know what wellbeing activities are being offered in school and, if you have partnerships with external organisations (such as Education Support or a specific Employee Assistance Programme), trainees should know how to access these.

Pearl Gibson is commissioner for ITT at Essex Teacher Training, a member of the National Association of School-Based Teacher Trainers.

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