The links between teacher wellbeing and CPD

Written by: Megan Williamson | Published:
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Does your school’s CPD provision help or hinder teacher wellbeing? Megan Williamson considers the links between effective CPD and teacher wellbeing and offers some practical advice

Teaching and working in a primary school can be one of the most rewarding things you can do. Witnessing first-hand the progress that a child can make in what seems like such a short time is immeasurably fulfilling, and we’ve all experienced those “light-bulb” moments where your pupils finally work out how to solve those tough multiplication problems, or felt the beaming pride of seeing your form group perform their socks off in a class assembly.

These are the moments that make us feel uplifted, yet they don’t change the fact that teaching profession is increasingly associated with stress, burn-out and an overwhelming workload. NFER’s 2016 report, Engaging Teachers found that high teacher workload is associated with poor health and staff feeling undervalued.

And according to the Education Support Partnership, the number of teachers seeking support for their mental health via the charity’s confidential helpline increased by 35 per cent in the past 12 months (from April 2017 to March 2018).

It is by no means a new phenomenon, but in light of such studies, and as society is becoming far more aware of the importance of talking about, addressing and investing in mental health, schools have more responsibility for the wellbeing of their staff.

It is also important to consider the impact that this is having not only on mental and physical health of the teachers themselves (which then has a detrimental effect on staff retention and teacher burn-out, causing big losses to the profession), but also how this affects performance in the classroom. A 2016 Canadian study – Stress Contagion in the Classroom? (Oberle & Schonert-Reich) – found that children whose teachers reported feeling close to burn-out had much higher levels of cortisol (a stress hormone) than those whose teachers were not stressed.

As a headteacher, there are many small but powerful tweaks you can make to your overall CPD provision to ensure that you are providing all staff with the appropriate time, support and resources needed to overcome the challenges faced in the profession.

What is wellbeing?

It is important for us as headteachers and senior leaders to have a clear idea of what the term wellbeing actually means, as it’s still often misunderstood or oversimplified – you only have to look to the multi-million pound “wellness” industry of green juice and meditation apps.

Having a good sense of wellbeing is not the same as being happy or calm. Do carry on providing your staff with mindfulness training or establishing yoga classes in school – they can be highly effective ways to make staff (and even pupils) feel valued – but be aware that these aren’t going to sustainably address the issue in the long term.

People with great wellbeing will still have moments of stress and frustration, but they will have the physical, emotional and social resources to overcome the challenges faced and still feel proud, rewarded and fulfilled.

Dodge et al (2012) describe wellbeing as a kind of see-saw: “Stable wellbeing is when individuals have the psychological, social and physical resources they need to meet a particular psychological, social and/or physical challenge. When individuals have more challenges than resources, the see-saw dips, along with their wellbeing, and vice-versa.”

Simply put, the key to positive wellbeing is having the resources needed to meet the challenges we may face. If an individual doesn’t have the resources needed to meet a particular challenge, their wellbeing is compromised.

What does this mean for your staff?

By applying the “see-saw” theory of wellbeing to professional development in schools, we can begin to identify some of the barriers that exist and the ways in which high-quality CPD is inextricably linked with teachers and support staff having the resources needed to overcome the associated challenges within the profession.

High-quality CPD supports teachers to overcome the associated occupational hazards that can contribute to a low sense of wellbeing and which can lead to a detrimental impact on teacher performance and pupil outcomes. EPPI-Centre research from 2003 showed that effective CPD in schools can lead to greater confidence among teachers, greater enthusiasm, greater self-efficacy and a willingness to learn and innovate.

Ultimately, if your teachers do not feel empowered, or well enough prepared to teach in a way that allows them to make a difference, it creates a burden of not just letting themselves down but also their pupils. Therefore, it is vital that teachers feel confident in their ability to teach and have the support in place to pursue the very best opportunities for professional learning that helps teachers thrive and pupils succeed.

Allocating time to CPD

At the Teacher Development Trust, we have the privilege of visiting schools to help review their CPD practice, speaking anonymously to staff about their experiences and perceptions of professional learning. During these conversations we’re often told by teachers that they do not have enough time to focus on their own professional development and feel unsupported to effectively carve out these moments for reflection and improvement. Look to your CPD plan – can you be more creative with timetabling? It is important that there is time allocated within teachers’ timetables in which they can read, research, reflect or observe colleagues to inform their teaching practice.

This shouldn’t be framed as an added burden for teachers, but as safeguarded time for them to dedicate to their own development and over which they have a degree of autonomy. Similarly, it is a good idea for teachers who have attended external courses or conferences to have some time to reflect on what they have learnt and how the ideas could be implemented within their context.

If only one member of staff has attended training, we recommend that they feedback to their colleagues about what was covered, what they learnt and how they might implement suggestions. It is also important for teachers to consider the long-term evaluation of impact of any CPD.

Promoting peer-to-peer support

As a head, you know full well that good wellbeing among staff is inversely proportional to the high-stakes landscape in which we’re all working. You and your teachers are under intense pressure to meet data targets and justify pupil outcomes, which means it is all the more important to have the support of your colleagues and for teachers to function within a culture of trust.

Incorporating collaborative practice into your CPD programme is one way of encouraging positive working relationships within school, whether that’s within year groups, key stages or between support staff and teachers.

Small changes can lead to big results

For instance, in one large, triple-form entry primary school, we found that staff wanted more time in their key stage teams to allow better handover between year groups and ensure that best practice was shared between all teachers following the same maths curriculum, albeit in different year groups. So we helped them to embed more conversations about teaching and learning into their department meetings and move away from administrative briefings that could be circulated in an email, or discussion around specific pupils.

This one small change created positive and meaningful new relationships among staff and had a hugely positive ripple effect on whole-school culture, with informal pedagogical discussion becoming more commonplace in the staffroom and beyond.

Positive performance management

As a headteacher you will be well tuned in to your school’s performance management systems, which is a great place to focus if you’re thinking about staff wellbeing. Though it may seem counter-intuitive if you have had past negative experiences with appraisal, when done well, performance management can in fact be a powerful tool for identifying a teacher’s needs, creating professional goals and ultimately supporting them to grow professionally.

Schools with the most effective appraisal systems consider performance management to be a developmental process and not a judgemental one. Just like with pupils, self-esteem is integral to teacher performance, therefore appraisal conversations need to focus on future development and not criticism of their current teaching.
Ideally, your teachers should trust that their performance management is a process in place to inform their professional development and practice. Where possible, allow them to choose which measures are used to evaluate their own performance and ensure that any targets are designed collaboratively, with full buy-in from both appraiser and appraisee.

Creating great professionals

Similarly, it is important that your school has clear, structured career progression pathways for teaching staff. This can be tricky within a primary school, but it doesn’t necessarily have to be a route to becoming a senior leader, deputy headteacher or headteacher. We are increasingly seeing schools introduce specialist subject, research and curriculum positions for staff.

It may sound simple, but encouraging staff to consider their career options and how they’d like to progress in the future is a great form of motivation. Having regular “what next?” conversations allows for discussions around current and future opportunities and also creates an incentive for teachers to think about what CPD they might need to reach their next step.

If you’re not sure where to start, you might review your school’s CPD culture using the TDT’s CPD Audit Tool, which could result in improved use of collaboration, more effective CPD leadership, enhanced staff morale, and greater teacher focus on learning and pedagogy.

  • Megan Williamson is a graduate network support officer for Teacher Development Trust, a national charity for effective professional development in schools and colleges around the UK. Visit

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