Psychological interventions to improve teacher retention

To say the school environment is one of high intensity is an understatement – and the burden that this places on school staff is undeniable. If reports are to be believed we are in the midst of a teacher recruitment crisis and retaining your school’s quality teachers is of greater importance than ever. Dr Brian Marien, medic and co-founder of Positive Group, believes the solution may lie in making psychological interventions to improve teacher retention

Record numbers of teachers are leaving the profession. A workforce census conducted by the government in 2015 showed that one-in-10 teachers left that year, with almost a quarter dropping out within three years of entering the service. A Guardian survey carried out a year later corroborated these findings; of the state school teachers polled, 43% said they were planning to leave the profession in the next five years, while 79% of schools said they were struggling to recruit or retain teachers.

This retention crisis – which 88% of schools in the survey predicted, rather gloomily, would only get worse in the coming years – is clearly a serious concern and its ramifications will, no doubt, affect the wellbeing and performance of students. The key question is this: what are the causes of this disturbing trend and what can we do to buck it?

Kindling burnout

Reasons for poor retention are, of course, multi-factoral. Stagnant pay, overbearing accountability systems and issues around workload are among the top systemic drivers cited by unions.

On a personal level, since teachers tend to be highly empathic, caring individuals, they are often highly sensitive to the emotions of their colleagues and pupils – which can be psychologically burdensome and emotionally taxing if not counterbalanced with healthy self-interest and boundary-setting. This exceptional capacity for care also makes teachers more inclined than most towards self-critical thinking and unhealthy perfectionism. With all this in mind, it appears we have created the perfect storm of individual and organisational risk factors that threaten the psychological wellbeing of teachers and increase their risk of burnout.

You’ve got the remedy

To begin curbing the exodus of teachers we must diminish risk factors by creating more stable environments that focus on supporting teacher wellbeing – a top priority for schools not merely because it will improve retention, but also because it is the best predictor of performance. But what, we might ask, does ‘support’ entail in this context?

In the main, it involves equipping administrators and teachers with knowledge, tools and techniques that can help them successfully manage periods of pressure and mitigate the deleterious effects of stress, thereby sustaining both high performance and individual psychological wellbeing.

It is essential, therefore, to form an understanding of what stress is, what causes it and how it affects us. For instance, although we tend to think that stress is inherently bad for us, both psychologically and physiologically, some of the latest psychological and neuroscientific research suggests that this is a misconception. According to Stanford University psychologist Kelly McGonigal stress is not bad in and of itself; it only has a negative impact on our minds and bodies if we perceive it as harmful.

In a survey of 30,000 participants McGonigal found that people who experienced a lot of stress, but claimed they did not view stress as harmful, were not only no more likely to die but, in fact, had the lowest risk of early mortality of anyone in the study, including people who experienced comparatively small amounts of stress.

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All in the frame-of-mind

So, while stress is not necessarily harmful, the way we perceive it – what is known as our ‘meta-emotion and –cognition’ which relates to whether we react positively or negatively to feelings of stress – can be. Recall the stoic philosopher Epictetus’ famous aphorism, “It is not what happens, but the view we take of it, that matters”.

Since modern neuroscience shows us that our perception of events controls their valency, potency and associative encoding, McGonigal argues that thinking about stress in a more positive way can reduce its adverse effects on our physical health and psychological wellbeing. Better still, McGonigal postulates that, if we perceive stress as having the potential to enhance, rather than inhibit, our performance then, over time, we can become more resilient, smarter and happier.

While this should not be taken as an excuse to stretch ourselves, or others, too thinly we must heed McGonigal’s message that embracing stress, priming ourselves to habituate to it and understanding that experiencing stress is normal, rather than fearing and futilely trying to reject it, can mitigate its detrimental impact on wellbeing and performance.

Beating the blues

With teacher burnout in the UK approaching an all-time high it is important to ensure that the environments in which we live, work and learn support more positive perceptions of stress. The happiest and highest performing groups are those in which individuals are able to discuss stress freely, without judgment – not those where stress is held as sign of weakness or incompetence.

If stress is culturally stigmatised rather than normalised, the risk of repression and rumination increases significantly. On an individual level, when we begin to feel stressed it is beneficial to silence our automatic, often irrational and emotionally-charged, response and assert a more positive, rational and solution-focused mindset that perceives opportunity for growth and learning – a process built into the basic biology of the stress response – in a given situation.

Building such capabilities has been the aim of our Positive Schools Programme (PSP) which we recently delivered across nine Girls’ Day Schools Trust (GDST) schools. Designed to equip teachers and non-teaching staff with the knowledge and tools to enhance cognitive flexibility and psychological wellbeing, the PSP has improved emotional regulation significantly among teachers, the vast majority of whom report better quality sleep, less worry about failure and an increased ability to manage their workloads and tolerate uncertainty following the programme.

While this is cause for celebration more still has to be done if we are to improve retention and combat increasing rates of burnout among teachers. To ensure a positive future for schools across the country it is essential that teachers possess the psychological insight and a set of skills that can help them not just survive but thrive in today’s educational landscape.

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