Teacher wellbeing: focusing on supportive relationships 

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Two women have a conversation at a desk with a laptop.

By Dr Kathryn Spicksley and Dr Anita Soni
School of Education

Education Support have just published their 2023 Teacher Wellbeing Index, and it doesn’t make for happy reading. 78 per cent of staff report feeling stressed, rising to 95 per cent of headteachers. 51 per cent of education staff reported difficulties sleeping or insomnia. In comparing the 2023 results to previous years, Education Support found that teacher wellbeing had ‘declined significantly over the past year.’ Such statistics can help us to make sense of continuing difficulties with teacher supply in England. In 2022, the recruitment target for secondary teachers was missed by over 40 per cent. And once in post, nearly 1 in 3 teachers leave the state-funded education sector within five years of qualifying. All signs suggest that there is a wellbeing crisis within the teaching profession.  

Although the challenges of teaching may have been exacerbated by the Covid-19 pandemic and the cost-of-living crisis, alarm bells have been ringing for almost a decade. Various policy initiatives have been deployed in an effort to tackle the problem of dissatisfaction amongst teachers, including the 2014 Workload Challenge and the 2019 Early Career Framework (ECF). Despite the public money pumped into these initiatives (the ECF reportedly costs £130 million per year), their impact on teacher wellbeing appears to have been minimal, or possibly even counterproductive. The ECF, in particular, has faced a barrage of criticism for the additional demands it has placed upon new teachers and those mentoring them. 

It is one of the fundamental elements of the ECF that we wish to focus on in this blog; its construction of mentoring. Undeniably, there were some positive aspects in the way that the ECF demanded that those mentoring new teachers should not be involved in formally evaluating or assessing them. Hobson and Maldarez (2013) famously termed this practice ‘judgementoring’, and highlighted how the practice encourages new teachers to hide their weaknesses and concerns from their mentors. In dividing the mentor and assessor role, the ECF provided an opportunity to reassess the role of the mentor, and to open up conversations about what productive and supportive mentoring looks like for new teachers and in education settings generally.  

Discussions about mentoring in teaching are important because time and time again, research shows that teachers who experience supportive relationships with their colleagues are more likely to experience higher wellbeing, in turn remaining committed and motivated within the profession (McLaughlin & Talbert, 2001; Van Maele et al., 2015). This is particularly true of new teachers (Spicksley & Watkins, 2020), and those experiencing challenges (Feeney & Collins, 2014). It is therefore concerning that many delivery providers of the ECF have chosen to frame mentoring around Instructional Coaching (IC), a form of monologic mentoring which foregrounds the repeated practise of discrete classroom management skills by new teachers, which are then evaluated by mentors. As one of the blog’s authors has argued elsewhere, such constructions of mentoring are dangerously close to judgementoring, and are conceptually far removed from the type of respectful, trusting relationships between equal colleagues which research indicates has a positive impact on teachers’ wellbeing, commitment and self-efficacy. Although the Department for Education’s evaluation of the first year of the ECF found that mentoring was one of the most well-received aspects of the programme, it is interesting to note that new teachers’ satisfaction with their mentoring fell during the programme – perhaps suggesting that the IC approach adopted by most ECF partners fails to promote robust, reciprocal mentoring relationships over time, although beneficial for steadying new teachers in their first term or so in the profession.  

Supervision offers an alternative to mentoring, and is used widely in other helping professions, such social work, nursing and by psychologists (Soni, 2019). This has been recognised within education, albeit in early years, as far back as 2014, as it become a mandatory requirement in the Statutory Framework for the Early Years Foundation Stage (DfE, 2023). Here supervision is noted to represent an opportunity to provide training, coaching and support and promotes the interests of children. Supervision has three functions which include learning and professional development (formative function), support for well-being (restorative function) and time to reflect on the ethics of practice (normative function).It is considered a vital way to enable quality assurance of what tends to be solitary practice. However, effective supervision builds on a strong supervisory alliance between the supervisee and supervisor and requires time to be spent together focused on the needs of the supervisee. This is in direct contrast to the judgementoring approach highlighted above and offers a possibility for change and supporting well-being of teachers and senior leads alike.   

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the University of Birmingham.

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