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Who cares about the wellbeing of teachers?

Basic education in Finland, study tour

“When teachers are experiencing wellbeing in their work, the whole school has the opportunity to thrive.”

Reetta Yrttiaho & Susanna Posio 2021

Finland is known for high respect for our well-educated teachers. Finnish teachers also enjoy exceptionally high autonomy in their work which has given them large latitude to carry out their teaching the best possible way. Finnish teachers are trusted experts in their work. This is also shown in the fact that Finland has no school or teacher inspection system at all.

Our visitors have admired the calm, professional, yet relaxed conduct of work of Finnish teachers. Yes, there is stress and contradicting expectations in every work, but Finnish teachers have seemed to handle that pressure well. The strong collaborative working culture, collegial help, and the absence of stressful competition among Finnish teachers, has seemed to support Finnish teachers well in their work.

But if something is well now, it does not mean, it is going to stay that way forever. There has already been warning signs in Finnish schools as well. Teachers’ workload has increased, and Finnish teachers experience more stress in their work than before. They feel they have less time to concentrate in the most essential work. Bureaucratic tasks for teachers have increased due to the legislation. The challenges of some of the students seem to be bigger than previously, and the training and expertise Finnish teachers have does not seem to be always sufficient to solve these challenges. Not to mention the numerous issues Covid-19 has brought to Finnish schools as well.

We often say that teachers are the key to quality education. Finnish teachers and the incredible work they do have been one of the main factors contributing to the excellent learning outcomes the Finnish students are receiving. It is therefore not irrelevant how teachers – the real changemakers – are feeling in their work.

Teachers’ wellbeing has a huge impact on students’ wellbeing. Furthermore, according to scientific research, the wellbeing of teachers effects the quality of their pedagogical work and students’ academic skills (Yrttiaho & Posio 2021). Lerkkanen et al. (2020) showed in their study that the stress teachers are experiencing affects the quality of interaction, emotional support, organization of activities and guidance in their classroom. Consequently, it should be everybody’s concern that teachers are feeling well in their work, they feel competent and well-resourced, and they have all the support to conduct their immeasurable valuable work.

Teachers’ wellbeing is a complex issue and it has many dimensions. Hence, it cannot be fixed with one trick only. On the other hand, there are many ways to improve it.

For one thing, societal development affects education, school – and teachers. The norms and the laws the society is laying on schools and teachers set the boundaries for teachers’ work. Is the workload of teachers reasonable? Are there enough resources available to carry out the teachers’ work well? Is there other professionals to support the wellbeing of students? Are the teacher training and in-service training for teachers adequate and appropriate? Are the people who decide about the preconditions of schoolwork familiar with the actual reality at schools?

If the society does not give enough resources for teachers to do their work well, it is unrealistic to expect miracles in learning outcomes.

What can be done in the school level to foster the wellbeing of teachers?

Secondly, there are several factors influencing teachers’ wellbeing at school level, too. The organizational culture of the school directly affects the wellbeing of teachers. Is the atmosphere of the school supportive and encouraging? Do the leadership style and practices support collegial collaboration? Is co-operation encouraged or is the organization culture based on fierce competition among teachers and other staff? How is mutual sharing, support and recreation arranged? Is the division of tasks just and fair? Can teachers influence their own work? Are the objectives of work mutually set and realistic? Is the communication and interaction sufficient, positive, and transparent?

There are numerous things that can be done in the school level to foster the wellbeing of teachers. Yrttiaho and Posio (2021) name several factors promoting teachers’ wellbeing at school level: clear objectives, flexibility, ongoing professional development, well working school environment, positive and shared leadership, encouragement for participation, support from the school management, open interaction, fair and just management of all teachers etc.

What if you cannot affect the preconditions of education in your country and your school is not supporting teachers as you would hope for? Is there anything you as a teacher can do to promote your own wellbeing at work? Luckily there is. There is a brand new book about teachers’ wellbeing by Reetta Yrttiaho and Susanna Posio. Unfortunately the book is in Finnish only, but I’ll share some insights from it.

Tips for teachers

To begin with, it is vital to recognize the demanding nature of teacher’s work. Teacher’s work is tough in itself.  It requires constant working with human relations and applying professional expertise in new and unexpected situations. In addition, teachers bear a huge responsibility over students’ wellbeing and safety every day at school. Teacher’s work is also very intense and can be emotionally wearing. There seem to be constant feeling of rush in teacher’s working days and too few opportunities to take a break. Teachers also have to deal with high external expectations: the school leadership, parents, administration, politicians, media etc. seem all to have opinions, how teachers should conduct their work. (Fortunately, teacher’s work include many joyful and rewarding aspects as well!)

In this demanding context it is essential to be aware of all the factors that increase your wellbeing at work. Even though it is not always possible to reduce those factors that cause stress, it might be possible to increase the elements that bring relaxation and joy to your working days.

Yrttiaho and Posio encourage teachers to be aware of their own strengths and core values. When you are aware of the things that are the most important to you, it is easier to concentrate on those and maybe ignore some of the not-so-important demands. The authors encourage everyone to think, what brings you  joy and wellbeing in your work and in your life. How could you give more time and energy to these things? Are there perhaps things you could let go to be able to concentrate in the most important aspects of your work and life?

Yrttiaho and Posio not only encourage us to pursue wellbeing but to seek flourishing in our work and life. They prompt us to reflect our current standing with these factors: positivity, feeling of flow, human relations, meaningfulness, achievement, vitality. Are you experiencing flourishing in these aspects of work and life? If not, how could you increase that?

Other people and for example colleagues are a huge resource for all of us. They can help us in solving problems, offer support in challenging situations, provide advice, expertise and “the second opinion” if needed. By supporting one another, we can cope even in the most demanding situations.

Our motto has for a long been: Sharing is caring. We are here to support you to make your work at schools more enjoyable and rewarding and provide you tools that can help you professionally. We wish all the teachers around the world strength and resilience – and hopefully wellbeing – in your invaluable work!

References:

Lerkkanen, Pakarinen, Messala, Penttinen, Aulén & Jõgi 2020: Opettajien työhyvinvointi ja sen yhteys pedagogiseen laatuun. Jyväskylän yliopisto. 2020. (The wellbeing of teachers and its connection to pedagogical quality. University of Jyväskylä.)

Yrttiaho, Reetta & Posio, Susanna 2021: Opettajan hyvinvointikirja. Positiivisen psykologian työkaluja työhyvinvoinnin tueksi. PS-Kustannus. (The Wellbeing Book for Teachers. Tools of positive psychology to support wellbeing at work.)

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