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Education a university for the real world

Honouring your health and wellbeing

Transcript of interview with Madonna King and Dr Rebecca Spooner-Lane.

Introduction: At QUT we believe that teachers do more than build understanding. They build confidence, resilience, they help students to make sense of the real world and the faster technology changes, the more important teachers become. If you feel the same way, this podcast is for you. Welcome to PodClass.

[Children laughing and a school bell rings]

Every step that you take forward you’re actually changing a child’s life, you are taking people with you.

This idea of the silent classroom is also a little bit of a myth and could be getting in the way.

They have very little time to just take a breath, sit down and think. Where do I want to go, what do I want to do with my career?

It's amazing how many fresh ideas you can have when you can ask your question of the entire world.

I have given it all I have got, I am exhausted and I need a break. I think that is part of it.

Sometimes when first year, we think goodness how are we going to make a teacher out of you? But then you see them in fourth year and you think gosh they are better than I am. [Multiple voices laugh]


Madonna: Welcome back to Podclass. In the last episode, we looked at teacher stress and the burnout that's contributing to 30% of teachers walking away in the first five years. In this episode, I would like to follow up on this topic and explore more the strategies that help mitigate stress and once again, here to help is Rebecca Spooner-Lane.

Hello, my name is Madonna King and welcome to QUT’s PodClass, where teachers and teaching is our focus. My guest today, is Dr Rebecca Spooner- Lane and we are looking at teacher wellbeing and mentoring.

Hi Rebecca!

Rebecca: Hi Madonna!

Madonna: Welcome.

Rebecca: Thank you.

Madonna: So, what do you do, how does that fit in here?

Rebecca: Umm, I’m the Academic Program Director at QUT for pre-service teacher programmes, so, I get to, you know, prepare, umm, future teachers.

Madonna: So, just explain to me, what do you do in your job.

Rebecca: Mmmm. I think there's a lot of aspects to my job because it's mult- very multifaceted, a bit like a teacher’s role, so I teach in a classroom with pre-service teachers. I research around the work that I teach and I also, umm, you know, support teachers as well. So, I actually go out and do professional development for teachers.

Madonna: So when you’re teaching our teachers of tomorrow, what’s the thing they struggle most with? What are you thinking, “look they're really gotta learn X.”

Rebecca: Yes, I think for me, what I’ve seen is the, the biggest difficulty, is, is around communication. How do they develop relationships with their students? How do they communicate with parents? How do they develop solid networks with their teaching staff?

Madonna: I wonder if confidence is a big part of that. My, my little girl said her, her teacher said, “uh, tell your parents to be nice to me on Parent/Teacher night.” [laughter] That’s true, you, you know, do you see that teachers, umm, a lot of teachers actually need to grow in confidence.

Rebecca: I think there’s a lot of young people doing teaching. They're really just out of school, many of them and I think that takes experience and time to develop that confidence, to be able to talk to adults but to also converse with younger kids.

Madonna: So, you're saying, a teacher who begins this year, can't be good from day one?

Rebecca: I don’t think we expect them to be good.

Madonna: No. But they bring an awful lot of enthusiasm, don’t they, in those early years?

Rebecca: I think I wanted to umm, change the way, umm, I felt about schooling actually, by going into education because my experience of schooling was that it was, you know, the classes quite often were quite boring and I wanted to, I feel like I’ve actually contributed to developing teachers that love what they’re doing and are excited to be in the classroom.

Madonna: So, do you know, compared when you went to school and now, how do you see that difference in a classroom?

Rebecca: Uh, I can see how the students themselves often come in and they’ve already had inspiring teachers and that’s really pleasing to see. So, I know there are lots of great teachers out there, that are really loving what they’re doing and it actually inspired their students to become teachers.

Madonna: So, are different people, different personalities going into teaching, perhaps now, than when we were at school?

Rebecca: Maybe, maybe there are different personalities but maybe the classroom looks different now. You’ve got different set-ups in classrooms –

Madonna: Yeah.

Rebecca: There’s a lot of flexibility, the way they arrange tables, the colour in classrooms. Everything is designed to stimulate and engage students.

Madonna: So, what do you think makes a good teacher?

Rebecca: A good teacher is one that actually enjoys being with young people and that they wanna influence them in the future. They want to be a part of their growth and development.

Madonna: Is there a difference between a good primary school teacher and a good secondary school teacher?

Rebecca: Umm, there are probably qualities that are similar in both, and I think, particularly with secondary, they’re teaching specific subject areas. So they really need to be passionate about what they’re teaching about. In primary, you seem to have to know about everything, you know, about every subject, umm, and teach across. So, often they do specialise in literacy or numeracy, however, umm, they-they’ve got a much, umm, broader content base that they have to be across.

Madonna: I’m getting on to teacher wellbeing and mentoring in just a moment, but how much of a difference do you think a teacher could make for a child in a class. Can it, could a good teacher be the difference between a child getting a “D” and an “A”.

Rebecca: Enormous difference! Enormous difference and it really is about how they teach. So, in order to teach well, they need to actually know about their students. They need to know where their strengths are; where their limitations are; whether they’ve got any physical or intellectual impairments or challenges that they have to confront and so they adapt their teaching, particularly for that student so that they have the best chance.

Madonna: But that means they need to know, probably the family of…

Rebecca: And I think that’s absolutely what I’m seeing now, is this real enthusiasm for engaging the parental community and the community around the school as well.

Madonna: I suspect parents don’t always make that easy?

Rebecca: Sometimes they don’t! [laughter]

Madonna: Tell me what teachers say.

Rebecca: I think it’s because parents are so protective, they really want the best for their child but the tension eases when they realise that the teacher is invested in their child as well, and that’s when I think it smoothed pathway for great learning.

Madonna: Yeah, you know, when I had my child in Prep and I was working, I would be so excited to see her, I would almost be in tears at the end of the day [laughter] because I didn’t see her in the morning, I was on radio before she even went, you know, and I’d go in there and I still remember the one day, it was a Nun, she was about eighty, and she said to me, umm “you’ll calm down when you know I love your daughter as much as you do.”

Rebecca: Really, that’s –

Madonna: And you –

Rebecca: Wow, gorgeous –

Madonna: And you know, it changed from that day?

Rebecca: Yes.

Madonna: You know! Does a good teacher have to care that much? Or could a good teacher see it as a nine to three job, umm, very bright and passionate in class and still deliver the same?

Rebecca: I would like to think that teachers do care for their students and I like, you know, my experience is that the teachers do care for the students.

Madonna: So, you were describing it almost as a calling, rather than a profession, maybe?

Rebecca: I think, because what actually prompts them to enter into the profession, is the fact that they want to work and influence young people, you know, and schooling is not just about academic skills, its actually devel-developing skills for life. Being able to be independent, to think critically, to, you know, be able to just be self-sufficient.

Madonna: Yeah, you say that and we’re going off on a tangent, but the system is about the academic performance. You know you don’t get an OP or an ATAR for leadership or for being a good kid, do you?

Rebecca: No.

Madonna: So, that’s mixed messages for –

Rebecca: But that’s what brings teachers into the profession and whenever they can, they’re also thinking holistically about the child.

Madonna: Yes.

Rebecca: And know that they develop socially; emotionally; physically; you know, cognitively. So there, they take, you know whilst the government might have particular, a particular focus about how to lift literacy grades or numeracy grades, teachers see the job as a very big picture and they’ve got a much more important role, than just their assessment grades.

Madonna: Do you think they’ve been given the freedom to actually pursue that?

Rebecca: I think, umm, what teachers are complaining about the most is, too much, umm, accountability for grades –

Madonna: Yes, yeah.

Rebecca: Umm, and not enough on actually respecting the skills that are developing the students, preparing them for life.

Madonna: We might come back to that, but let's get onto our topic because you are actually a trained psychologist but your PhD at QUT was on Stress and Support for Public Hospital Nurses –

Rebecca: Mmmm.

Madonna: And here I am talking –

Rebecca: In order to prevent burnout.

Madonna: About teachers.

Rebecca: Yes.

Madonna: Yes, so, so what is the relationship between a nurse really working hard in a public hospital and one of our teachers standing up in front Year 9 today?

Rebecca: Well, similar elements of care and responsibility for another person, umm, the importance of being able to connect with someone to give them the best form of care, teachers are doing the same thing in the classroom and, the similar stresses, workload, administration, you know, umm, you never switch off. While you're in, when you’re on a shift in nursing, it’s a bit like being in the classroom, you don’t switch off.

Madonna: So, I’m intrigued by the impetus for that, that PhD. Why didn’t go and research stress in teachers? Why did you start with nurses?

Rebecca: Nurses were in my family and I was always fascinated by the stories they told, umm, and at the time, I, as an organisational psychologist, I was interested in what are we doing in the workplace that can support nurses or support anyone who's in a stressful workplace. What can we do to mitigate those stresses?

Madonna: What kind of stories, uh, would the nurses in your family tell?

Rebecca: Stories about, umm, you know, similar to teachers, I think is not even being able to take a break to go to the toilet. Umm, coming home, feeling like they’ve given all day and I hear the same things for teachers, they give, give, give and there's very little left, for their, you know for their families when they get home. They just wanna tune out, you know.

Madonna: Do you think they’re both undervalued by the, by the rest of us, the community?

Rebecca: Umm, look, I think yes. The community plays a big part in whether we’re going to value or de-value a profession and when there’s umm, you know media that tends to focus more on grades for teachers, umm, and you know, whether they’re doing a good job, uh, academically, it devalues what they’re doing.

Madonna: So what did your PhD find?

Rebecca: Well, not all stresses, umm, can be supported in the same way and that we really need to think about, “where is the source of the stress” and “who are the people, the types of people that can actually mitigate that stress.” So, you need to actually match it from the person it's coming from. So, sometimes another teacher can't support another teacher because the problem is being imposed from above.

So, sometimes it’s the leadership team within the school that’s very important to actually support that teacher, and, umm, be an advocate for that teacher. Umm, and its, it’s the same thing in, in nursing. You know, you need to actually work out where the stress is coming from and who has the resources to support that nurse.

Madonna: So, what were the main stresses?

Rebecca: I think it really just comes down to, you know, high work-load. Sometimes there's role conflict and I think, one part of you is supposed to be doing this, but the other part of you is supposed to be doing this and is there time to do both things, you know, multiple roles, umm, multiple stakeholders, multiple roles and multiple things they’re trying to fulfil in a day.

Madonna: Teachers I've spoken to talk about almost a constant stress level. Give us some examples of what you’ve found in schools or how you see teachers stressed?

Rebecca: I think mainly, umm, the teachers that I speak to are actually happy in their classrooms because they’re with the students and that connection is there and that’s where, they're safest, and more comfortable, be, you know, being in the classroom. I think what the added pressure is, is that it’s a misconception that a teacher’s day finishes at three o’clock and they walk out the door at four.

You know, I think what happens is all that planning of curriculum lessons, umm, thinking about the students, where they need to do, that often happens actually, outside of the classroom, umm, and that takes a lot of time, thought, energy. There's marking, there's report cards, you know, there's times within a teacher’s year that things really ramp up and then they get a little bit of a break again.

Madonna: You haven’t mentioned parents? I’m wondering if they are increasingly a source of stress for teachers.

Rebecca: For some teachers, yes. I think if they haven’t made a connection with a particular parent, that can be challenging. Umm, it can be back and forth with emails, umm, you know, out of school hours, umm, seeing them at the front door in the morning.

Madonna: But also, like, when we were at school, I was dumped at the gate –

Rebecca: I know!

Madonna: Yes! But now, you know, you know what your child’s doing. Teachers tell stories of, you know, parents quibbling over a mark.

Rebecca: Yes.

Madonna: And with digital technology, what is the loveliest thing, they will show you photos of what your child’s actually done throughout the school day.

Rebecca: Yeah.

Madonna: So, you might be working all day but, you’re like, “Oh great, they’ve just done a painting.” [laughter] That’s not good enough! [laughter]

Rebecca: Uh, so, [laughter] but then it opens itself up, doesn’t it, for judgement.

Madonna: Yes.

Rebecca: You know, in the sense, was, is that the best use of my child’s time?

Madonna: Yeah, Yeah, absolutely. So, the stress that a teacher feels, do you think its more likely to surface at, in their first couple of years out, or is it more experienced teachers who are called upon to do more?

Rebecca: Oh, its definitely more stressful in those early years, when they’re learning the ropes. Umm, learning how to actually work within the school community, where things are, you know, its just the simplest things, what policies they need to be aware of, so much of what they do, is actually trying to understand the system first. Umm, and, and you know, how to work with the teacher aid.

Umm, where do I get support for, and one of the things I, you know, always recommend to our pre-service teachers, is when you step into a school, make sure you learn names and spend that time knowing who your gardener is; who your administration team is, so you actually know, if a ball gets stuck on a roof, you can maybe call the gardener to help you get it down. You know, those little things all add up, better than knowing how it operates.

Madonna: Well, how [inaudible 00:16:00] little things. That’s just great information!

Rebecca: I think, it's just immersing yourself in the school culture very quickly, making connections with other teaching staff. Working out where, you know, where your commonalities lie with other teachers. You feel a part of something, as soon as you start to see that I’m like someone else –

Madonna: Yes.

Rebecca: So, unfortunately, sometimes early career teachers, the more stressed they are, the more isolate themselves.

Madonna: And, there's uh, quite a high burnout in teachers, isn’t there? Is that, is stress a, a big factor there.

Rebecca: Because I think, umm, when you are seeking permanent jobs, you wanna always show your best, to the leadership team to other teachers, so it's very hard for an early career teacher to be vulnerable and ask for help. But that’s actually what they’ve gotta do.

Madonna: Do they necessarily know that they’re suffering stress though?

Rebecca: Oh, yes. [laughter]

Madonna: So how do you know –

Rebecca: Yes.

Madonna: What are the signs of stress?

Rebecca: Well, yeah –

Madonna: You tell me about a list of them, that you, you know, that, that someone might think, “Well, look, I feel that.”

Rebecca: Mmmm. I think it's that, you know, often, you notice that you feel overwhelmed, things are getting on top of you.

Madonna: But before you do that, don’t we in a community wear that as a badge of honour?

Rebecca: Ah, I think that actually, when you look at, you know, in our community today, the first thing when people see you is, “How are you going, how’s work?” And the first thing we say is, “I’m busy! You know, I’m really stressed because I’ve got a lot on my plate.” And, so we associate that with being important and valuable –

Madonna: Yes!

Rebecca: And, that we’re doing something that is significant, you know.

Madonna: Yes.

Rebecca: Umm, and perhaps we need to pause and think about is that what we actually wanna keep telling ourselves, you know and telling our bodies that we’re busy; we’re stressed; overwhelmed! [laughter]

Madonna: Kudos!

Rebecca: Yes.

Madonna: Being busy is better than not being busy. And being busy, almost suggests to other people that you’re very competent in what you’re doing.

Rebecca: Yeah. You have a full work-place, you must be really good at your job.

Madonna: But it could be the forerunner from your research of burnout.

Rebecca: Yes.

Madonna: So, what are the signs, that a teacher listening, should look out for, because it might be a signal that they are suffering stress.

Rebecca: So, stress on an everyday basis isn’t normal and we will peak and you know, there will be peaks in our day and it will plateau again and so the, it’ll go up and down. But when you’re actually heading towards burnout, you’re actually in a state of stress, more often than not. So, it's not just peaks and troughs throughout the day, it is sustained over months at a time. And then you start to notice that you’re just emotionally exhausted that you feel depleted.

You actually want to detach from people, which is interesting, so when you need people the most and you’re feeling vulnerable, you isolate yourself and you not only, you know, teachers might detach from other colleagues but they might actually detach from their students as well and so that’s an interesting aspect of burnout. And the other thing is just feeling like you’re working harder and harder but you’re not actually getting anywhere. You’re not accomplishing what you could’ve previously.

Madonna: What about things like, becoming cranky with, with students?

Rebecca: Yes! Yes, bringing your frustration into the classroom and not maintaining a sense of calm, is showing that you’re depleted of energy. You can’t actually maintain that sense of calm, so, you know, irritability with students, might even being just feeling a sense, a lack of motivation for what you’re teaching.

A sense of apathy about it, feeling like it’s a bit futile and, and sometimes teachers do feel a sense of, “it doesn’t matter how much I give students, it's probably not progressing as fast I’d like them to.” You know, and just avoiding people, avoiding discussions, avoiding going to meetings, avoiding contributing to school meetings. Not being able to concentrate, your mind wandering. They’re all the sorts of things we need to be on the lookout for.

Madonna: But you might be feeling one or two of those things, at what point do you think, “Well that’s a sign that I have a problem.”

Rebecca: I think the first sign to look for is that emotional exhaustion and that is, that’s when you know, that’s the first thing that happens in burnout, it's almost like a sequence of events. You feel emotionally depleted, that you’ve got nothing left to give, and then it has a flow-on effect, you actually have that apathy, that wanting to close yourself off from the world, you know.

Madonna: How serious –

Rebecca: Uh, it's hugely serious and it's hugely costly as well. Because, when you think about, we train a lot of teachers to come into the profession but if they're not coping, a large, about 30% up to 30% I should say, but up to 30% could leave within the first five years.

Madonna: And, and would a lot of those departures be as a result of stress.

Rebecca: It’s a very strong, contributing factor.

Madonna: So, if that’s showing that some teachers are not recognising that they’re showing the early signs of stress and can address that and go on and have a really happy career in teaching.

Rebecca: So, I think it’s a bit of both where, as an individual, its not starting to, another thing I probably haven’t mentioned yet, is, if you’re starting to feel sick and it might be headaches, it might be flu’s, catching everything one after the other, physically you’re gonna notice that your body’s run down as well –

Madonna: Yes.

Rebecca: So, when you actually, you know one of the things I’m mindful of, is when teachers go out into the profession, if they’ve started to have a lot of sicknesses, that’s a cue for the leadership team to say, “Hey, is everything okay, because you’ve been, we’ve noticed you’ve been really unwell lately?”

Madonna: So, I hate to play the parent role here, but what kind of impact does that have on their teaching of my children?

Rebecca: Mmmm. Okay, well, I mean, when you think about it, often when we’re sick, we can still be giving our best but you’re not actually taking the time to maybe critically reflect at the end of the day about how you can make further improvements –

Madonna: Yes.

Rebecca: In your teaching, because [crosstalk 00:22:31] you're worn out.

Madonna: Yeah.

Rebecca: Yeah, so, potentially, whilst I think teachers often turn up, you know, when they’re not well and give it their all, they’re not gonna be actually satisfied in themselves first of all.

Madonna: How big a factor is the class? Can a class increase or decrease those stress levels in any particular day?

Rebecca: Yes, in a, you may be, particularly in your early years of teaching, sometimes you’re given that class, that someone’s already left because that Class is difficult, you’ve got students who might be aggressive, you’ve got students that might have experienced trauma, you might have students that English isn’t their first language, so you might have a very challenging class very early on in your career.

One of my previous students said that she had twenty-six students in her class and she was aware that she had to differentiate very early on, in her teaching for about twenty-six different students. You know, she said they varied so greatly in that class and she said that was a big shock to her and she said she just wrote lists and lists of what she was observing each day from the students and trying to manage the issues that arose each day.

Madonna: Has she remained a teacher?

Rebecca: Yes! And she’s a very good one.

Madonna: Good on her!

Rebecca: Yeah.

Madonna: So for someone else in that situation, or for the students who are about to go out that you’re teaching, who you’re teaching, what advice do you give them on that?

Rebecca: Well, look, sometimes I like to actually bring those people back to share their stories with our pre-service teachers because they’re inspiring. So, that lady that I was just talking about, who said, my goodness, you know, I had twenty-six individuals who seemed to have twenty-six different issues to contend with and a huge amount of differentiation, she said, “I ended up being the leader in the school of differentiation, so I actually taught staff, what I was doing, how,” she said, “I developed the system for looking at them, observing them and contributing to their learning and then I became someone in the school that others came to.”

Madonna: Now, I want to leave stress and go on to how we fix it, wellbeing in just a tick, but, what about gender? Do females seem to take this on more?

Rebecca: I think females are naturally very nurturing and, also, you get a lot of people in the teaching profession that are mothers themselves, and they have been in the parent role, you know, so they, they understand where parents are coming from, why they’re so protective, and that can aid the communications.

Madonna: Right, so we’ve talked about stress, what do we do about it? What does an individual teacher do about it?

Rebecca: I think the first thing we need to think about is pausing and actually recognising that where, teachers are a priority and they’re, they’re not just a teacher, they’re a person as well.

Madonna: Who’s pausing? The teacher? The parent? The community? The school leadership?

Rebecca: I think the teachers meant to pause and actually remember, they’re not a teacher first, they’re a person first and then their profession is in the teaching profession, so I think it's just a matter of pausing and actually valuing self-care, you know, for themselves.

Madonna: From what you’re saying, I wonder if teachers think they can just rejuvenate outside the workplace. Like over the Christmas holidays each year, rather than make wellbeing part of their day –

Rebecca: Or their lives.

Madonna: Or their week.

Rebecca: Yes, yeah, and that’s absolutely true. I think for a long time teachers can live on adrenaline and then go, great, its holidays! But I guess we want to shift that to realise that self-care is something you do actually every day.

Madonna: There’s an irony here though, isn’t it? Because, we put so much money and resources and teacher time into enhancing the wellbeing of our students, particularly teen girls for example, and that’s often delivered by teachers. [laughter]

Rebecca: Yes, teachers that are going, wow, this is really interesting, this something I should be doing! [crosstalk 00:26:49]

Madonna: And shouldn’t they be doing it, or should it be the school leadership team. Should it be, who, where’s the onus on actually providing those wellbeing programs for teachers.

Rebecca: Mmmm, I think there is a shift towards a more positive psychology, perspective and because of that, we are actually recognising that if we want to keep teachers in the profession and keep those really high-quality teachers, we need to nurture them as well and value them and that and a part of that is to offer them programs that professional learning opportunities that support their wellbeing.

Madonna: What about if there is a teacher listening now, who just feels a bit overwhelmed on the border of stress, what would you say to him or her?

Rebecca: I would say that you’re not alone, for a start and there are many teachers in this space where they’re starting to realise that not or, everything is manageable and that they need to actually look at possible opportunities for supporting their wellbeing. It would be nice to think that all schools take responsibility for their teacher's wellbeing. But, at the end of the day, we have to also make a decision to look after ourselves.

Madonna: I was going to say that, because you know, a school can't be responsible for how much sleep we have or what breakfast we have or whether we exercise, for example.

Rebecca: So there are many things that out under our control and we can start doing those things, and as you said, sometimes its starting really simply. Like this week I’m gonna make my lunches and they’re gonna be all healthy.

Madonna: Yes.

Rebecca: It might be this week I’m gonna go to bed at a reasonable hour and actually get my full nights sleep, and I guess it teaches a very, for high achievers and I think sometimes the wellbeing thing is an issue because, if they don’t get it right straight away, they almost feel a sense of failure. But tomorrow is a new day and you start off with a new meal. So you can actually start breakfast, the right way, you know. So, I always think that the wellbeing stuff is not just a one-off this week, it's actually gonna, I’m gonna actually put this consciously in my mind to think of as a journey.

Madonna: If you spent a week in a school, could you pick, with your experience, those teachers who were looking after their own wellbeing and those who couldn’t?

Rebecca: I can absolutely see it. Yes! And one of the things I notice is, teachers that are looking after themselves, have a spring in their step. They are happy, content teachers. They don’t look overwhelmed or frazzled. They're not actually leaving the classroom as soon as it finishes, hoping to get away from the environment that’s making them feel unwell. You know, they're just, they're relaxed and content.

Madonna: You mentioned, a, a little while ago, you know, apart from looking after yourself and doing the things that you said that there are some programs for professional learning that, that they can go through. Just talk to me about that, what, what can they look out for.

Rebecca: Look, I think there are a range of ways in which people like to tap into what works for them. And sometimes it is about actually, you know, schools actually having someone to come in and speak about wellbeing. There're many coaches that actually specifically look after teachers and their wellbeing.

So, sometimes it is that training that actually can occur. Other times, it's seeking it elsewhere. It might be online. You might see a particular course around resilience for instance and you can actually log into that and be a part of that learning outside of school. So, its really, there are books you know, out there, there are podcasts out there, so its actually just looking for the material, googling it and seeing what's in your area.

Madonna: Well thanks Rebecca, we’ve learned a lot about teacher stress and how to deal with it, but there's more to talk about, so don’t go anywhere, Rebecca. In the next episode, we'll continue this discussion and talk about the importance of mentoring. What makes a good mentor? How do find the mentor that’s right for you? Tune in next time and let's find out.


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