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 Rebecca.

Rebecca: Hi Madonna!

Madonna: What else should teachers be doing to manage stress levels? Rebecca, can mentoring play a part in improving a teacher’s wellbeing?

Rebecca: Mmmm.

Madonna: How are they connected?

Rebecca: It certainly does. Particularly for early career teachers, that initial mentoring from someone that’s more experienced than themselves and, you know, again, it just comes down to being able to share it with at least one person, your vulnerabilities.

Madonna: But should you share that with a mentor, might you feel as though, that’s something that you might wanna more share with a peer that I might impact on your career?

Rebecca: Well that’s the perfect place to share. So, your mentor is someone you need to be able to trust that they keep the conversations confidential, and that there's a real excitement, quite often to share the ups and downs of school life with.

Madonna: So, how would you choose a mentor?

Rebecca: I personally would choose a mentor that I initially had conversations with and I actually think, wow, we really sort of get on, and we’ve got similar ideas and it would be lovely to have that person support me, you know, in a mentoring role.

Madonna: In some cases, principals line people up. From what you’re saying that was not necessarily a good idea, because it mightn’t be the person you choose as a mentor.

Rebecca: Look, I think you can influence the principal too. You can have those conversations, you know, if I’m, I would love a mentor, be proactive in actually asking for it and some of the people I've spoken to already are. These people, I’d love it if I could be paired with them. If you’re assigned a mentor, I would actually spend that initial time with them, getting them to know them and doing that more, “what do we have in common” so we know how to progress forward.

Madonna: If you’re a, let's just say you’re a Year 4 teacher and you’re thinking, “You know what I don’t have a mentor,” how, where would go? Would you go to the principal, would you ask someone directly, would you go outside your school to another school?

Rebecca: Well, I think you’ve got a couple of opportunities, so if you were in a more remote area, you may not want someone who’s actually at that school, or you might. But I’m just saying because it’s a closed community you might feel more comfortable having an online mentor and there are opportunities for that. If you’re in a school though, and you want a mentor and you haven’t been given one, you know, the opportunity is there to speak to your leadership team and say, you know one of the things that will help me progress more quickly is to actually have a mentor and can we actually get that up and running.

Madonna: Tell me about a mentor of your own?

Rebecca: Look, I've had some great mentors over my career, and I think your needs with a mentor change over time, so early on in my career, I needed someone to actually go through and talk to me about what effective teaching is and how do you do that in the classroom? You know, I needed to actually understand –

Madonna: Really?

Rebecca: Simple things, like taking the class roll, where does the roll go afterwards?

Madonna: Yeah.

Rebecca: Things like that. But as I've progressed in my career, my needs have changed, so I've needed someone to really guide me in leadership.

Madonna: What are the things you look for though?

Rebecca: Uh, well, I think when you’ve actually been in the profession for a while, you actually, you can actually, uh, through your conversations again, start to see some of the qualities that you really admire around another person –

Madonna: Yes.

Rebecca: And, you know, even someone that you may even want to emulate or that they’ve actually had great ideas about how you can progress your career when you’ve had an informal conversation and quite often that’s how I seek out someone.

Madonna: Would you use your mentor to discuss promotion opportunities, for example.

Rebecca: Oh, absolutely!

Madonna: What about if your mentor, the relationship isn’t working out? You don’t like what they're saying? Or, you know, it's difficult, cause they’re more senior.

Rebecca: Yeah, we call them awkward conversations. [laughter] Umm, yes, so if you're in a formal arrangement, that can be very tricky, and quite often, one of you has to be proactive in that situation, and just actually recognise that, that there may be someone else that would be able to provide the advice and, umm ...

Madonna: Even if you were the mentee if the mentor is not having that conversation –

Rebecca: I have actually been in this situation myself, where I act-and there was nothing wrong with my mentor, I, just personality wise, we didn’t click.

Madonna: Yeah.

Rebecca:Yeah, and so I’ve actually had to break away from a relationship because I was just thinking as much as I like you on an everyday basis for what you do, I’m not sure we’re the right combination. I needed more from that person in the sense that, you know, umm, I might have wanted some tangible assistance with something and this person wasn’t able to give me that and they weren’t being, they didn’t have the knowledge or the experience to give me what I needed at that time.

Madonna: You're painting it like a break up with a boyfriend.

Rebecca: It was difficult, really challenging. [laughter]

Madonna: How did you actually do it? Did you go and make an appointment and say –

Rebecca: Yes.

Madonna: Because they were more senior than you presumably.

Rebecca: Yes, oh, much more senior. I’m thinking back to that time and trying to remember how that all evolved, but, I think it was just a matter of, I-I, you know, probably having that conversation and that, that, at this point in time, I probably had got from the relationship what I needed and I was very thankful for what they had contributed.

Madonna: And how did they take it?

Rebecca: Well, we remained friends and can still work together.

Madonna: Well, because you, like me, you’ve taught 3,500 teachers, is that right, on how to become a good mentor.

Rebecca: Yes.

Madonna: So what actually makes a good mentor?

Rebecca: They listen for a start. They listen to that person and try and actually find out what it is they need, and it’s a bit like going into a counselling relationship. You know when you, I often say this to my students, or even seeing a doctor. If you don’t like that doctor you tend not to go back to that doctor.

It’s the same with counselling if they're giving you advice or things that don’t fit with you, you gonna go, ooh! I am actually gonna pull back now. So, for me, it's about saying, when we actually talk, does this person listen; do they value my ideas, my contributions or are they leading this? Because it's my career path and I want to take ownership of it. I wanna have some agency in that. So I don’t wanna be a carbon copy of someone else. I actually wanna have the freedom to explore, to experiment, to take risks and a good mentor will support all of that. They’ll challenge your thinking. You know that for me, was really important.

For someone to actually go, “Why do you think that happened, Rebecca, in the Classroom?” You know, “Why do you think that student got upset with what you said?” I still remember once, making very early on in my career, and I still feel quite guilty about this.

Well, I had a particular student that would always laugh at themselves and that was the delight of this particular student is they always had a good laugh about themselves and then I made a quip once about, you know, you might find this more challenging because of, umm, you know, they basically admitted what their weaknesses were and we, we laughed about it. But then she came to me afterwards and said, ‘Rebecca that really hurt. I’m okay to laugh at myself but when you pointed out my weakness [crosstalk 00:09:00] in front of everyone else, that wasn’t okay.”

Madonna: Yes.

Rebecca: And I remember just feeling gutted at the time and devastated. So, umm –

Madonna: So, what did you do?

Rebecca: Well –

Madonna: What did you say to her, did you apologise?

Rebecca: Oh, totally! And that was not in my intention, I was actually trying to laugh with you because I love your, you know, your ability to do that, so, but, when you’ve got a mentor and you can actually say, this really horrible thing happened and I know it was my fault –

Madonna: Yeah.

Rebecca: Its really nice to have someone listen to that and go, okay, well why do you think it happened? What would you differently next time? Okay, how do you think you’ll move on from this? How do you think you’ll resolve this tension between you and this student? What will you do, will you check in on them next week? You know, having someone to throw around a few ideas because otherwise, you’re just holding on to that and you haven't debriefed, you’re just going, “Oh, I’m really bad at my job.” [laughter]

Madonna: And that’s the relationship with that student can then be impacted, can't it.

Rebecca: Yeah, yeah.

Madonna: If a teacher is listening and they would love to become a mentor, is there an online course or is it more about the personality or the experience? How would they go about doing that?

Rebecca: Well, I think it, it, quite often it's, with uh, QUT, we actually go through the Mentoring Beggining Teachers Programme. We actually, you know, meet up with teachers from a particular cluster or region and we do face to face learning of these skills. So, they actually have to learn the lesson. They have to role play. They have to learn how to paraphrase what someone said to them, you know.

Madonna: And to communicate, maybe a deficiency or a weakness.

Rebecca: Yes, and to give feedback in a sensitive way, you know. Sometimes not all that we do, you know, my, my example there is a prime example of not everything we do is actually good and should be celebrated. [laughter]

Madonna: Well, we’re learning.

Rebecca: Sometimes we need to go, “Ooh, I need to do, change that around,” you know, and you learn a lot about yourself, I think, through those mentoring relationships. Sometimes, I think, have blind spots. They may not be aware aspects of their personality but they seek acceptance, or, you know they wanna be rewarded or acknowledged for the good work they’re doing and you know, you may not be aware of that.

Madonna: What's your blind spot?

Rebecca: I don’t have any. [laughter]

Madonna: [laughter] Uh, me either. [laughter] You painted, you’ve looked at, at the stresses of teaching, how to look after their wellbeing and how their job is constant. It doesn’t end at 3:30, uh, is it important, do you think a teach-, for a teacher over a career to actually take time out?

Rebecca: Mmmm. That’s a good question, I love it when I hear the teachers have taken time out. Because quite often they will actually come to university and we get to see those teachers that want to still stay in the profession but explore, uh, maybe do some increased learning to actually rejuvenate themselves or take the time to explore a different career option. One of the things that I work in is, school guidance and counselling, you know, and we get really great experienced teachers that maybe want to take a slightly different path.

So, for me, I think whenever you, whenever you’re, you know, you’re telling yourself that maybe I just need to step back for a while and take a look at the landscape again and see where I wanna fit in, well not fit in, but, you know, umm and rejuvenate myself. I think that’s, a, like a very proactive way of –

Madonna: Have you ever taken time out?

Rebecca: Definitely, yeah. I took [inaudible 00:12:38] ten months off.

Madonna: Why? Was that prompted by, can I ask? Was it prompted by stress?

Rebecca: Yes and maybe a career plateau at the time.

Madonna: Oh, well, that’s interesting, so, just walk me through that because a teacher in the same situation, feeling that their career might have plateaued.

Rebecca: Yeah, so I needed to step away at a point in my time where I felt like I was, that things had become less challenging and things were just almost robotic, that I could all the things very confidently and comfortably, but I wasn’t actually being challenged or  expected to achieve anything higher at the time and I think for people to keep moving forward, there needs to be something that’s new and interesting that test them to a degree.

When you take on a leadership role, you're not always, you don’t always know if you can do it, but you step into that space and you actually learn as you're going, like our students. And you actually find out really great things about yourself, usually, you know.

Madonna: How important is upskilling here?

Rebecca: Upskilling, I think is really important at definite times and I think teachers that are often quite happy in their careers have made very conscious choices to step into leadership roles and quite often, there’s no monetary incentive to do that. It's because they are passionate about learning and doing something new and supporting the next generation of teachers.

Madonna: So at what point of a teacher’s journey should they consider that upskilling, to keep rejuvenated and interested?

Rebecca: I think we need to keep track of teachers' progression a little bit more now. And I think that was inter-, you know when we actually introduced the Australian Professional Standards of Teaching, there were different performance standards that they can move through, so from a graduate to a proficient teacher to a highly accomplished and lead teachers. So they’re actually progression milestones now that actually give teachers an indication, where they could be going next and what that role, might look like –

Madonna: Yes.

Rebecca: You know, there are indicators under that, that uh, descriptive indicators that say, say that when you're leading a staff meeting and giving professional learning to your colleagues that you're leading a professional learning community, you're actually doing something at a higher level, than from what a graduated teacher may be doing. And I think when you step into those roles, it makes your life interesting and you actually feel that you're contributing in a different way within your school environment.

Madonna: Online courses have opened up a whole new world here too, haven’t they?

Rebecca: Mmmm. Most definitely, yes.

Madonna: Are there positive stories you hear about, how teachers have dealt with stress that they’ve faced or that the plateau of their career that your students are coming back to you saying, oh, you know, this happens.

Rebecca: I think, I, well I’m in a very lucky position to actually hear about, quite often, when teachers are progressing within their careers, they often make a change in their school that’s really positive. It might be that they have, say, for instance, the, you know they’ve never worked with teachers of different subject areas or disciplines. The might have created a community of learners within that where they’re both doing, maybe some research around their teaching –

Madonna: Yes.

Rebecca: That has inspired them again. So there are lots of little things that go on in schools that actually, not only boost the morale of teachers because they're, you know, in charge and in control of their learning, but it actually helps for better teaching and has a better outcome for our students.

Madonna: Let's look at the support available. You told me a little while ago about a “Beginning Teachers journey” a call you took from one of your graduates.

Rebecca: Oh, yes! Yeah. So I had this wonderful student who actually even stood out in class, because of the passion for teaching. But, she said her first year was awful. You know she was given a very difficult, challenging class, straight away. She found out three months into the job that the person who left that position, it was because of the stress of teaching that class on those particular children.

Similar to what I said to you before you know, she was constantly sick, she was unwell. She not only left the school environment, you know, school at 5:30 every day, she would go home, have a walk and then work for three hours after that, planning the next day of lessons. She worked all weekend as well, you know, Saturday and Sunday, stopped seeing her friends and family because she wanted to be the best teacher she could be and she didn’t want to let down these students, you know, and you can understand that. And she was calling, you know, she was saying they were like, energy vampires, they just sucked everything out of her.[laughter] But she did turn it around and she turned it around because she invested in herself.

Madonna: How?

Rebecca: And, uh, well she actually honoured the fact that she couldn’t be a good teacher and couldn’t give to the students if she actually felt unwell. You know, that her mind wasn’t on the job. So she, yeah, she really, she said she stopped actually. She would work on Saturday but always left Sunday for family, but she said every night she started reading before bed, to, you know, help herself detach from the work and just actually calm her mind.

Madonna: So, she managed to navigate a path for herself. How would describe the level of support in our schools for teachers, is it good enough?

Rebecca: Umm, in some schools, I-I’m seeing a great job. You know, a collective job. Where the leadership team are really, really doing a beautiful job of investing in their early career teachers. Holding regular, you know, meetings with them and saying, “You know, what is it that you want to learn about.” Well, it’s probably what we’re all, you know, all beginning teachers are going through, so let's do a workshop on that.

So, I can see some really beautiful things happening in schools. But its more challenging when, there, perhaps the school doesn’t have the resources to do that. Doesn’t have the teachers that can actually … So when, quite often we encourage, in mentoring for the mentor to go and watch that teacher in the classroom and then vice versa. They go and get to watch other experienced teachers, teaching in their discipline. That can't always happen in small schools.

Madonna: No.

Rebecca: You know, no one can, can afford to step offline for a bit. So, it, it is actually quite complex in schools and they actually have to, when they're looking at setting up a mentoring programme, for instance, they have to actually go, well what, what's doable? Is it a one on one here or is it a couple of people with a team of, you know, Beginning Teachers.

Madonna: We talked a little while ago about whether society under-values our teachers. If as a community we valued our teachers more, do you think that would feed their wellbeing?

Rebecca: Oh, absolutely!

Madonna: Do teachers feel as though they’re undervalued?

Rebecca: Yes. I’ve been to countries actually, we, they know you’re teachers. And I remember being, umm – where was I? I was in –

Madonna: Finland?

Rebecca: It was Malaysia, actually. And I remember just going to the markets and a fellow was painting there and he was doing these beautiful self- paintings and we struck up a conversation because clearly, I was gonna buy a self-painting at the time. And, he said, “What is it that you do?” and I said, “Oh well, I teach.” And he said, “Ah, such a noble career.” And I remember just talking about this; you’re experience with this beautiful man, well after, because I said I don’t actually get that feedback –

Madonna: No.

Rebecca: In Australia. Uh, you know it’s a “noble career.”

Madonna: Well yes.

Rebecca: It's interesting, isn’t it? You rarely hear of a graduating student in that top 1% who could do anything they want. Medicine, Law. You rarely hear them saying that they’re desperate to become a teacher.

Madonna: And what a shame. And why is that, do you think even our students see that teachers aren’t paid sufficiently, that they’re undervalued then its –

Rebecca: Oh, they can open up a newspaper as well, or see something online where it says, we’re seeking better quality teachers, you know! Teachers are not doing their jobs properly because we’ve still got poor results.

Madonna: Do you think if a teacher is competent and often they’re asked to do more and more and more is put on their plate and then that feeds this cycle of stress?

Rebecca: Absolutely! So they're accountable all the time, you know to so many different stakeholders.

Madonna: Are they accountable?

Rebecca: Oh, absolutely!

Madonna: Oh, why do you say that?

Rebecca: Because wouldn’t, wouldn’t it be lovely if we actually said there was trust in the teaching profession. Wouldn’t it be lovely if we said, “We know you, you’ve done your training, we know that you’ve had some mentoring, we know that you’ve umm, that you're still learning and we’re going to appreciate the fact that you will take a bit of time, but we’re gonna support you in that, and we realise that this is a profession that really sets up our students for life and we want to celebrate you.”

Madonna: Yeah.

Rebecca: You know.

Madonna: What about the role of communication here. Do teachers need to share their stories perhaps, some more?

Rebecca: Yeah, I’d love to you know, and I think we, we do that at universities, we get teachers to come back all the time and share their stories with the next generation of teachers and that works so well, because it inspires our future teachers. Because whilst there's a lot of knocking that can go on in the media about, you know, where are they failing us? Teachers on the ground level know that their job’s important, you know. And they care about what they’re doing.

Madonna: From what you’re saying, I can see that a teacher needs to be a good communicator to take their class with them, but they’re not necessarily always good communicators with the leadership team or with parents or with the kids.

Rebecca: Yes, but I think sometimes they feel like their voice isn’t always heard, you know and that’s the Catch-22.

Madonna: So, you teach our teachers. Can you tell in the final year, who’s going to actually make a good teacher? Can you look at your class and go, “Yes, yes that, she will be a Principal, she just has so much -”

Rebecca: We, we actually have these conversations quite frequently, like, how lovely it is to see the progression, you know. Sometimes in first year we think, goodness they’re gonna, you know how is this ever gonna, yeah, how’re we gonna make a teacher out of you –

Madonna: Yeah!

Rebecca: But then you see them quite often in fourth year and you think, “Gosh, they’re better than I am,” you know. [laughter] They’ve got it sorted already! So...

Madonna: So, you know those kids who have got it sorted and you think they’re going to go on, what did they exhibit above the others?

Rebecca: They understand the art of teaching and that’s what sets them apart, I think is, they realise that they have to understand how children learn. They have to be able to understand how to modify their teaching to bring the best out of a student and there's passion. Yeah, there's passion there, there's excitement, that curiosity. All those wonderful qualities of a good teacher. But, when they can articulate their role and say what they did to change something to actually support a student and when they say, “And I could actually see I was making a difference.” Oh my gosh, that’s exciting!

Madonna: Yeah.

Rebecca: Ah, so exciting!

Madonna: Listen to your passion. You actually volunteered to do this podcast, why?

Rebecca: [laughter] Did I? [laughter] Umm, yeah, I think there is a part of me that actually just feels a sense of great joy, that education is actually really in a good place and I think there are some great teachers coming out from initial teacher education providers. I think there is a great sense of moving forward at the moment where, despite the pressures, despite the accountability, despite the reforms that continually, rapidly roll out, that there are people that see a much deeper picture to this, this scenario. So, you know, they see the impact they’re having.

Madonna: Is there a message that you would really like teachers to take out of this? What would it be?

Rebecca: Yeah, the message is – Please look after yourselves – because you are so valued in society and every step that you take forward, in the sense that, you know, despite knocks, every step that you take forward, you actually changing a child's life at the same, you’re taking people with you and I think you’re the role model for the next generation. There's not a, I think in society today, you know, we often talk about this, there's not a lot of opportunities, you know, outside of school to actually feel that sense of care and nurturing, that they're a part of something and I think for a teacher to have that position, it’s a very privileged position to have.

Madonna: Dr Rebecca Spooner-Lane, thank you.

Rebecca: Thank you.

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