We need to talk about teacher wellbeing

18 Feb 2019, 5:00

Developing students’ self-regulatory abilities in school is under scrutiny. But what about occupational self-regulation for those working there? What are we doing about that?

In the 1980s, Stevan Hobfoll, a hospital doctor and Kent State University academic, worked up an idea called “conservation of resource” (COR) theory (Hobfoll, 1989). Dissatisfied with how stress was conceptualised and the seeming absence of attention paid to it by researchers, he sought to reframe stress in the context of personal resources (enthusiasm, dedication, energy, empathy and so on). At its heart, COR theory says that people “strive to retain, protect, and build resources” in their lives, and feel threatened by the loss (perceived and actual) of them. Subsequent research in occupational health psychology and stress indicate that “uncontrolled expenditure of personal resources in the work context can lead to the experience of stress and burnout” (Kunter et al, 2013).

COR theory provides a way of explaining how the personal resources of teachers and their experiences of stress are connected. When we repeatedly expend our valuable resources without appropriate replenishment, stress and burnout become increasingly likely. The theory suggests that, ideally, there is a balance between investing resource — especially in the professional context — and the protection/conservation of them. Sounds sensible, right? But if it’s so sensible, why is it so hard to do in school?

We need resilient teachers and school leaders

The working lives of professionals in schools are characterised by giving. Often with seeming scant regard for the protection and conservation of personal resources, teachers, teaching assistants and school leaders give of their time, their enthusiasm, their dedication, their desire simply to make things better for others. But it’s when that giving is not kept in check by strong self-regulatory skills (of teachers and their leaders) that things can go awry. When we (and others) fail to manage our personal resources in the professional context of our jobs, research evidence suggests that there is a direct impact on retention in the profession (Rudow 1999) as well as on the quality of classroom practice (Maslach and Leiter, 1999).

The German researcher Uta Klusmann’s work on occupational self-regulation led her to develop a typology of self-regulatory types based on work engagement and resilience:
• The excessively ambitious Teachers who are highly engaged with their work, but have low levels of resilience
• The unambitious Teachers who have high resilience but show low work engagement
• The resigned Teachers who are low on work engagement and resilience
• The healthy-ambitious Teachers who have high work engagement and resilience

Such “types” don’t capture much of the nuance of being a teacher, but they help to start a conversation based in theory, one that might help put into words some of the daily experiences of those working in our schools.

While we need to understand more about teachers’ engagement and resilience, it is clear to me that we must pay far greater attention to supporting and developing professional self-regulatory skills in education. The ability of the healthy-ambitious type of teacher to budget personal resources in the professional context — to have strong occupational self-regulation — is something that should be addressed and developed throughout teachers’ careers. We need resilient teachers and school leaders who have strong self-regulatory skills, and who are able to engage constructively with the myriad crazy professional challenges of working in schools, while simultaneously maintaining a sufficiently healthy distance from work to enable the conservation of resources (Klusmann et al, 2008).

Research on teacher health shows that many teachers are not able to cope successfully with the demands of the profession (Kunter et al, 2013) so we need effective, evidence-informed ways of helping them. We need to make teachers’ occupational well-being a profession-wide obsession from early career to retirement.

Hobfoll, S. E. (1989). Conservation of resources: A new attempt at conceptualising stress. American Psychologist, 44(3), 513.
Klusmann, U., Kunter, M., Trautwein, U., Lüdtke, O., & Baumert, J. (2008). Teachers’ occupational well-being and quality of instruction: The important role of self-regulatory patterns. Journal of Educational Psychology, 100(3), 702.
Kunter, M., Baumert, J., Blum, W., Klusmann, U., Krauss, S., & Neubrand, M. (Eds.). (2013). Cognitive activation in the mathematics classroom and professional competence of teachers: Results from the COACTIV project. Springer Science & Business Media.
Maslach C, Leiter MP (1999) Teacher burnout: a research agenda. In: Vandenberghe R, Huberman MA (eds) Understanding and preventing teacher burnout: a sourcebook of international research and practice. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, UK, pp 295–303
Rudow, B. (1999). Stress and burnout in the teaching profession: European studies, issues, and research perspectives.

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  1. Whilst “types” of teacher can be a helpful way to understand different levels of resilience, it’s often the context that makes the most difference. Putting a previously resilient teacher into a challenging context for long enough can break them. If schools are to tackle the teacher wellbeing issue successfully, they need to take a good look at the context within which they place their teachers, resilient or not. I wrote a few ideas here recently – https://www.teachingandlearningguru.com/how-to-do-teacher-wellbeing-properly if you’re interested. (Don’t worry, it’s not all yoga and cakes.)