26 Sep 2023
Astonishingly, we’ve reached the point in our profession where ‘what makes teachers unhappy’ is the start of an uncontroversial statement rather than a genuine question. I look forward to, What makes nurses/firefighters/social workers unhappy? being published soon.
Droves of teachers and teaching assistants are leaving for the supermarket checkout or considering the move. Given that the root causes of this unprecedented migration are in government, any actions school leaders take to promote ‘happiness’ amount to tinkering around the edges.
Nevertheless, it’s right to try and the authors of this book correctly identify some key issues and outline strategies to address them.
Sadly, while the book is titled What makes teachers unhappy?, its focus is exclusively on leaders. Perhaps that’s right. After all, it’s the leaders who get to make the changes. But consider the professionals who have shared their experiences here: five headteachers, an HR expert and a wellbeing lead who used to be a head. No teaching or support staff have contributed. If we want to think about why teachers are unhappy, perhaps we should hear from them rather than repeat the paternalistic approach that is most certainly a big part of the problem.
When we do hear the voices of support workers, in extracts from Unison research, the effect is devastating. “My monthly wage does not pay our rent.” “I panic when I have to visit the dentist or optician.” “We never feel valued.”
The authors tell us that “one in five support staff have at least one additional job; these include working in bars, nails bars, care homes, call centres, cafes and supermarkets.” This is real stuff. Another reference to the Eisenhower matrix, not so much.
The advice offered is strong and well structured. It it, Mark Solomons, a former retail director for Sainsbury’s Bank and now a start-up wellbeing expert and Fran Abrams, an ex-BBC journalist, show convincingly, in case anyone was doubting, that wellbeing matters – that, quite apart from being important in its own right, it affects pupil outcomes.
They proceed to look at the major causes of stress in the workplace as identified by the Health and Safety Executive: the demands put upon staff, the control they have over how they work, the support they receive, the relationships they have with colleagues, the clarity of their roles and change. They acknowledge that yoga days and cakes in the staffroom are a cherry on top when a school’s wellbeing culture is in place but a patronising sideshow when it isn’t.
Each section of the book is thoughtful, accessibly written and makes good, humane points. The authors have a properly jaundiced view of an education system that they call ‘broken’ and of an inspectorate who aren’t trusted by the profession they scrutinise.
And the solutions they offer are about as strong as they can be in our current system: do a wellbeing survey, stay hydrated, get some exercise, share your vision, have a wellbeing policy, offer a tissue, employ ‘Welbee’ (Solomon’s company, which he mentions a good few times). I doubt there is anything new here for a school leader who has given wellbeing any thought, but there are leaders out there who haven’t.
But school leaders respect people who have walked the walk. It’s easier to take feedback from someone who has sat in the head’s chair, which neither Solomons nor Abrams have done. So while the advice is genuinely very sound, it doesn’t feel earned. Between them, Solomons and Abrams have read every Health and Safety Executive, ACAS, DfE and academic study going, but for me the book lacked the conviction and power of similar books, such as Brian Walton’s recent Lessons from the head’s office, which covers almost exactly the same ground and makes very similar points but from a position of day-to-day lived experience.
Morale in our profession is at an all-time low, and anyone who can help with this is welcome. In the end, if colleagues are considering departing to take up jobs in the retail sector, who better to have on hand to offer advice than a former Sainsbury’s operating board member?
Correction: The wording of the original version of this article implied that Mark Solomons’s role with Sainsbury’s pertained to its supermarkets. He was in fact the retail director of Sainsbury’s Bank. He also has 24 years’ experience as a school governor and has been the chair of a multi-academy trust.