School leaders must be first responders for teacher wellbeing says Patrick Ottley-O’Connor.
“Look after yourself before looking after others.” It’s the mantra that every first responder is taught and was the message I shared with my staff on my first day as Executive Principal at North Liverpool Academy.
The simple fact is that you are unable to help others – or effectively teach others – if you yourself are suffering. It’s about putting on your own oxygen mask on before helping others with theirs.
This is the philosophy I champion throughout our schools and with virtually anyone else who will listen.
Look after yourself first.
Having high expectations of staff, with a ‘no excuses, no exceptions’ approach to teaching is important in ensuring that we are aspirational for all children. However, on its own, this approach can lead to a high-stakes and often toxic level of accountability, leaving staff feeling vulnerable, exposed and isolated.
So we make this high expectations approach apply to teacher wellbeing too. Staff must prioritise their own wellbeing without excuse or exception. It’s a belief that stems from my own journey as a leader, as I know if I look after my own wellbeing I am able to be more supportive of my staff.
Listen and act
It’s important to talk openly with colleagues about mental health and wellbeing. We start with the survey on workload that comes with the DFE Workload Toolkit, and we conduct our own regular staff perception questionnaires. These allow staff to talk anonymously and freely to let senior leaders know what is happening from their perspective.
But it’s not enough to just listen to staff’s views. The skill as a leader is to respond to feedback, not just with words but deeds.
We offer a minimum of 15% PPA time for all teachers, so planning is not left to after school hours. And every time a new policy is introduced or reviewed, we ask: ‘What impact could this have on staff wellbeing?’
As well as talking openly about mental health and giving staff time to plan, schools need to celebrate those who are looking after themselves and others. We do this in our weekly staff wellbeing briefing where staff nominate colleagues in recognition of the support they have received from their peers, and we celebrate our mental health and wellbeing star of the week.
There are paid wellbeing ambassadors across the trust, and organised wellbeing CPD sessions are scheduled throughout the year.
A really powerful initiative is the mental health first aid training we have introduced which equips staff to recognise the signs of mental health issues in others and to listen without judgement to a person who is in distress. The training teaches staff how to respond in a crisis, and how to reach out before a crisis happens.
In addition, we hold regular #teacher5aday wellbeing activities. #Teacher5aday is a movement that started on Twitter to encourage teachers to share ideas for promoting their wellbeing around five key pillars, which are connect, notice, learn, volunteer and exercise.
Our initiatives on the ‘connect’ theme are designed to bring everyone together to talk through problems and solutions – and have some fun. These include bringing in strawberries and cream for everyone to share during Wimbledon fortnight, wellbeing advent calendars for staff to open in the run up to Christmas and our ‘Wheel of Misfortune’ game which is a roulette style prizegiving of some lovely and some cringeworthy prizes.
There’s nothing ‘soft’ about our wellbeing approach. Children only get one shot at school and it’s vital they receive the highest quality school experiences to get them life-ready. So teachers have to be feeling mentally fit and well to do their best work in the classroom day after day.
Lead by example
The key to success in creating a culture of wellbeing is to have not only the involvement but the active participation of school leaders. Heads need to enable teachers to take their wellbeing seriously by looking after their own mental health and being wellbeing supermodels for their school.
When a school’s leadership puts wellbeing at the top of the agenda, that school becomes a better place for everyone to thrive, teach and learn.
Patrick Ottley-O’Connor is executive principal of North Liverpool Academy. He is a passionate supporter of the National #Teacher5aday wellbeing week, which runs from 2nd to 6th December 2019. School leaders looking to improve wellbeing in their school can sign up for tips and resources at on this site.