Interview with TeachWellfest founder Georgia Holleran

As part of our staff wellbeing in schools series, we’ve been talking to groups and individuals at the forefront of the teacher wellbeing revolution. Among them is Georgia Holleran, founder of TeachersMentalHealthAndWellness.com and TeachWellFest, a festival pioneering the importance of wellbeing for teachers.

Here, Georgia tells us why TeachWellFest started, why its message is so important, and how we can implement a successful well-being strategy that helps teachers achieve a better work-life balance.

What made you start TeachWellFest?

I started Teachers' Mental Health and Wellness in January 2017 and as a result, I really started looking at what specifically was being done to help [wellbeing in schools].

I thought, it would be really good to have an upbeat festival because there’s a lot of awful statistics out there. They were looking at all the bad news, and I wanted us to do something that was good news, that was proactive. At the same time I didn’t want it to be full of fluff or anything that would be a bit too airy fairy - I wanted it to be very pragmatic. Teachers tend to be doers, I wanted something people could actually do.

Everyone’s wellness is completely different, so we needed it to be quite widely spaced according to what the spectrum of wellness was.

We’ve heard a lot lately about how teachers often make their own wellbeing less of a priority...

Absolutely, and I think was quite clear. Teachers are very much last on the list when it comes to their own wellness, they’re famous for it.

Why do you think that is?

They tend to be carers, they tend to be people who care about individuals and therefore they tend to care about their school pupils first and foremost. We always tend to be looking at the pupils first.

The issue with wellbeing doesn’t seem to have really rammed home quite as much to the individual teacher as yet, who gets told to do all of these things and kind of just does them. They need to stand up and, “go hang on a minute, this is eating into my actual life.” Teaching unions are not standing up for teachers in the same way anymore. More and more academies are taking over and taking away the power of the unions.

How is this impacting teachers?

There is a huge political side to this. Teachers are not being told they have a right to these things and are too absolutely exhausted to stand up and say ‘I have a right to wellness or at least time off.’ It is one of those famous things where you need to put your own oxygen mask on first before you can help anyone else.

Is there anything else causing this wellbeing breakdown?

It goes back to, believe it or not, the curriculum. I started [teaching] just after the national curriculum came in and it was great. Schools were teaching similar things, and that’s where Ofsted came from.

However, it had a terrible outcome. All schools were then compared with each other over GCSE results. League tables started, teacher recruitment issues started, teacher morale started fading. It’s a knock-on effect, directly from that one big national movement.

Standardising was a great idea but I don’t think anyone could see this would be a result. Schools looking to be at the top of league tables put a lot of pressure on teachers. They want Ofsted to like them. This then rains down on the staff, if the headteacher thinks that the way to do it is by controlling their staff.

If schools still have to be part of the standardised system, how can they change their approach to teacher wellbeing while still getting the results they need?

Ofsted themselves do not dictate what a school does. They do not say what is the best way to teach. They are now using a softer approach, a more consultative approach. However, they can’t change direction overnight.

There are headteachers who take everything as read, they will rain their issues and standards down on the school staff as if it was the law. However, other heads say, ‘I can go my own way.’

Schools are run by the personality of the head teacher and some will absorb or deflect any pressures from outside sources.The Headteacher’s personality defines the culture of the school.

I don’t see [implementing wellbeing] as risky because the general trend is towards wellbeing - if your teachers are presenting absences, then you know you’ve got a problem. It’s not a bolt-on thing, it’s going to have to be a cultural change, it’s something schools are going to have to adopt.

What’s next for TeachWellFest?

Next year’s TeachWellFestis going to be a proper teachers’ knees up, a celebration. In the meantime, after consultation with the people that I met at TeachWellFest 2018, I feel the way forward is to approach teacher training institutions, universities, and, if appropriate, colleges, and offer them the chance to host a regional TeachWellFest - TeachWellFest on the Road.

It will really be as good as it gets. Institutions will market it as CPD - continued professional development - towards the school, and it will definitely have a take home in a box a CPD wellness for your school, so it will be even more valuable because it has a takeaway element.

What do you think the barriers are for heads of school who want to make teacher wellbeing a priority, while keeping Ofsted happy?

The ones who will be interested in this will be well aware of what the parameters are regarding Ofsted. They will be the ones who are confident that this will add to their school and not take away from something else, with school results being the bottom line. They will be the ones who see this as a positive step.

Do you have any advice for these head teachers?

My advice to a headteacher would be to start thinking about how they want to construct a wellbeing committee and start creating a ‘culture of wellness’. In my opinion, this is the key thing schools need to get their head around before they can start having an authentic culture of wellness, rather than a bolt-on yoga, cakes in the staffroom approach which is a start but it’s a drop in the ocean.

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To find out more about the work Georgia is doing with teacher wellness, get in touch with her on Twitter @TeachWellFest and @TeachersMHaW.

For more information on TeachWellFest.

Resources: Support implementing Wellbeing startegies.