‘Cruel’ wellbeing approach adding to teachers’ stress – study

‘Cruel’ wellbeing approach adding to teachers’ stress – study

Challenges and problems faced by overworked teachers are being intensified by expectations placed on them to manage their own wellbeing, new research from Curtin University shows.

The study, which examined teachers’ discussions on the online platform Reddit, also found the impact of working conditions and broader policies on teacher welfare are often ignored.

Co-author Dr. Saul Karnovsky from Curtin’s School of Education said through their analysis the researchers coined the phrase ‘cruel wellbeing’ to describe programs that overlooked the difficult work conditions faced by teachers and asked them to be solely responsible for their wellbeing through positive thinking strategies.

‘No appetite for substantial change’

When asked if he sees any meaningful progress being made when it comes to addressing the professional concerns of teachers and school leaders in 2024, Dr Karnovsky said “the appetite for substantial change” is missing.

“Although I feel that policy makers are listening to teachers concerns and understand the issues at play, for example Jason Clare recently being honest with the Australian public that the current teacher shortage is a ‘crisis’, there does not appear to be an appetite for substantial change that is required on systemic level,” Dr Karnovsky told The Educator.

“Let’s take teacher workload as an example. Here in WA Tony Buti recently proposed that the Education Department would be investing in artificial intelligence to ‘reduce teacher workload by simplifying and automating jobs such as excursion planning, meeting preparation, and writing general correspondence’.”

Dr Karnovsky said while it is recognised that teachers are overburdened with administration, he doesn’t see AI being “a tangible and realistic solution” to this problem.

“We should be looking at why teachers have experienced a 90% increase in admin tasks since 2018 and be considering the educational purpose of these requirements.”

Workloads must be reduced ASAP

Dr Karnovsky said the large workloads that teachers are struggling to complete needs to be reduced as a priority if positive changes are going to be seen in teacher wellbeing.

“The vast majority of teachers are considering leaving the profession because they have very poor work-life balance. Our teachers are telling us that their workloads are unmanageable and unrealistic,” he said.

“It is paramount that state governments initiate immediate and tangible reforms when it comes to workload. We simply cannot continue to expect our teachers to carry all the requirements being put upon them and not burn out or become seriously demoralised about a job they undoubtedly love, especially when it comes to making a difference in lives of the young people they work with.”

Dr Karnovsky says part of the solution is in funding more para-professional positions in schools.

“Similar to front office staff and school business managers, employing administration staff to take data driven or compliance tasks off teachers so they can focus on the work of learning design and meeting the needs of their students could lead to teachers having much better balance in their workloads.”

Social media can offer policymakers key insights

Dr Karnovsky said social media, especially anonymous forums are an important place for teachers to “tell it like it really is”, where they can share their emotional labour with one another and not feel the threat of professional harm.

“School leaders and policy makers should view these forums as important data to better understand the lived realities of teachers and gain insight to their concerns and challenges,” he said.

“One way that school leaders can leverage these platforms is to work at opening up similar safe spaces for their teachers at schools, where they can decompress and debrief with one another about their wellbeing.”

Dr Karnovsky said the research he’s done shows that “generic, off the shelf wellbeing programs” are not well received by teachers and can in fact make their workplace wellbeing worse.

“School leaders should set aside these programs, for a more local approach. Teachers on Reddit have mentioned that the ‘small things’ really count,” he said.

“For example, Principals who make it safe for teachers to take time off when feeling stressed, to say no to non-essential meetings and meaningfully prioritise workplace wellbeing, rather than it being a ‘tick box’ exercise.”