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Curriculum & Leadership Journal
An electronic journal for leaders in education
ISSN: 1448-0743
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Teachers matter: making time and space

Jo Mason

Recent years have seen some real progress in the areas of student mental health and welfare, both at the school level and at the level of state and national programs. Initiatives targeting issues such as bullying, drug use, racism and social exclusion have all made substantial impact. Teachers and other staff have placed great emphasis on looking after student welfare but all too often they neglect their own welfare.

Some obvious warning signs need to be taken seriously - for example, frequent statements of pessimism or cynicism, expressions of self-doubt about their abilities or feelings of powerlessness. All of these are commonplace in staff rooms but, perhaps more tellingly, they are even more common when teachers gather on less formal social occasions. If the same teachers heard such comments from their own students, they would be concerned about the individual's wellbeing.

Similarly issues of morale and workplace stress among school principals have become prominent. Pressure to achieve more demanding outcomes, the challenge of managing rapid change and excessively long hours of work have all had an effect. Reports from several jurisdictions indicate a decline in the average number of applicants for principal positions, and a recent Victorian survey suggested that 85% of teachers would never consider aiming for a principal level position.

Teachers have a wide range of skills and as a result it is too often assumed that they are able to cope with the pressure to achieve outcomes and to implement new initiatives, while dealing with stress and morale problems of their own. Teacher burnout is a well-recognised phenomenon - too often teachers don't sufficiently look after their own health and wellbeing, or their sense of connection, ownership and optimism.

I believe it is time we thought more about teacher and staff welfare. At the heart of any efforts in this area must be a rethinking of the idea of collegiality. Collegiality is the distinctive and special relationship shared by professionals who accept one another's professional standing and common commitment. It is the basis for positive relationships in any school or other professional organisation and is one of the greatest strengths of the teaching profession. Without collegiality, we lose contact with one another and our profession. I believe that the value of collegiality has always been underestimated, and that it is increasingly under stress.

However, we cannot expect that professional cooperation and collegiality will just happen. Collegiality, like all relationships, needs to be nutured.

We need to support the connections of staff more in our training and development. Understandably, teachers themselves will often regard such suggestions with skepticism. I often hear teachers, again because of the pressures they face, say that time would be better spent elsewhere. However, I contend that there is no better place to spend shared time than on nurturing relationships. All the things we hope to achieve flow from that.

A lot of this reluctance to take the time to nurture relationships is brought on by the pressure of outcomes-based curriculum. While most teachers recognise the positive intentions and benefits of the outcomes-based approach, it has to be acknowledged that it places pressure on the way time is spent during teachers' working hours. Specifically, it limits time for reflection with colleagues, time to consider and reflect on the teaching and learning that is occurring, and time for the crucial interactions with students; those things that actually make the work of a school community worthwhile.

Is it time to take stock - to reinvest in the things that matter most - the relationships? Should every school take the time to re-socialise its staff? Do we need to create more time and space for teachers to discuss the practice, craft, skill and drama of teaching? I believe teachers need more opportunities to explore and debate learning and teaching styles and to engage in real conversations about how they find their inspiration and the energy to work with young people. Teachers need this to be part of their working life, if they are to stay connected to their professional mission and engaged with the educational and social environment of their school.

For such efforts to bear fruit, we might also need to rethink how some of the structures of school organisation - physical resources and layout, curriculum and communication systems, even the way the school day is organised - allow people to develop positive relationships with their colleagues and with their students. Schools are such energetic communities, and yet, they often have immobile, static structures that hold their members back from responding, communicating and connecting in the way they should.

All our structures need to reflect more of what we now know is critical. We know that for young people's welfare it is absolutely critical to develop a positive relationship with an adult. We also know that for workers in a work place positive feelings of connection to others - both colleagues and those to whom we provide services - are critical. Without these feelings our sense of self-worth and of making a valued contribution will suffer.

When we reflect back on our schooling, we find that much of the factual content we learnt is now largely redundant. Often what remains of a student's experience of school are the relationships, the memories of inspiring teachers and staff, the values, attitudes and understandings that now form part of their character -notions of learning, of success, purpose, leadership, friendship. We need to make time and space for building collegiality, improving structures and fostering relationships that will make these positive outcomes possible.

The views expressed are personal and do not necessarily reflect the views of APAPDC or Curriculum Corporation.


Subject Headings

Professional development
Teacher-student relationships
Teachers' employment
Teaching and learning
Teaching profession