Blog post

Compassion in the classroom

Kelly Tyler examines how research at the University of Derby is helping to find out how to recruit and retain school teachers in the UK by tackling mental health.

By The Corporate Communications Team - 9 July 2019

Recruiting teachers and keeping them in the profession has become a critical issue for the UK education system. Within five years of qualifying, 30% of teachers quit the classroom (1), further complicating the existing shortage of teaching staff in schools.

According to research by teachers’ union NASUWT, 60% of teachers said working in education had adversely affected their mental health, and 55% claimed it had negatively affected their physical health.

And while mental health issues in teachers are on the rise, so is the case for school pupils, with an estimated three children in every classroom having a diagnosable mental health problem (2).

So, why is the education sector under so much strain and what can be done to stop teachers from burning out?

“Workload, pressure in academic achievement, government policy and behaviour management are just some of the factors causing teachers to feel overwhelmed in the classroom,” explains Dr Frances Maratos, Associate
Professor and Reader in Emotion Science at the University of Derby, who is conducting research into the wellbeing of teachers and school staff.

“There has been a lot of movement towards implementing mindfulness in schools, but it’s hard to find resources specifically for teachers – most are still aimed at helping pupils with their mental wellbeing when teachers and support staff need it desperately too.

“A quick analogy we use to explain the situation is this: when you receive safety information on a flight, the advice is to always make sure you put your own oxygen mask on before helping others. This applies to the teaching profession. If you aren’t taking care of the teachers, how can they take care of the children they are looking after?”

Using compassion to raise motivation

Working with more than 500 staff across primary schools in Derbyshire and in Portugal, Frances and her team of researchers have made it their mission to help teachers gain greater understanding of their emotions and improve their wellbeing.

The team has been using Compassionate Mind Training – a valuable tool in helping people feel motivated to relieve their own suffering through different styles of thinking, feeling and behaving – and are the only researchers conducting a trial of this kind in the UK.

“Compassionate Mind Training is about noticing and bringing attention to distress in yourself and others, and then being able to do something to prevent and alleviate it,” explains Frances.

“Over the course of six modules, we introduce teachers to a series of exercises including breathing techniques to help calm themselves down, and show them how to switch from emotional states to motivational and compassionate states to counteract stress.

“Mental health issues are endemic in some schools but many staff feel it is a sign of weakness, which means they don’t talk about their problems to their colleagues.

“However, when we go into schools and say it is normal for them to feel the emotions of stress and anxiety, it is profound for them. It is the first step to de-stigmatising mental health.”

Taking time for self-reflection

Taking a step back to reflect on one’s own emotional state is hard for some teachers and one of the reasons why it doesn’t often happen, says Kevan Lomas, Headteacher at Hilton Primary School in Derbyshire, which has been involved in the Compassionate Mind Training programme with the University.

“In the past we have completed continuing professional development which has focused on how we teach and work with the children, so taking part in training where we had to put ourselves first was a novelty, but it also felt quite strange. Some teachers really embraced it, while others felt more awkward about affording themselves the luxury to step back and reflect on themselves.

“However, the impact has been huge. Staff are now starting to talk about their wellbeing and techniques they have used to calm themselves down, which would never have happened before.”

This positive response to the compassion-based mental health intervention has also been experienced by staff at Cherry Tree Hill Primary School in Derby.

Headteacher Paul Appleton got his school involved in the programme after recognising mental health issues among teachers were rising.

“There is a massive issue with mental health in schools,” he says. “Teachers are feeling the pinch. The bottom line is if our teachers are stressed, this feeds into the children and means they aren’t going to perform well.

“As a result of the training, the awareness of mental health has spread across the staff, and those who might not have felt confident enough to say they were struggling now feel they can speak to their colleagues, and their peers know what to do to support them. Having access to mental health training has changed the culture in school for the better. We have now implemented a counselling service and the number of teachers using meditation apps has also increased.”

Introducing staff to support

Introducing teachers and school staff to mental health support – and continuing to offer such valuable services – is vital if the sector is to retain good teachers and ensure positive mental wellbeing is a priority, says Sarah Kendrick, Head of Service for the South at charity Place2Be, which provides emotional and therapeutic services in schools.

The organisation, whose patron is the Duchess of Cambridge, runs Place2Think, an informal consultation service for teachers to enable them to support children more effectively.

“It’s absolutely crucial that we work to provide school staff with strategies for managing their own mental health,” says Sarah. “We can go some way with helping them to think about the mental health of children and young people they are looking after, but everybody needs a wellbeing strategy for themselves.

“School leaders have said having support has really helped them to shape how they think about teacher wellbeing which, for a lot of them, hadn’t been a consideration before they embarked on the training – which is scary.

“We have been quite neglectful perhaps as a nation of teachers, and now we are seeing the results of that.”

Emphasising the value of teaching

Reminding teachers of just how valuable they are is a key part of boosting their mental wellbeing and keeping them in the profession, says Dr Andy Cope.

The qualified teacher and children’s author from Derby runs sessions for school staff on ‘the art of being brilliant’, which is based on mental resilience for teachers, reigniting their passion for the profession and showing them how to feel amazing once again.

“Teachers feel physical and emotional exhaustion being in the classroom all day every day. They are often on countdown to the next school break and children notice that. It means they are putting their happiness away until the holidays begin, which is something called destination addiction – and teachers have it worse than any other profession.

“Teachers have to learn to be happy even on a Monday morning because their happiness creates a ripple effect. If they feel amazing, so will the students, who will then go home and spread this to their parents.

“For the vast majority of teachers, it’s a really obvious wake-up call; they have just forgotten how to feel amazing.”

Teachers enter the profession motivated by the chance to change lives and this should be harnessed (3), according to Education Secretary Damian Hinds’ Teacher Recruitment and Retention Strategy, launched earlier this year.

But to do this, teachers need to be fully prepared from the outset of their career, says Sarah.

“I would like to see the health and wellbeing of teachers and pupils as a compulsory part of all teacher training. We are used to talking about early intervention in terms of children’s mental health but people need to be trained to deal with their own mental health.

“If we are serious about tackling the crisis, we need to be proactive and that means addressing it properly from the very start.”

To learn more about the University of Derby research, led by Dr Maratos, visit the Compassionate Mind Foundation's website. For more information about Place 2 Be visit their website. 

1 Department for Education, ‘School workforce in England’ 
2 Young Minds, ‘Wise Up to Wellbeing in Schools’ 
3 Department for Education, Teacher Retention Strategy Report

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About the author

The Corporate Communications Team
University Press and PR

The Corporate Communications Team manage the University's Press and PR, putting forward academics, support staff and student representatives for 'expert comment' on different topics to local and national broadcast media. The team is highly experienced in communications and journalism - locally, regionally and nationally - as well as in-house and agency public relations.