Exclusive Interview with Dr Emma Kell, Author of How to Survive in Teaching

Reading Time: 7 minutes


We caught up with teacher, author and academic  Dr. Emma Kell  following the recent publication of  How to Survive in Teaching and asked her a few searching questions…




1-How did you get interested in teacher wellbeing?

Like any area of interest, the focus was initially a personal one. As a mother as well being married to a non-teacher, I have had to really watch out for the impact my professional role has on the people who must – as is right – be my first priority. When I started researching the area, first for my doctorate, then for How to Survive, the response from fellow teachers wildly exceeded my expectations. From those who hadn’t even made it into their first teaching role because their training experience put them off, to the stressed, the depressed and the suicidal to those grappling to balance personal challenges – the things life throws at us – with a demanding and always ‘hungry’ job, there was a real sense of urgency to ensure they were heard. Alongside these stories, there have been the visionaries, the stubborn optimists, the trailblazers who insist that it IS possible to balance teaching and life. Leaders like Vic Goddard, Helena Marsh and Jill Berry, as well as offering me their kindness and wisdom during challenging times, have led the chorus of voices which insist that it IS possible to lead intelligently and sensitively, to act as the ‘shit filter’ for the swinging pendulum of relentless change and to ultimately celebrate what is, I continue to believe, the best job ever.

  2- What impact would you say that Social Media is having on teaching as a whole and wellbeing issues in particular?

This question is interesting. Like many teachers, I was initially extremely sceptical about ‘networking with strangers’. However, I also needed to get my initial survey about teachers who are parents out to as many people as I could. Under the careful tutelage of my journalist husband, I showed audacity way beyond any I would have in real life. Stephen Fry, Michael Rosen and Mary Bousted were amongst the people I ‘tweeted at’ to request they shared my survey. The 1,604 responses I was sent threw my original ‘qualitative’ approaches completely off track and I ended up having to do a crash course in having data with real meaning and significance – whilst admitting the sample was inevitably skewed. My book relied on a similar model, and almost 4,000 teachers’ voices are represented in How to Survive in Teaching.

 Through social networking, I have found myself face to face with numerous inspiring fellow professional during a weekend, a holiday or an evening. Every TeachMeet and conference I have attended has enriched my practice and my research. Through subject-specific Facebook groups for MFL and English, I have improved my own practice and shared useful ideas and resources with my team.
I do have some reservations, though. Social media can become quite addictive. I have had to actively build in breaks from it, otherwise it becomes like an extra distraction in an already demanding schedule. So I suspect I do sometimes miss out on invitations or interesting thoughts.
Whilst the online network of teachers sharing resources and ideas is huge, I am equally aware that a significant number of teachers (I don’t have the stats, but would imagine it’s about three quarters) simply do not engage with social media. I don’t subscribe to the view that those us who’ve met repeatedly at conferences and TeachMeets are necessarily more enlightened or better practitioners. I do, however, think that it takes a very specific kind of educator to spend their Saturdays and holidays discussing teaching with other educators. There are times when I’m that person, and times when my family and friends simply have to come first. I know that it’s not good for my wellbeing to be a teacher all of the time – at every social occasion and with every friend. This would be an easy trap to fall into. Set me off and I can talk for England for probably days at a time about UK schools. But making a conscious effort to be a ‘whole human’ is vital – both for me and for my family.
Another issue, which has been very close to the bone for many of our community, is that some school leaders and colleagues are deeply wary and suspicious of those of us who discuss our work regularly in public forms. Through my research, I have heard horror stories of teachers’ careers ending overnight after a careless comment which negatively portrayed their school or students. We have a responsibility to be extremely careful – to have clear lines of agreement with our colleagues and bosses. After all, the children are the most important people in all of this.
3- There are lots of interesting statistics in your book, could we discuss this one for a moment? “If the UK had 100 teachers… 52% would strongly disagree with the statement ‘My workload is manageable’. How do you think we have got to this point? 
This has been an issue ever since I’ve been a teacher, and so many wise people have seen the problem getting bigger with so many leaders apparently powerless to do much about it. Triple marking policies, arduous data entry, endless ‘evidencing’ of what we do – the ‘Look! I’m doing my job!’ syndrome as a participant put it – are huge issues. But teachers can be both their own – and one another’s – worst enemy. In an institution where the most senior staff regularly stay until 10 p.m, staff can feel pressured to follow their lead. One of the most important pieces of wisdom I gathered in my book is that leaders must model work-life balance – it’s not easy! But it is important.
The scourge of perfectionism is also something I explore. Ironically (or predictably?) many of our most talented teachers are also perfectionists. They will stay up half the night perfecting a new strategy or spend half an hour marking one student’s book. This is admirable – but equally, it is entirely unsustainable. I have seen too many people burn out in the most tragic of ways, and I tend to be really quite blunt and stern with the stubborn perfectionists I meet. To play the long game, you need to accept that ‘good enough’ has to be good enough. After all, we are ‘living organisms working with other living organisms’, in the words of a headteacher interviewed for the book. Nothing is perfect. Little is predictable. This is both the joy and the frustration of our job.
4- What would be your advice to someone starting out in the profession?
With age, I have become more blunt about this. It is rare for teachers to enter the profession without a genuine affection for young people and a desire to make a difference, but it is not unheard of. DON’T go into teaching:
– to please your parents
– for the holidays
– because you think you’re doing society a favour by ‘giving something back’ before you go and do what you really want to do
– because you can’t think of anything else to do
All of these are genuine examples. Passion for making a difference and/or passion to share your love of your subject are essential. If you don’t enjoy the company of children, don’t go into teaching. Obvious? Well, yes, but so many of my research participants speak of the frustrations of working with teachers who either do the minimum and no more or can’t stand teenagers…
 5 – What are your thoughts on the best way to tackle the current situation in teacher retention?
There are no easy answers. When I discussed this with Julian Stanley, we talked in depth about the importance of the ethos of a school or what my current boss would call ‘the hidden curriculum’. Some of the conversations I had with struggling teachers were deeply distressing. Teachers who collapsed due to exhaustion and stress and were then berated for ‘taking time off for no reason’; teachers living in fear of the next ‘see me’ request from their line-manager; teachers who, during the course of one school year, age dramatically, lose their spark and all-too-often walk away from the profession. Data from the NFER suggests that these ‘toxic schools’ (my words), with as many as half the teachers leaving every year, are huge contributors to the problem – that if they weren’t’ such toxic environments, there would be far less need to acknowledge a ‘crisis’.
On the whole, I’ve been blessed in my 20 year career. Though when my current HT spoke movingly at my book launch, astute as ever, she used the word ‘wounded’ for when I arrived. I’d worked in two contexts in succession which simply weren’t right for me. A shared ethos with school leaders isn’t just desirable – it’s essential. I still have recurring nightmares about those two years. It took quite forceful intervention from those closest to me to make me realise that if it all just feels WRONG, if you are walking on eggshells and can’t find reasons to want to get to work in the morning, you need to change schools. You DON’T necessarily need to leave the profession. As those who came to the book launch will testify, I am in my element and thriving now, in a school which genuinely cares about people – all of them. It’s a school which recognises the importance, like Julian Stanley and Vic Goddard, of the long-term investment in people. ‘Do people take the piss?’ Of course they do, says headteacher Vic Goddard. ‘Of course they do’. ‘Is it worth it for long term investment in staff wellbeing. You bet.
6- Let’s indulge in a bit of blue sky thinking! Given unlimited resources, describe your ideal school.

Hmm. I’m a self-confessed pragmatist, so am never much good at hypotheticals, so let me select from what I’ve known:

A Headteacher with a balance of courage, passion and pragmatism.
A line manager with a combination of the quiet kindness of my line-manager at Hendon and the direct, honest approach to problems that means you confront them, deal with them, and move on.To be able to say, after the latest crisis (and there will always be crises), in the words of another great line-manager, ‘what have we learned from this?’
Wonderful teachers come in an infinite variety of forms, but shared core purpose is essential, A dedication to make a real difference.
Students? There are no ideal ones – they’re growing up – it’s in their job description to challenge boundaries and make mistakes. I quite genuinely believe (backed up by my research) that the students themselves are very rarely the problem. And the shifting political landscapes aren’t their problem and aren’t their fault.
Cheesy, perhaps, but ask me at any moment who my ideal students are, and they’re the ones I work with at this moment. The one who has a problem she can’t quite bring herself to voice. The ones who are working on their novels and poetry anthologies. The one with the lightbulb moment with the French imperfect tense. The one who visited me every day at my break duty by the toilets with kind or funny or interesting things to talk about. The tens of thousand daily interactions. The ‘how’s your dog?’ and the ‘are you having a better day?’ and the ‘hamsters are better pets than snakes’ discussion, the one who’s seen red and needs calm and quiet and the audience to go away. The intricate, complex fabric of the school day that can be draining and challenging, but is never, ever boring. The daily realisation that no, you are not doing society a favour. That it is not a chore but a privilege to work with the people who are, quite literally, our future and that of our children.