Exclusive Interview with Adrian Bethune, Author of Wellbeing in the Primary Classroom

Reading Time: 7 minutes

Founder of Teachappy and author of Wellbeing in the Primary Classroom, @AdrianBethune, talks to us about his book and how wellbeing can be put at the heart of a school.

Tell us about how Teachappy came about. 

In my late 20s I went through a period of acute anxiety which led to a period of depression. I’d always been a chirpy, optimistic type of guy so this time in my life really threw me. I literally had no clue how to help myself get better. Supportive friends and family helped me through the worst of it and I sought the advice of a counsellor. I also started to read more about the causes of anxiety and depression and started taking a lot better care of my physical and mental health. As part of my recovery, I learned about mindfulness and started practising, I learned about positive psychology and started using some of the techniques. Basically, I started to acquire and use a huge raft of knowledge that I simply wasn’t privy to at school but, in hindsight, wish I was. So, when I retrained as a teacher in 2010, I decided to make my wellbeing and my class’ wellbeing my priority. As ideas spread in the schools I worked in, and as I delivered staff training on developing staff and pupil wellbeing, other schools started to approach me. So, I set up Teachappy with the aim of helping to foster happier children and teachers in as many schools as possible. Alongside me teaching part-time now, I deliver training in other schools, I give talks at universities to their trainee teachers and I write!

Can you explain how you see the relationship between staff wellbeing and pupil wellbeing?

Staff wellbeing is integral to pupil wellbeing for a number of reasons. Firstly, teachers are significant role models in their pupils’ lives and, believe it or not, pupils do actually listen to us and imitate us. If we set a positive example, we set our pupils up on the right path. But as the Foresight Mental Capital Project report (2008) said, “Teachers who are stressed and demoralised make poor role models for children.” It’s vital we show our pupils that we care as much about our own wellbeing as we do of their wellbeing. Secondly, there is something called ’emotional contagion’ which basically means that moods are contagious. So, if I’m at the front of the class and I feel upbeat, optimistic, energised and looking forward to the day ahead, I will spread that mood amongst my class. However, if I’m irritable, impatient, pessimistic and don’t actually want to be in the classroom, that will spread quickly through my class too. Just like parents need to take care of themselves so that they have enough energy and inner resources to care for their families, teachers need to do the same for themselves and their pupils.

 What would you consider are the most effective ways to support wellbeing in schools?

I see wellbeing in schools as a three-pronged approach – whole school staff wellbeing, individual teacher wellbeing, and then pupil wellbeing. In terms of whole school approaches to staff wellbeing, schools must ensure that they prioritise staff wellbeing. That means scrapping unnecessary paperwork, tasks and duties wherever possible. The more time staff have to focus on the job of teaching, the better. Schools that support staff wellbeing afford teachers autonomy and do not micro-manage. Staff that feel trusted and that are treated like adults have high job satisfaction and will enjoy going to work. Schools also need to recognise that staff have lives outside of school. Some schools allow teachers to attend their own children’s awards assemblies, or nativity plays. How great is that? Rather than expect teachers to just put in extra hours for residential trips, and evening parent workshops, some schools give staff time off in lieu. Schools that prioritise wellbeing support flexible working in other ways like letting teachers take PPA at home and encouraging staff to job share and work part time. Also, creating a sense of team among your staff is essential for staff satisfaction and wellbeing, as we’re a tribal species and we feel happiest when we work as part of a team. Basically, whole school wellbeing mean schools look after their staff members so that they feel supported, listened to, and able to do a good job.

Now, schools can do all of that and staff can still suffer from poor wellbeing which means we all have an individual responsibility to take good care of ourselves. We have to set limits of how much work we will actually do each week (regardless of what the school expects), and set aside time to do activities that nourish us. Practical things like eating well (so actually taking a decent lunch break), sleeping well, exercising regularly, socialising with friends and family. We need to make sure we have the inner resources to do what is an extremely demanding job.

When you have schools that really look after their staff, and teachers who really look after themselves, then wellbeing in schools can really flourish and then you can focus on pupil wellbeing. If you try and focus on pupil wellbeing whilst teachers are stressed and burnt out it won’t work. In terms of pupil wellbeing, it’s about creating a sense of team in your class (what I refer to as ‘tribal classrooms’ in my book) where you and the pupils support one another. A daily mindfulness practice is key, in my opinion, but only if you have a practice yourself as the teacher. Creating an optimistic culture in class is key where pupil’s strengths are identified, celebrated and developed, where they’re encouraged to regularly notice and savour what’s gone well for them in school, and they’re taught to become more aware of their negative inner monologue and to challenge it when it isn’t helping them achieve their goals. Work should be challenging in class so children stretch themselves, learn to handle difficulties, and get to experience flow! Regular daily exercise, outside of weekly PE lessons, is crucial to good mental health so schools should have children sitting down less and moving more. And finally, encouraging children to think about and serve others through acts of kindness or volunteering should be central.

Sorry, this has turned out to be a long response but this is the question my book attempts to answer in 10 chapters and about 60,000 words!

Tell us more about your book Wellbeing in the Primary Classroom, which has just been published by Bloomsbury Education. What drove you to write it and how does it feel to be a published author?

When I was completing my first year of teaching, I had many thoughts about leaving. It was too hard, too stressful but, worst of all, I got in to teaching to make a difference but I felt I wasn’t able to do that. A friend lent me a book by Ian Morris called ‘Teaching Happiness and Wellbeing in Schools’. As I read it, I had so many ‘A-ha!’ moments and I was so inspired to try the ideas out in my classroom. That book saved my teaching career. But it was written by a secondary teacher and was aimed, primarily at secondary schools. Fast forward 8 years, I wanted to write an equivalent book, based on the research I’d read and practices I was using in my class, to inspire other teachers who wanted to put happiness and wellbeing at the heart of their classrooms

It feels great to be a published author. I get very coy about it when people ask me about it in person – it still doesn’t feel real. And I have regular ‘imposter syndrome’ thoughts like ‘Why am I qualified to write this book?’ But, despite the odd negative thought, I’m immensely proud to have written it, I believe in it and I hope it helps others teachers and children lead happier lives.

 You are quite active on Social Media; what is your view on its place in education today?

I have mixed views on Social Media in education. On the one hand, I’ve been exposed to ideas and pieces of research that I don’t think I would have in the conversations in just my school. This is great. If you take Twitter, you’re able to have direct conversations with writers, professors, teachers and ask them about things that they’re experts on. For example, I tweeted Dylan Wiliam to ask him what he meant by a ‘knowledge-rich curriculum’. He responded with a few tweets and I said I was still none the wiser but thanked him for his time. A few minutes later, he e-mailed me directly and sent me two chapters from his yet-to-be-published book ‘Creating the Schools Our Children Need’. I then asked him if I could interview him about his book for my website, which he agreed to, and that interview has had over 4,000 views. Without Twitter that would never have been possible. It’s so great having that direct access to people whose work you want to ask questions about. I’ve also discovered about teach-meets like #BrewEd and spoke at my first one in Brighton this year. I had never heard of teach-meets before I was on Twitter!

But, there’s a dark side to Twitter which I really dislike. Where disagreements turn personal and debates go out the window and it just feels like a playground in a badly run school where people gang up on each other and it can get really unpleasant. When teachers start behaving, on a public forum, in a nasty and bullying fashion, it just leaves me concerned for the children they teach. But I’m learning to mute and block people that behave that way and just follow (those I agree and disagree with) people that behave like respectful adults.

Let’s indulge in a little blue sky thinking; given an unlimited budget and unlimited resources, how would you design a school with wellbeing at its heart?

The thing is, I don’t think a school that prioritises wellbeing needs stacks of money. Cutting down on paperwork, meetings and pointless tasks costs nothing. Treating staff like professional and autonomous adults costs nothing. So, budgets aside, here is what I would:

  • Invest in relationships.
  • Respect the humanity of your pupils, teachers and parents.
  • Design a curriculum that teaches knowledge of the self and knowledge of the world, with the aim that your pupils take that knowledge to make the world a better place for themselves and future generations.
  • Constantly ask yourself, ‘What’s the point?’ If there isn’t one, don’t teach it, don’t do it, don’t tick that box. Life is too precious to waste.
  • Explicitly make happiness a core value of your school. Teach about what contributes to happiness but then practice it. Knowing what makes you happy doesn’t make you happy. You have to ‘do’ happiness.
  • Foster healthy habits of body and mind in your school – regular exercise, savouring positives, thinking optimistically (but realistically), mindfulness. We don’t question brushing our teeth because we know it’s good for us. We now have a wealth of research that shows what else is good for our mental health and wellbeing, so we should establish healthy habits early.
  • Understand that you cannot ‘make’ pupils or teachers happy. All you can do is create the right conditions, teach about it, encourage regular practice but the rest is over to them.
  • Give teachers lots more ‘non-contact time’ (about 30% out of class) so they have the chance to think! This is probably the only thing that would cost a lot of money!
  • Abolish SATs.

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