Exclusive Interview with Peter Radford, author of Love Teaching, Keep Teaching

Reading Time: 5 minutes

We caught up with Peter Radford, author of Love Teaching, Keep Teaching: The essential guide to improving wellbeing at all levels in schools, published by Crown House Publishing to find out more about his approach to wellbeing in schools. 

How did the book come about?

Basically, I had a breakdown in 2016. I was in a senior leadership position at a huge school and I got to the point where I was not coping with all the plates I was trying to keep spinning. Looking back, it had been a long time coming and I can see now I was having panic attacks on a daily basis. But I had just internalised everything and had my head down ploughing through. I had a moment one day, almost like a premonition, as I stared at my inbox and saw a day not very far away when I wouldn’t be able to do anything. It scared me. So I took the next day off. One day turned into 3 months as I came face to face with the reality of mental health and just how significant it is to our daily ability to function. I had always been a champion of staff wellbeing in my school (preaching it if not practising it!) and now I had become another casualty of the teaching profession. I knew another way was possible and began speaking and leading INSET on the subject of staff wellbeing. The book examines the three big factors that contributed to my own and many others’ experience of becoming burned out and disillusioned and what we can do to change things.

From your research and experience, which well-being strategies have been most successful in changing whole school culture?

Changing culture doesn’t happen overnight. And that’s important to recognise in a profession that is quite re-active. We need to step back from everything we are doing and ask some big questions like, Why are we doing the things we’re doing? and What are we trying to achieve? The most significant factor in effecting culture change is engaging middle leadership. Middle leaders are the single most significant element in transforming the culture of school. If your middle leaders are mentally well, engaged and motivated then that will have a massive ripple effect on the whole of your staff team. Culture change doesn’t happen from the top down. Things have to change at a grass-roots level: teachers need to feel valued, listened to and trusted. And whether they do or not is mostly down to their team leader. Gallup have surveyed over a million companies on staff engagement and discovered that 75% of people leave their job because of their direct line manager. Train, look after and engage your middle leaders and you will have a totally different school.

The Wheel of Teaching is a really useful strategy to look at your own wellbeing and job satisfaction. Do you feel that particular spokes on the wheel impact teachers’ wellbeing more than others?

The Wheel of Teaching seeks to acknowledge the fact that a teacher’s role is multi-faceted and complex. Some days the most significant thing we will do is not the lessons we teach or the feedback we give, but the informal chat we have with a student that pre-empted safeguarding issue, or the after school club we run that helps a student feel like they have a sense of belonging. The problem is that for the most part we only get measured for the exam results we achieve as compared to national averages. This means that we can go through much of the year feeling like we are sinking beneath the workload with so much of what we do taken for granted or staying unacknowledged. The Wheel of Teaching seeks to acknowledge that all these elements of being a teacher are important and we need to keep them in balance. It also affirms the fact that in many ways, is in any caring profession, the work is never done. There’s never a point at which I can say ‘I’ve finished’ and that can lead to pushing ourselves to an unhealthy degree that leaves the rest of our lives out of balance or damaged.

How can we support staff to restore their passion for teaching in such challenging times?

There are three things I would start with. 1. Trust them to do their job and do it well and regularly demonstrate trust. Feeling like you are being judged, feeling like you have to watch your back produces performance anxiety and a sense of always falling short. This means ditching formal observations and work scrutinies and shifting to seeing leaders as coaches not managers. 2. Hand in hand with trust is increasing autonomy. Giving teachers the freedom to teach how they want to teach and to innovate. That doesn’t mean forgetting accountability. It means beginning to inspire teachers to think ‘What could we do?’ instead of ‘What haven’t I done yet?’. 3. Always acknowledge effort and good work. A study was done at Duke University which showed that neglecting to acknowledge work done has the same impact on morale as deliberately destroying their work in front of them!

What would you advise teachers and leaders to do if they’re at breaking point? 

Number one: talk to someone you trust. Whether inside or outside of the school context. It is so important to express how you are feeling and feel like someone understands how you’re feeling. Second I would say, consider whether how your feeling is to do with teaching or to do with the school or context in which you’re doing it. Schools vary widely in the way they work and the degree of support offered. Thirdly I would say don’t be afraid to give yourself a break. Mental health is real. If you had broken your leg you would be off work. If you had cancer you would be off work. Mental ill-heath is just as real. I understand entirely the feeling of guilt that many battle with at being off work due to stress both in terms of missing students and how other staff perceive it. But looking after yourself now will cause far less fallout further down the line. Look after yourself and take the time you need.

Can you share any success stories of staff that do maintain a balanced life as a result of your strategies and training?

I know lots who have used the Wheel of Life to proactively ensure a more balanced life. And the realisation that I don’t have to be the perfect teacher, I just have to be myself is a big one. A good friend of mine said, “Once I accepted that the job is impossible, it became a whole lot easier. Instead of feeling like I was constantly failing I switched focus and starting recognising the good things I was doing.” This is a major realisation. When we cut ourselves some slack and resolve to do our best instead of trying to be ‘outstanding’ at everything, we are able to perform better and feel better about it. I also know of schools now who are starting the year with staff wellbeing training and teaching staff how to manage their emotions. This has the power to improve outcomes throughout the year far more effectively than starting the year with a raft of new expectations. Gradually teachers and leaders I talk to are waking up to the fact that we can’t bypass teacher wellbeing on the way to better outcomes for students. Good student outcomes are the direct product of a healthy, motivated and enthusiastic staff team. So looking after your staff is Number One!

Find out more at Peter’s website Beyond This