Naomi Ward, UK-based Certified Professional Co-Active Coach, explains how important it is to teacher well-being and retention that they hold a sense of purpose and self-worth, and how coaches can help foster that.
here's a problem with teachers across the education landscape world-wide: they keep leaving.
Reasons for this epidemic include declining job satisfaction, lack of opportunity for flexible working, lack of training and support. Some might also say that there's a disproportionate level of scrutiny on schools, which leads stressed leaders to tighten their grip, resulting in less agency and greater workload for teachers.
Path to teacher burnout: loss of self and purpose
Recent research by the UCL Institute of Education surveyed a sample of 3,500 alumni seeking to find out who had left teaching, who intended to leave, and to explore the reasons for their decision—40-50% of the sample had left or intended to leave. The reasons were familiar but an observation struck me: many of the sample experienced a loss of self, causing physical and mental illness, and prompting some to leave the profession.
Loss of self. That's a high price to pay. All teachers have essential qualities that make their presence and impact unique, and when they are inhabiting such qualities, there is flow, fulfillment, and meaning. If we lose this sense, we lose direction, our sense of worth, and connection to what brings us joy. Why would we stay in an environment where our sense of self is undervalued and eroded? Therefore understanding and articulating our identity and purpose is an urgent task.
While all teachers may have a common purpose—helping young people prepare for the future—this is unlikely to speak to the deeply personal level which connects to self. Let me give you an example of how to create that meaningful connection:
I worked with a teacher, Clare, who was on maternity leave and was soon to go back to work. Connecting to her purpose was the way to regain confidence and clarity to help the transition back to the classroom. I asked her to think of a time in her life when she was at the peak of her powers.
Clare shared a story about a boy in her class who had learning difficulties and wanted to sing to the class because he had missed his chance in a recent talent show. Clare wanted to support him and asked him to go out and prepare his song. She opened her mouth to speak to the students, but they got there first: "we know Miss, we've got his back—don't worry," or words to that effect. The boy came in and sang; the class applauded generously, he was thrilled!
Clare had created an environment in which a boy felt safe to sing to his peers and in which his classmates would celebrate him. She had done this so powerfully that she didn't have to say it aloud; her values and expectations were in the walls. From this and other stories, we drew out her unique qualities and impact to create a statement:
"I am the champion who emboldens students to be mindful of themselves and others."
Look closely and you can see her qualities and impact: a person who will celebrate her students fiercely, who will pass on that courage and draw out the best in them, who will teach them the emotional intelligence to nurture their sense of self, and who will be aware of the impact they have on others. This is purpose: something that is true and connects to that sense of self which demands to be expressed. When that purpose is suppressed, we feel stressed and held back. I realize that there are factors which will get in the way of our individual missions, but at least by knowing and more importantly, feeling our purpose and sense of self, we can fight for it.
Since leaving teaching in 2014, I have trained as a coach and now support teachers in a holistic way, to restore their self-awareness, agency, and purpose. Clare's story and others like it (including my own) have inspired me to create a global community: #PurposefulEducators.
We take the time to reflect and look inward for the answers to why we are feeling unsettled, stressed, or longing for something more. In the #PurposefulEducators online group course we move through five weeks of exploration, peer-coaching, and communal support to a place where each person takes a stand for their unique purpose and is able to articulate it in a meaningful way that anchors the learning we have done. We hold each other accountable to what we have witnessed in each other and celebrate the steps we are taking. There's room for collaboration because there is greater courage and capacity to make change if we do it together.
I've always believed in grassroots communities. It's where sustainable change within education can flourish, where connected communities of educators are empowered to challenge the status quo. From organizing TeachMeets (think TED talks for local communities of teachers), becoming a network leader for #WomenEd (connecting existing and aspiring women leaders) and as a Coach for #MTPTProject (championing teacher parents as they make the transition back to work), I believe that teachers are the experts in what they need in their lives.
My role as a coach is to be seen in order to reach the people who need me. From there, I stand back and watch people connect, communicate, and mobilize in ways that are important to them. Throughout the coaching process, it's important to "let go" of the outcome and shape of what's to come. After all, that's the essence and purpose of being a coach!
About Our Guest Blogger
Naomi Ward CPCC ACC works with educators at all levels of the profession, from newly qualified teachers (NQTs) and Middle Leaders to Head teachers. She was an English Teacher, then Faculty Leader, in London secondary schools for 14 years before training as a coach.
She founded Education Connected in 2015, offering powerful programs of personal development coaching and training. She started the #PurposefulEducators movement in June 2019. She has edited two books about wellbeing in the Education sector. She is an Accreditation Coach for MTPTProject, a Specialist Coaching Consultant for Values-based Education and a volunteer mentor at The Kings Arms Youth Club.