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News & Views article

Breathe between the thoughts: Why mental health support for teachers is not a luxury but a basic need

A photo of the author, Matthew Audley.

Matthew Audley

23 February 21

Matthew Audley is Lead Trainer for Place2Be, responsible for quality assurance of training delivery across the UK. He is a UKCP registered psychotherapist and clinical supervisor, with 25 years’ experience. He also works as an organisational consultant, trained through the Tavistock and Portman NHS Trust and is currently training as a Group Analyst at the Institute for Group Analysis.

Teaching is a relational task

At the best of times teaching is a challenging and potentially stressful task. It not only involves conveying information but building the intellectual and creative capabilities of children while managing the individual and collective behaviour of the class.

Beyond this, attachment theory emphasises that teaching is primarily a relational task: that authentic learning can only happen where there is trust and consistency established between teacher and child over time.

As a charity supporting the mental health of children in school settings, Place2Be has long recognised the importance of supporting teaching staff to manage the impact of working with children with mental health needs.

Throughout our decades of school-based provision we have noticed how teachers regularly experience the vicarious trauma of working to support these needs through their day-to-day, hour-to-hour practice.

‘I haven’t got the time to think’

Right now we are experiencing a collective trauma. We are all struggling to process and adapt to significant loss. This loss is felt particularly keenly in areas of society where there continues to be close human contact. Like Hospitals. And Schools.

A teacher recently declared in the middle of one of our group wellbeing sessions - “But I haven’t got the time to think”. She was feeling so geared up to performing tasks and reacting to relentless challenges (whilst forever on her feet) that it felt almost impossible to pause and take time to reflect on her experience. Sadly for her, the opportunity to reflect has become so unfamiliar it becomes almost frightening.

Teachers absorb and digest the emotional psychological impact of working with vulnerable children often without knowing. If not given the chance to process and reflect on this experience they risk becoming psychologically blocked. This can begin to seriously compromise a teacher’s mental health.

The consequent stress generated impinges on their ability to focus; it questions their self-confidence and invites self-doubt. Like the children they work with, teachers can become vulnerable to generalised anxiety in relation to their ability to perform the very task that they have made their life’s vocation.

‘Breathe between the thoughts’

Teachers need dedicated time to ‘breathe between the thoughts’ of their unrelenting performance and experience. This is not a luxury. It is a basic need.

When a counsellor works therapeutically with children it is an ethical requirement that they receive ‘supervision’ for an hour at least once monthly. It has long astonished and shocked me that teachers do not receive the same support to process their work experience.

We are letting down our children if we don’t properly support teachers to reflect on their experience. It supports and builds resilience in their own well-being, and therefore reinforces their capacity to build secure and trusting working relationships with the children they teach.

The role of Place2Be

In response to this priority need, Place2Be has developed an online group wellbeing service known as Place2Think. Teaching staff at all levels, from head teacher through to mid-day supervisor, are given the opportunity - in small groups relevant to their role - to process the emotional impact of their work, step back from the psychological demands of continuous performance and make sense of what they have learnt.

This not only informs better practice. It also ensures they are better able to manage and sustain their own mental health. We are fortunate to have funding to be able to offer this service for free to all Education professionals in London and Scotland.

In addition, we are delighted to be able to offer our online Mental Health Champions – Foundation Programme for free to all UK based teachers and school staff. The 5-week programme not only focuses on the mental health of children and young people, but also crucially on the adults around a child including teachers.

During this traumatic time when teacher resilience is key to sustaining the mental well-being and resilience of vulnerable children, a ‘whole school’ approach to mental health should be part of the working fabric of every school throughout the country. This cannot wait until tomorrow when the pandemic has waned. Teachers need time to ‘breathe between the thoughts’ right now.