Top tips for teachers to support good mental health and wellbeing

Teachers mental health
Most of us know that physical health and mental wellbeing are closely related and that paying attention to things like sleep, diet, movement and exercise are important. As teachers, we advise students, colleagues, friends and family on such matters but how often do we practice what we preach?
Teachers mental health and wellbeing: From knowing to doing
Are you eating too much bread, not enough veg and drinking more fizz than water? Do you help your students to revise, talk to them about cognitive load and the value of taking breaks but spend your working day and leisure time interacting with a screen? Some days would the Fitbit (other devices are available) barely register 2,000 let alone 10,000 steps?

We know it’s important to have meaning and purpose in our own lives, to recognise our achievements and to take time out most days to remind ourselves of things to be grateful for, such as the people we love, the food we eat, the health we enjoy and the possibilities for the future. But do you actually do this?

We advise students, colleagues, friends and family about ways to protect, improve or nurture good mental health and wellbeing but how often do you reflect on the thoughts, beliefs and actions that limit or sabotage your own wellbeing and then form more constructive, enriching thoughts and alter some of your behaviours? Are there friendships or social networks you haven’t connected with for a while, or comprised relationships with family or friends that you could take the first step to repair?

Below are three ‘Tips for Teachers’, intended to ‘tip you’ from knowing to doing:

1. Micro mastery

The term was coined by Tahir Shah and Robert Twigger in 2016; books and numerous articles and blogs have been written on the subject. In the context of mental and physical health, I interpret this to mean that if you want to become a superstar expert at something then go for it, but this can take thousands of hours of deliberate practice. However, if you choose one or two things every year and commit to finding out about them from different perspectives, grappling with nuances and complexities, seeking feedback from others if applicable, refining your knowledge or skills and becoming a micro-master, then that could be rewarding, fun and constructive.

My own micro mastery topics over lockdown have been pea soup, unconscious bias and making videos for training purposes. I can now announce, modestly, after three months trialling several different recipes, I am not merely a micro-master, but a macro-master, unrivalled in our household! The soup is tasty and nutritious, the process of learning has been fun, I have knowledge of blending flavours that can be applied in other soup or non-soup contexts. Soup-making, like most creative activities was mindful, energising and rewarding.

In terms of making unconscious bias the main topic of research and inquiry for the past six months and being eager to learn more about things like confirmation, outcome, beauty, gender and negativity bias, this has helped me learn about my current and past relationships and how I dealt with situations. I am better equipped to help students, teachers, leaders and other people to recognise their own unconscious bias, and less likely to feel like an ‘imposter’, than if I had watched a couple of TED talks, read something on Wikipedia or Google-spiralled for an hour or so. I knew about unconscious bias before lockdown, but making this one of my micro mastery focal points has turbo charged my ability to apply my knowledge and understanding.

2. Curiosity

Neuroscience makes strong correlations between curiosity and long-term memory. When we are exposed to information whilst in a state of curiosity, we are more able to apply the knowledge and skills at a later date. Being in state of curiosity activates the limbic system in the brain and increases the release of dopamine which is helpful for focused attention and motivation.

Curiosity is associated with questioning, exploration, learning and discovery, all characteristics helpful for achieving goals and protecting good mental health.

There are associations with resilience when our curiosity is activated – we persevere, seek solutions and are less easily distracted – and curiosity is a close ally of creativity, awe and wonder. So why not spend at least three months or longer making curiosity your micro-mastery subject? Find out how it can enhance self-awareness and support good mental wellbeing. 

Learn how being curious can help you (or the people you wish to help) to understand cultures, religions, sexualities, gender identities and other characteristics that are less familiar to you, thereby mitigating against unconscious bias, suspicion, fear, anxiety, stereotyping and other responses unhelpful to good mental wellbeing and social relationships. Most of all, find out how curiosity, wonder and a zest for life can be rediscovered, switched-on and cultivated.

3. Acceptance and Commitment

If I was sat on a rocking chair in the twilight of my life and some younger person came and asked me ‘what’s the most useful thing you have learned in your life’, it would probably be linked to acceptance and commitment; accept what has happened and commit to whatever you decide to do next.

Acceptance is not passive resignation, agreeing with or liking something that has happened or giving up. It is not a sign of weakness but an acknowledgement that something has happened and now I can choose what to do next: shall I forget about it, walk away, learn from it, distract myself, seek justice or try to build bridges? We cannot change something that has happened but we can try to make sense of it, decide what to do next and then commit to doing it.

In summary, curiosity, reflection, acceptance, commitment and action are what can really help support good mental wellbeing; it is not enough to know, we must also do.

Qualified mental health support in schools: The School Mental Health Specialist​

Would you like to develop your expertise in student support and wellbeing? You could become the school mental health specialist of your school or college. Learn more here.