Teacher wellbeing is critical to a thriving learning environment but too often overlooked. Why? Dr. Suzy Green, clinical psychologist and Founder of The Positivity Institute, explains the situation and how to improve teacher wellbeing for the benefit of themselves and students.
- Be Proactive on Mental Health in Schools
- Wellbeing Literacy for Educators
- Managing Educator Empathy empathy
- Identify Your Values at Work and Home
- Video: watch now
There is a growing focus on creating a proactive school culture when it comes to the mental health of teachers and students. Today’s school leaders have access to evidence-based strategies that can manage and potentially avoid psychological distress and disorders. Dr. Suzy Green emphasised that waiting for crises to occur before addressing mental health issues is counterproductive. Instead, she suggests implementing strategies proactively to boost mental health and wellbeing.
“We’re now at a point where we can recommend scientific skills and strategies that can prevent mental health issues from arising. The book [The Positivity Prescription], aims to take this science to the public, outlining key psychological skills that can proactively enhance our mood, mental health, and overall well-being.”
Wellbeing Literacy for Educators
Dr. Green introduces the concept of “wellbeing literacy.” Just as traditional literacy is taught in schools, it’s equally important to provide resources that can show how to improve teacher wellbeing. Teachers today often feel overwhelmed with the workloads they face and constant changes to teaching practice. Dr. Green says educators need to reframe their mindset on investing in themselves, so they understand how this will better support students and those around them. School communities can increase their focus on giving professional development resources and support. This will give educators the tools they need to maintain their own mental health.
“[Investment in wellbeing] does require what we would call in psychology a cognitive reframing, or a different perspective, on viewing the time that you invest. Because ultimately it is about helping others to the best of your ability.”
Rethink Teacher Passion and Wellbeing
Dr. Green shed light on educators’ innate desire to make a difference in students’ lives. Many educators that undertake a character strengths survey have find ‘kindness’ as a key trait. This quality is crucial to being a passionate, effective teacher. However, this emotional focus on others can lead to neglecting their own wellbeing. Dr. Green encouraged educators to view investing in their personal wellbeing like “filling a glass”. A full glass enables teachers to give more effectively to others, while an empty glass hampers their ability to provide support.
“What we try and I guess help them to see is that an investment in your wellbeing is much like, if your glass is full, it’s very easy to help others. But if your glass is half-empty, you can be quite destabilised and it’s very hard to give to others.”
Identify Your Values at Work and Home
Educators’ are juggling priorities across their personal and work lives. Dr. Green says it’s important to acknowledge this so you can live a life aligned with one’s values, so you can bring the best version of yourself to both worlds. Dr. Green stressed the significance of self-reflection to identify personal values and make conscious choices that support them. This practice not only enhances personal wellbeing but also contributes positively to classroom environments and interactions with students.
“Sometimes we have what we call values conflicts where you know we want to help the student who really needs help, but we also know that we’ve committed to being at home with our family.”
“So get clear on what does matter, and then how do I create a bit of a life timetable that’s going to balance that out and help me do the best that I can to meet those values.”
Watch Dr Suzy Green explore how to improve teacher wellbeing.
This transcript has been edited for readability and may deviate slightly from the recorded conversation.
[Dr. William DeJean] So, while I was reading your book [The Positivity Prescription], and we’ve talked about this previously, what struck me was the discussion about being reactive and proactive regarding well-being. Could you please tell us a bit about how we should differentiate between the two?
[Dr. Suzy Green] Absolutely, and I think it really stood out for me due to my initial job as a psychologist, which was as a clinical psychologist. I spent much of my early years treating individuals’ psychological distress and disorders after they had experienced setbacks. Then, I would teach them the psychological skills to aid them. I quickly realised that it seemed counterproductive to wait for these crises to happen before teaching these skills. Why not teach these skills proactively, especially to children while they’re still in school? We’re not necessarily suggesting that we can prevent every instance of mental illness, but why wouldn’t we offer these skills proactively? They can, and I would argue should, be taught and learned. Drawing a parallel with physical health, there was a major campaign in the 70s and 80s encouraging people to get active instead of leading sedentary lives. This campaign aimed to prevent cardiovascular disease. Similarly, we’re now at a point where we can recommend scientific skills and strategies that can prevent mental health issues from arising. The book aims to take this science to the public, outlining key psychological skills that can proactively enhance our mood, mental health, and overall well-being.
[Dr. William DeJean] It also makes me think that we’re not merely discussing literacy within schools. What you’re emphasising is a literacy centred around well-being. So, that’s what we should be teaching not only to students but also to educators.
[Dr. Suzy Green] Exactly, and this is happening. There’s ongoing research from the Melbourne Graduate School of Education’s Positive Psychologist Center (now the Centre for Wellbeing Science) led by Professor Lindsay Oates, focusing on well-being literacy.
[Dr. William DeJean] In the book, you talk about a “positivity prescription.” Considering our audience here – educators, school leaders, and local leaders – why do educators specifically need this positivity prescription?
[Dr. Suzy Green] Given my over ten years of experience working with educators, I’ve come to realise that most of them genuinely care about others. When we conduct the VIA character strengths survey, which you can take for free, we often find that educators, and not just those in education but anyone attracted to and working in schools, have kindness among their top 5 or top 10 character strengths. This inherent care brings them into education, primarily to support student well-being, as well as the well-being of their peers and families. They are so engrossed in helping others that they often overlook themselves. They might even consider investing in their own well-being as selfish since that means diverting time from others. We aim to help them understand that investing in their well-being is akin to filling a glass. When the glass is full, it’s effortless to help others, but when it’s half-empty, it becomes destabilising and challenging to give to others. This requires a cognitive reframing or a change in perspective regarding the time invested in their well-being. Ultimately, this investment enables them to assist others to the best of their abilities.
[Dr. William DeJean] As we were discussing earlier, teaching standards don’t address the educator’s own well-being. So, there’s a disconnect, expecting professionals to invest in themselves to be effective in their roles.
[Dr. Suzy Green] Absolutely, and there’s noteworthy research by Professor John Hattie in Western Australia, highlighting the correlation between teacher well-being and student well-being. This intuitive understanding is now supported by scientific evidence, along with research on social and emotional contagion theory, emphasising that emotions are contagious. While I’m not suggesting that educators should constantly wear big smiles, the idea is to invest in your well-being to radiate positive energy and have a ripple effect on those around you.
[Dr. William DeJean] As we discussed earlier, educational researchers emphasise that we teach who we are. So, investing in ourselves is essential.
[Dr. Suzy Green] Absolutely, and I’d like to add that this isn’t just about well-being or mental health. In the book, I encourage readers to view this as personal growth as human beings, which resonates with Parker J. Palmer’s ideas as well.
[Dr. William DeJean] You discuss overplaying and underplaying strengths, as well as motivation aligned with values and living a life of purpose. When reading your book, I wondered if we can overemphasise values. Can we overplay our values?
[Dr. Suzy Green] This is a fascinating question. In my experience, educators, who are drawn to this field out of a desire to make a positive impact, can sometimes let this sense of meaning and passion overshadow other aspects of their lives, affecting their health and family life. It’s vital to get clear on our values and address potential conflicts. For example, wanting to help a struggling student while also committing to family time. Self-reflective time becomes crucial to align actions with values effectively.
[Dr. William DeJean] To clarify, we need to have self-awareness. Amidst a busy schedule, we must pause to reflect on who we are and how we want to live.
[Dr. Suzy Green] Absolutely, and this basic self-awareness can be a challenge in the fast-paced world we live in, especially within education. My message is not only for individual educators but also for schools to create space for and encourage this self-reflective time.
[Dr. William DeJean] Moving on to the last question, you’re a doctor, so you can prescribe…
[Dr. Suzy Green] Not medication, but meditation [laughs].
[Dr. William DeJean] [laughs] If you were to prescribe positivity practices to educators, is there one practice you believe we should consider incorporating into our routine?
[Dr. Suzy Green] It’s a difficult question due to the plethora of options, but I’d suggest two things. Firstly, identify what’s already working well in your life. Prioritising positivity involves activities that enhance well-being. It could be spending quality time with family, which, when increased intentionally, can be fantastic. Scientifically, I’d recommend mindfulness, or some form of meditation, which could include prayer, yoga, or Tai Chi. This provides space to calm your physiology and activate your parasympathetic nervous system. Additionally, self-reflection regarding values and daily living is essential.
[Dr. William DeJean] Excellent. Often, the best conversations happen after the episode. We have a question for you, and Susie has something as well. We want to ask educators, network leaders, principals, and district leaders: What proactive steps do you take to focus on your well-being? Share in the comments, and we’ll send a signed copy of Susie’s book, “The Positivity Prescription,” to one outstanding contributor from anywhere in the world. Susie, your book is truly fantastic, and it’s going to have a positive impact. It provides essential literacy for individuals. Reading it, I found myself wondering why I hadn’t known about some of these concepts earlier. I’m hopeful it will be beneficial to all educators watching.
[Dr. Suzy Green] Thank you. I genuinely appreciate it, and I hope the book makes a difference. Both of us are here, cheering you on.
This article was updated in August 2023.