Teaching is one of the most rewarding professions but also incredibly demanding and stressful. Hear Meg Durham, Founder of Open Mind Education, explain how to improve the mental health of teachers in our school system.
Teacher wellbeing is a critical part of healthy and effective learning environments. Yet educators will often put their students’ needs far above their own, leading to burnout and significant falls in job satisfaction.
An Australian expert in teacher and student wellbeing, Durham eloquently explains the benefits of improving mental health for teachers and students. She provides actionable advice on understanding your own selfcare and ways that schools can support their valuable teachers.
Here are 4 lessons from Meg Durham’s interview (below) on how to protect our teachers’ mental health on the job.
- Prioritise Self-Care
- Be Aware Of Your Mental State
- Embrace Progress Over Perfection
- Establish a Shared Language.
- Unleash Learning TV interview with Meg Durham: Watch Now.
1: Prioritise Self-Care
Teaching is a demanding profession, where each day in class needs energy and emotional investment. Durham says it’s easy for educators to forget their own wellbeing to focus on students and the demands of the job. But being aware of your own needs is the first step to improving teacher wellbeing. Durham encouraged teachers to ask themselves 5 essential selfcare questions every day:
- Have you had enough sleep for your body in the last 24 hours?
- Have you moved your body in the last 24 hours?
- Have you nourished and hydrated your body in the last 24 hours?
- Have you had some rest or fun, unproductive time in the last 24 hours?
- Have you had some quality connections with others in the last 24 hours?
2. Be Aware Of Your Mental State
The idea of adding more tasks to an already packed schedule is daunting to most educators. They’re overwhelmed with to-do lists and fear that this focus on wellbeing will only add more tasks. However, Durham says it’s not about doing more; it’s about being aware.
Start by noticing how you feel and your answers to the five questions above. Pay attention to how your emotions impact your functioning, relationships, and leadership. This simple act of self-awareness can make a significant difference in your overall wellbeing.
3: Embrace Progress Over Perfection
Educators often fall into the trap of striving for perfection, whether it’s in the classroom or their personal wellbeing. Durham reminds us that it’s not about achieving perfection overnight; it’s about progress over time.
If you’ve been neglecting your wellbeing for a while, it’s unrealistic to expect immediate, dramatic changes. Instead, set achievable goals and celebrate your progress, no matter how small. If you’ve been rating your energy level at a two, aim for a modest improvement to a three or four. By focusing on progress rather than perfection, you’ll find that your overall wellbeing steadily improves.
4: Establish a Shared Language
Building a culture of wellbeing within schools requires a shared language. For school leaders serious about improving the mental health of teachers, Durham emphasises the importance of creating common terminology and understanding among staff. When everyone speaks the same language, it’s easier to identify and address wellbeing concerns.
For example, Durham says you can introduce a simple tool like the “battery check” where colleagues can quickly gauge their energy levels before a meeting. If most people have low energy, it may be a sign to reschedule the discussion to a more suitable time. Shared language reduces tension, releases pressure, and reminds everyone that they are human.
Watch Meg Durham’s full interview below on how to improve the mental health of teachers.
You will learn ↓
- What Durham wants educators and leaders to know about wellbeing.
- Ways we can all give our wellbeing a boost.
- Where wellbeing fits in our mission to make learning stick for everyone.
- How a team can embed wellbeing so it doesn’t stress everyone out.
[This transcript has been edited for readability and may deviate slightly from the recorded conversation].
[Dr. William DeJean] If you and your team are working to support well-being across your school or organisation, this episode is for you. We’ve got Meg Durham in the house. Now, she’s known for bringing out the best in others. She’s an expert in the area of well-being education and well-being coaching. She’s got a unique skill set and has developed it from working with schools all over Australia, both in the cities and in the regional locations. And she’s also just a really decent human being to chat with. I think you’re going to gain a lot from this episode. You might want to pass it on to your leadership team or educators who you’re hoping will bring out the best in all the great work they’re doing. Meg, welcome to Unleashed Learning TV. Thank you so much for having me. I’m looking forward to this conversation. I hope the timing could not be more perfect. And maybe I’ll tell you why if it comes up.
[Dr. William DeJean] So Meg, you know, what we do at Unleashed Learning is we, in the school space, we work with good schools working to become great schools by embedding a system into the school that unleashes the team teaching potential of the school. And part of that work over three years is a deep dive and deep reflection for teachers, which includes well-being. It’s in there. And for some educators, it’s kind of a big wake-up call, not beating themselves up, but it’s kind of a wake-up call because it asks some questions. And because we are a teaching and learning organisation, what I want to do is talk to you about where well-being fits into that work, rather than it’s something else that has to take place when we get into committees. So, with that in mind, what I want to start with you first is asking the question of, from your work, what do you most want educational leaders and educators to be thinking about or knowing about when it comes to well-being?
[Meg Durham] When it comes to well-being, I’d love school leaders and educators to be aware that they are humans themselves, that they have human needs. So often we care so deeply about our colleagues, about our students, that we just forget that we have our own needs. I’m sure every teacher and leader listening to this, if I ask them, ‘What do your colleagues need? What do your executives need? What do your students need?’ they could give me a full rundown. The longer they know them, the longer the rundown. And then if I ask the question, ‘What do you need?’ they look at me with almost shock, ‘Why are you talking about me? We’re here to serve, it’s student-focused.’ And my invitation to people when it comes to well-being is to remember that you are a human being, you’re not a machine. And if we sacrifice our basic human needs for too long, we actually can’t be the educator and a school leader that we really want to be.
[Dr. William DeJean] I love it. I just love it. We’re almost – and I’m going to use this word on purpose – trained to look outside of ourselves, which also is highly problematic, but that’s another episode. So here’s my next question for you: Like, we’re human beings, what do you need? Where are you in this work? So I want to know. This is why, I’m guessing, people are thinking, ‘I’m busy, like I’ve got so much going on.’ Right? We’re busy educators, we’re busy leaders. How do we embed well-being into our world, rather than, ‘Oh my gosh, I’ve got to add more stuff to my to-do list?’
[Meg Durham] Yes. So many of us think, ‘Oh, well-being. Oh no, another list, another job, another initiative. No more jobs. Don’t give me any more jobs. My to-do list, I can never get on top of it. Don’t give me any more.’ Yeah. And my invitation, firstly, is to start to notice. Just start to notice the way that you’re feeling. How’s that impacting the way that you’re functioning? How’s that impacting the way that you’re relating to others, the way that you’re leading?
And I like to think about these five questions. And these are the five questions that I ask myself every day. But I often ask in workshops and presentations. And that’s: In the last 24 hours, have you had enough sleep for your body? In the last 24 hours, have you moved your body? In the last 24 hours, have you nourished and hydrated your body? In the last 24 hours, have you had some rest or, dare I say, pleasure, fun, unproductive time? And in the last 24 hours, have you had some quality connection? And so just the invitation to notice: How charged is your battery out of those five elements of energy management? How charged are you? And the most common response that I get from educators is around two. And so if we’re at a two, how can we do the work in the world that we really want to do? So it’s not about necessarily doing more. It’s about being aware: My battery, my energy matters. And as I look at it, what’s possible for me? It’s not about changing my life overnight. And that’s something, compared to educators and school leaders, we get these massive hits of, ‘Okay, tomorrow I’ve learned about the battery, and tomorrow I want to be five out of five. And I’m going to get a tick sheet, and I’m going to laminate it, and I want to do it perfectly.’ And this is not what we’re going for. We’re going for progress over time. So if you’re generally a two, what’s possible for you in the next few weeks? What’s something that you could start to flirt with? What do you need to bring a little bit more awareness to in your life potentially when it comes to sleep? What even is your bedtime? What time do you need to go to bed? If it’s movement, something’s better than nothing. If it’s nourishment, one of the key factors that we struggle with in schools is lunch. We just forget about lunch, and we get to about 3:30, and we reach for anything and everything to prop ourselves up. So maybe for a few days, could you think about lunch? So it’s not about doing more. It’s about noticing what your body needs and taking deliberate action.
[Dr. William DeJean] It makes me think, well, in our work in Unleashed Learning, it’s a key in the system, meaning that we teach who we are. And more people have told me they can remember the teacher, but not the content, right? So they remember us. They remember the leadership. I don’t remember all the initiatives the leaders did, but I remember the leader. So if we want to make it stick, what you’re talking about is we actually need to understand who we are in that. And those questions start that journey.
Okay, so let me jump to the next question, my friend, if I can. And what I want to ask you is that sometimes well-being initiatives come to the school, and now it’s like, okay, committee starts, and we’ve got all this stuff to do, and it’s like, it’s over here. It’s something else that has to happen. But as one of my professors famously told me all those years ago, we are a teaching and learning organisation. We’re not a social service organisation, a well-being organisation. And that might be controversial. We’re a teaching and learning organisation. And our mission from our perspective is to make learning stick for everyone. So where does well-being fit in a teaching and learning organisation, rather than a committee that’s over here? How does it integrate?
[Meg Durham] Yeah, I love that word, integrate. And I think that’s key as we think about this question. It’s not an either-or. It’s not well-being or teaching and learning. It’s about how can we integrate it, knowing that when we’re healthy humans, we’re able to learn, we’re able to think, we’re able to think into the future. But when we’re feeling really activated, when we’re in that survival mode, it’s really hard to learn, let alone retain information. We’re just surviving. We’re just surviving to get through that term, to get through that assignment, to finish that exam. But we’re not retaining the information. It’s not sticking. So if we want it to stick, we need to be well. Our nervous system needs to be open enough to receive and process that learning so it can stick.
[Dr. William DeJean] And this is what you just said. I mean, there’s lots. Like, it’s like you just said, it’s really powerful. But this is what I just heard. Okay, so if we — this will be said on the recording, but if we want short-term learning, learning like they just get the assignment done and we tick it off, fine, don’t be well, and don’t even think about it. But if we want something more to happen, if we want it to stick, if we want it to unleash, that is actually part of how we get it to happen because that guard goes up. We’re all — I could talk about, the science as well. So that’s really important because if we want something more to happen, that’s how we focus with good-to-great schools because this is stuff that takes you to the next level.
Okay, Meg, my next question is, I want to make sure I ask it correctly here, okay? How do we embed it systematically rather than it’s one more thing individuals need to do within that organisation? So can you give us some examples of what it looks like systemically when it integrates into the system of a school?
[Meg Durham] So it comes back to that idea of integration again. It’s about the system providing maybe a framework or language. I’m finding more and more that shared language is so powerful. And also, noticing that that individual accountability is important as well because some systems can create the ultimate environment, but at the end of the day, the individual has to step into it as well. I’m thinking about the battery that I shared a bit earlier. Lots of the schools that I work with now, the battery is common language. They go into a meeting, a quick check of the battery. How’s everybody’s battery? And if everyone’s flat, it’s like, okay, we’re not going to have this conversation now because we know it’s not going to go well. And just having that shared language can really help release the tension, release the pressure, and remind everyone that we’re human. Because a lot of tension in school systems is around pretending, performing, producing, trying to be something that we’re not, and looking over our shoulder, thinking, ‘What will other people think?’
[Dr. William DeJean] Yes, like, ‘I’m the only one.’ It’s that vulnerability piece to go, ‘Oh, you’re a human too.’ Right? And also, I think, well, maybe think of as, like, ‘Oh, how are you doing, human today?’
[Meg Durham] And that’s, for me, when I know something is sticking, when I hear students, when I hear colleagues who refer to it. I remember one school that I worked with, they created a recharge room. And that’s where people would go to recharge their battery. So that’s a sign to me, like, ‘Aha, we’re not just understanding the concept at an intellectual level. We’re embodying it, and we have a lived experience of what it feels like to be charged or to recharge on the go.’
[Dr. William DeJean] It’s a reminder that, for us, learning is in the body, not the head. It goes the other way around. And also, what it reminds me is, well, I talk about this a lot, but we don’t remember facts, figures, numbers. We remember in stories, where you’re remembering symbols, we remember in metaphors. So that battery. So when the battery is downloaded, because that’s how people remember, and then you can see within. So as a leader, once some of that stuff is downloaded, you can hear the conversations to know if it’s sticking, because the conversations start changing, is the way I’m just hearing you think about that.
[Meg Durham] Yeah. And then moving towards more solution-focused conversations, it’s more energising conversations, instead of that default conversation that can happen in schools that can be quite depleting and exhausting.
[Dr. William DeJean] There are those kinds of conversations at schools, regrettably complaining is one of the major things that we have to overcome in education when we’re tired.
Okay. So I think everyone can relate to that. There’s a common language, and then we know, because we’re using that language, and then we can reflect on that language because it’s integrated into the structure. So I want to know, you used to be a classroom teacher. I know, knowing what you know now, what do you wish you knew then for your own well-being? What if you had gone back in time and said, ‘God, I know all this stuff now.’ I wish I knew this stuff when I was in the classroom. What do you wish you knew?
[Meg Durham] Oh, this just makes me laugh because it takes me back to my early career days when I was A++. I was doing all the P’s, performing, producing, pretending, all of the things. And I used to not let myself leave my office unless I had sprayed and wiped my desk. My literal inbox had no paper in it. And I was constantly trying to feel like I was on top of it. And I shared an office with an incredible experienced teacher. And he used to look at me and smile some days, and he said, ‘Meg, are you winning the battle against the forces of disorder?’ And I was like, ‘I know I’m not. I’m desperately trying.’ And so what I would love for my younger teacher self to know is there is no end. There is no finish. The beast of education will never be satisfied. There is always more to do. And give yourself permission to leave, knowing that you’ll try again tomorrow. That whatever you get done by a certain time, that’s enough for today. Try again tomorrow. There is always more work to do.
[Dr. William DeJean] I always say learning doesn’t always stick in real time. So it might be later, right? You know what it makes me think about? I mean, I’m probably a little bit older than you, but this is — I’m dating myself — this is before — when I first started teaching, this is before — I mean, this is — I’m dating myself — we didn’t really have email hitting the school yet. The internet was just starting, sort of, dating myself. We didn’t have learning management systems. So now it’s just gone boom. So could you imagine trying to clean the — metaphorically — and then also trying to keep on top of all that? It’s not possible.
[Meg Durham] It is not possible. And now, as a parent of a school-aged child, I can’t even keep up with the communication coming to me. So there is just so much communication. It’s changed so much. When I started out, email was something that you used sometimes. It wasn’t something that we relied on. It was colleague to colleague. We wouldn’t email a parent. You wouldn’t even dream of that. You’d pick up the phone and talk to a parent. So it highlights just how much has changed and probably even more importantly now than ever before to recognize that you’ll never be on top of everything. There is always more to do.
[Dr. William DeJean] It’s one of the things that I think — and I want to ask you the rapid-fire questions in just a second — but one of the things I’ve heard educators who learn the unleashing system say, their cognitive load drops because they finally can organise it, and they’re not trying to — they can organise that stuff. So just maybe think of a conversation I had actually earlier today.
Okay, Meg, I think you really helped us think about common language, systematising this, how it fits within. But now I got a couple of rapid-fire questions for you, okay? No pressure.
Okay, no pressure.
All right, here we go. First one is, favourite teacher?
[Meg Durham] My parents.
Oh, I love that.
[Meg Durham] My parents come to mind. They are my first and my ongoing educators and leaders. That’s so — I think of — I think of taking time with my dad. He’d always be at football, and just watching him coach and be with people. And I think of my mom reading me books. They were my first and most special teachers.
[Dr. William DeJean] Oh my gosh, that is the best. That is the best.
How about — and it might be the same — the person who’s most influenced your learning journey?
[Meg Durham] Yeah, I would have to say, together, they are the dynamic duo that have walked with me the whole time. And I’ve never felt like they’ve told me what to do, but they have the ability to walk with and support and encourage. And as I take leaps forward, they’re there, knowing that if I fall, what’s the worst that can happen? And I think that’s a beautiful gift and privilege to have people that can walk with you and be with you and not feel they have to change things or smooth things out or fix it for you or tell you what to do.
[Dr. William DeJean] A colleague said to me, “Every kid just needs one adult like that in their life.” And if it’s not their parents, it could be a teacher, it could be a community. One person that does that for you had two. How lucky.
Okay. Last question. Thinking about the work you do in well-being education, what is one thing you really, really want to stick?
[Meg Durham] For people to be human with human needs. You are a human being, not a human machine. And something is better than nothing.
[Dr. William DeJean] I love it. I love it. I think we need t-shirts that say, “I’m a human being,” right? We need a — we did — and I’m a — I’m a permission to be a human being. Well, Meg, I think that you’re going to help us all be permission to have permission to be a little bit more human. And what I know from the sciences is that’s what some of the stuff that makes learning stick. So thank you for being here. We really appreciate it.
[Meg Durham] Thank you so much for having me. I’ve really enjoyed this conversation.
[Dr. William DeJean] Rock and roll. We’ll talk soon. Bye-bye.
[Meg Durham] Bye-bye.
This article was updated in September 2023.