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Dr Zofia Bajorek

Healthy teachers, higher marks? Establishing a line between teacher health and wellbeing, and student outcomes?

Authors: Dr Zofia Bajorek

22 August 2014

I, like I suspect many others, have friends and relatives who are teachers, and I have great admiration for them.  Not only because they have entered a vocational role to help other people, but also because of the number of hours they seem to spend planning lessons, teaching, marking, counselling students, developing extra-curricula activities and caring for those they teach.  It therefore doesn’t come as much of a surprise that I often hear those friends tell me how tired they are or how drained they a feeling; list off the symptoms of the latest bug going around school; and sometimes complain that they are ‘fed-up’, feel like ‘giving up’ and how they ‘don’t feel valued’ for the work they do.  We as a society expect our teachers to be inspirational, on top form and encourage students to do the best they can in addition to helping them achieve high grades – for the child’s own future but also for society as a whole.  It is therefore worrying that education is the third highest sector in terms of work-related stress anxiety and depression. What many people don’t consider is how teacher health and wellbeing can have an impact on student outcomes.

"I have constant exhaustion, forgetfulness, sore throats, aching body every day and am unable to partake in family life. I have repeated conjunctivitis infections in the holiday.  I feel I am stretched to the absolute limit and am told I am underperforming at work.  And yet, I know I am a good teacher and I care sincerely about the progress and wellbeing of the children I teach.”

The Work Foundation, in partnership with the Teacher Support Network, has undertaken a literature review focussing on this relationship.  From an organisational perspective, employee wellbeing is important for quality, performance and productivity, and is strongly related to work stress and employee absence.  In the current education environment, where schools are being asked to increase student attainment within a diminishing budget, it is pivotal that schools can harness the best performance from their most important resource: teachers.

Let’s, for a few moments, compare teaching to another sector – the NHS.  If we are ill, we want to be treated by a doctor who is healthy, has slept well, isn’t overworked and has our best interests at heart. The evidence confirms this suspicion: it suggests that these doctors lead to improved patient outcomes.  This was highlighted by the Boorman (2009) review.   The review highlighted that the NHS has above average levels of sickness absence related to MSDs, stress anxiety and depression.  However, importantly, the review discussed the clear relationship between staff health and wellbeing and patient satisfaction.  When medical staff reported burnout they were at a greater risk of delivering sub-optimum patient care, including increased patient errors and reduced patient attentiveness.  My own PhD research also highlighted that the use of temporary staff to cover staff absences could also have implications for patient safety and service quality, if not managed effectively.  Evidence from this sector is extremely useful when discussing implications for teacher wellbeing and student outcomes, considering the high ‘professional to client’ interactions and the pressure to reach quality targets.

Although there is widespread expectation that a relationship between teacher health and wellbeing and student outcomes exist, the findings of this literature review highlighted there is limited literature available showing a direct link.  We have to be aware that teachers are one of many factors that can be associated with a student’s educational attainment – other factors include an individual’s home and family life, the location of the school, the school’s culture, their peers, and the classes that students are placed in.

However, a few studies did suggest that teacher effectiveness has an impact on student outcomes and that a relationship between teacher wellbeing and student outcomes does exist, although it may not be a causal relationship.  A notable piece of research in this area was conducted by Dewberry and Briner (2007).  They found a statistically significant positive association between staff wellbeing and SATs results, with increases in the average levels of enjoyment reported by teachers being significantly and positively associated with pupil performance.  Although this research suggested a relationship exists, it does not conclude that teacher health and wellbeing causes poor student attainment. 

Ostroff (1992), in an American study found that there was a significant positive relationship between student outcomes and teacher job satisfaction (job satisfaction being a proxy for wellbeing), suggesting that a more satisfied teacher would perform to a higher standard and take less time off.  Slater and colleagues (2009) found that teacher effectiveness was related to higher student attainment in exam results, however, their results also highlighted that the most important factor when considering student attainment was pupil effectiveness.  Finally, Estyn (2013) reported that staff absence (used as a proxy for wellbeing) could have an impact on student attainment in a number of ways.  For example, replacement teachers do not have the same relationships with permanent staff, can lead to discontinuity in teaching and may not know the special needs and abilities of certain pupils leading to disruption in their educational needs.

So, where do we go from here?

The literature has highlighted a research gap into the level and causes of teacher absence and teacher wellbeing and its outcomes for both the individual and the school.  In the same way healthy NHS staff can have direct and indirect effects on patient outcomes, The Work Foundation and the Teacher Support Network believe that a healthy teacher workforce can positively influence student educational attainment.  However, to test this hypothesis there is need for some targeted and applied research to establish if this causal link exists.  With teacher and student health, and educational outcomes at its heart, this proposed research will be significant for not just the teaching workforce but for society as a whole.