Flourishing teachers: better education, better… budgets?

Abstract (TL;DR): Positive education is great. Genuinely. But teachers often get left out of the goodness. They shouldn’t. Research shows that for teachers to perform at the highest levels (and this have a profound impact on student performance) they need real support, not just to rely on their inherent positivity (which doesn’t work). Leaving teachers to their own devices results in burnout, and attrition. Attrition costs schools a lot of money. Increasing teacher performance and job satisfaction reduces attrition. Ways that we can increase both performance and satisfaction are shown to revolve around high-level teamwork; think communication, positive culture, and conscious skill development rather than a day off for high-ropes.

There is a lot of talk at the moment about Positive Education[i]. This is warranted – Positive Education is drawn out of legitimate and highly promising studies in psychology and education[ii], and the findings so far suggest that rather than just taking time away from legitimate academic pursuits, Positive Education can in fact enhance students’ academic achievement in addition to developing key life skills[iii]. Positive Education is often talked about as being a ‘whole-school approach’[iv], however in practice, the focus is more often entirely on student programmes. Where this is the case, Positive Education can in fact be another ‘thing’ – curriculum change, additional workload etc – that teachers must carry and fold into their already often overwhelming workloads[v]. Lots is being said about the students, but we want to talk about the teachers. What do the elements of Positive Education look like applied to teachers, why is it important, and how do we get it?

Flourishing, the concept of well-being as opposed to the absence of illness or ill-being, is a core concept of Positive Education. To be considered ‘flourishing’ the general consensus is that a person requires both subjective feelings of happiness (hedemonic) as well as elements of eudaimonic well-being – including a sense of purpose and meaning, and the feeling that one’s strengths and capabilities are being engaged, a sense of accomplishment[vi] and so on. When we consider happiness in the workplace, it is interesting to note research on adults that shows “employees who were pre-disposed to view life positively were more likely to quite their job when they were dissatisfied with it”[vii]. So, even teachers who are generally positive and happy with their lives, this may not translate across to job satisfaction, or performance. We cannot rely on a teacher’s innate sense of subjective happiness or positivity to keep them going. We must instead consider a broader approach to their well-being.

Teacher burnout and attrition is a significant issue, and not only in terms of the personal impact on teachers themselves who find themselves in the situation of not wanting to continue. There is a serious financial and practical burden that is placed on schools dealing with teacher turnover. In fact  “the cost of losing an employee can range between 1.5x to 2.5x the departing employee’s annual salary” according to Cascio’s formula[viii]. If we look at the average teacher turnover at each school each year, we are talking serious financial impact. Having flourishing teachers, in addition to students, is clearly a practical boon to the operation of schools.

Setting aside the significant cost effect of teacher burnout, we also consider the flow-on effect of teacher flourishing. Despite knowing that teaching is heavily moralised[ix] – just think of the burden on educators to teach students the ‘skills to be successful in life’[x] (which is no small ask in and of itself) – we cannot shy away from the fact that teachers’ own psychosocial characteristics have a strong impact on student performance[xi]. We know that how teachers themselves feel and perform, both in their lives and their jobs, has a huge impact on their success as teachers – where this success is measured by the success of their students. For students to achieve academically and in life, we rely on teachers to perform, continually, at the highest levels.

So what can we do to support teachers to flourish? For some schools, rolling out a whole-school implementation of Positive Education, together with bucketloads of international experts and substantial staffing allocations might be an option[xii]. For most, though, that is in the realm of wishing upon a star.

What we can do is look at the research to identify the key areas that have the largest affect on teacher well-being. In this regard, there is recent evidence to suggest that teamwork, and inter-staff relationships, are key in terms of successful and high-performance work[xiii], as well as workplace satisfaction and reducing symptoms of burnout[xiv]. When we talk about ‘teamwork’ we are talking not only about social relationships and ‘team-building’ by way of archery or high-ropes courses. In fact, there is evidence to suggest that these types of events may be either entirely ineffective, or in some cases damage staff relationships and increase isolation of certain staff members within a school[xv]. Working on strengths and skills, though, is phenomenally effective[xvi]. Actively building teamwork skills is effective. Teaching and practicing communication is effective. Supporting the flourishing of teachers is effective. And we all want our teachers to flourish. After all, what more important job is there?

What’s the take away? The trend of incorporating Positive Education methodologies into the school curriculum is of benefit to students. If we consider staff in this mix, we can see that there is evidence that staff (and particularly teacher) flourishing has a profound impact on student performance, staff satisfaction and retention. When we improve staff performance, and their happiness at work, we can greatly improve staff retention, which can save schools significant money. The question of how to get teachers flourishing is really the crux of the matter. The research suggests that meaningful development of teamwork skills and work culture is a great way for schools to begin applying the learnings of Positive Education into their staff environment – lifting their teachers, and with them, the students’ education as well as the school’s budget bottom line.

Endnotes

[i] See references.

[ii] C. Ferguson, ‘Is positive education another fad? Perhaps, but it’s supported by good research’, The Conversation, (accessed 12 June 2019) <https://positivepsychologyprogram.com/what-is-positive-education/> ; M. Seligman et al., ‘Positive education: positive psychology and classroom interventions’, Oxford Review of Education, Vol. 35, No. 3, June 2009, pp. 293-311.

[iii] M. Seligman, ‘One leader’s account and the history of positive education’, The state of positive education, World Government Summit, 2017, p. 9.

[iv] T. Cummins, ‘Flourishing without limits: creating a school environment where all students flourish’, Australian Educational Leader, Vol. 37, No. 2, Jun 2015, p. 52; J. Norrish et. al., ‘An applied framework for Positive Education’, International Journal of Wellbeing, Vol. 3, 2013, p 156.

[v] K.K. Sproles, The Flourishing School: School-level factors that impact teacher flourishing, University of Oregon, 2018, p. 3.

[vi] K.M. Page and D.A. Vella-Brodrick, ‘The ‘What’, ‘Why’ and ‘How’ of Employee Well-Being: A New Model’, Soc Indic Res, Vol 90, 2009, p. 148; and K. Sproles, The Flourishing School, 2018, p. 5

[vii] Page and Vella-Brodrick, p. 449.

[viii] Page and Vella-Brodrick, p. 448.

[ix] M. Seligman, The state of positive education, 2017, p. 9.

[x] Cummins, ‘Flourishing without limits’, 2015, p. 52.

[xi] Sproles, The Flourishing School, 2018, p. 2

[xii] Seligman,  The state of positive education, 2017, p. 10.

[xiii] Page and Vella-Brodrick, ‘The ‘What’, ‘Why’ and ‘How’ of Employee Well-Being’,  2009, p. 453.

[xiii] Page and Vella-Brodrick, p. 453

[xiv] Sproles, The Flourishing School, 2018, pp. 3 and 89.

[xv] Sproles, p. 96.

[xvi] Norrish et. al. ‘An applied framework for Positive Education’, 2013, p. 154; Page and Vella-Brodrick, ‘The ‘What’, ‘Why’ and ‘How’ of Employee Well-Being’, 2009, p. 452; Sproles, The Flourishing School 2018, pp. 89.

References and further reading

  1. Cummins, Trina, ‘Flourishing without limits: creating a school environment where all students flourish’, Australian Educational Leader, Vol. 37, No. 2, Jun 2015, pp. 52-54.
  2. Ferguson, C. ‘Is positive education another fad? Perhaps, but it’s supported by good research’, The Conversation, (accessed 12 June 2019 <https://positivepsychologyprogram.com/what-is-positive-education/>).
  3. Norrish, J., Williams, P., O’Connor, M., & Robinson, J., ‘An applied framework for Positive Education’, International Journal of Wellbeing, Vol. 3 Iss 2, 2013, pp. 147-161.
  4. Page, Kathryn M., and Vella-Brodrick, Dianne A., ‘The ‘What’, ‘Why’ and ‘How’ of Employee Well-Being: A New Model’, Soc Indic Res, Vol 90, 2009, pp. 441-458.
  5. Pascha, M., ‘What is Positive Education, and How Can We Apply It?’ Positive Psychology Program, (accessed 12th June 2019 <https://positivepsychologyprogram.com/what-is-positive-education/>).
  6. Seligman, Martin, ‘One leader’s account and the history of positive education’, The state of positive education, World Government Summit, 2017 pp. 8-13, (accessed 12 June 2019 <https://www.worldgovernmentsummit.org/api/publications/document/8f647dc4-e97c-6578-b2f8-ff0000a7ddb6>).
  7. Seligman, M.E.P, Ernst R.M., Gillham J., Reivich K. and Linkins M., ‘Positive education: positive psychology and classroom interventions’, Oxford Review of Education, Vol. 35, No. 3, June 2009, pp. 293-311.
  8. Sproles, K.K., The Flourishing School: School-level factors that impact teacher flourishing, University of Oregon, 2018.
Ariel van Oudtshoorn
Ariel enjoys using her academic background as a historian to research educational phenomena, as well as parenting, music, food, gardening, knitting, language, and most forms of pedantry.