Teacher Well-being: Applying the PERMA model.

20 Jan 2022

I gave an online talk at Mortimer Community College this week. In it, I was exploring the steps teachers can take to both teach effectively and build the resilience needed to thrive in our wonderful but demanding profession.

I have been fascinated by this question for a number of years now: what helps people to achieve their potential and sustain themselves in teaching? It has been core to each of my books, and a particular central exploration in my latest ‘Teacher Resilience’. 

In support of this interest and desire to be useful and supportive for teachers, last year, I spent the year training as a coach and alongside this read widely about positive psychology. For me, the two aspects are integral to supporting teachers in the classroom.

The concept of positive psychology was initial created by Abraham Maslow (Scott Barry Kaufman’s book on Maslow ‘Transcend’ is a brilliant read on this), and popularised by the work of Martin Seligman. His Ted talk is a good introduction to the central theories and concepts.

Fundamentally, positive psychology is the study of human flourishing and what enables it. I find this definition of it from Seligman helpful in clarifying its intent:

“The aim of Positive Psychology is to catalyse a change in psychology from a preoccupation only with repairing the worst things in life to also building the best qualities in life.’

Seligman has derived a useful acronym, which I think has significant value in considering how teachers can support their own capacity to thrive in the school environment: PERMA.

P – Positive Emotion

E – Engagement

R – Relationships

M – Meaning

A – Accomplishment.

For the purposes of this blog, I thought it might be interesting to reflect on some key questions that might stimulate some further reflection on each of the particular aspects.

Well-being for teachers seems to be often something that is done to us – an initiative that is well-intentioned, but that just seems to take up more time. Instead of some kind of whole-school agenda, individual well-being is uniquely personal. This process of reflecting on what we truly want, and how we want to get there through this PERMA model, should both empower and motivate us.

I have been fortunate enough to do lots of coaching with teachers and leaders this year, as I try to build my own skills (if you would be keen to explore some coaching, please just get in touch with me!). Lots of the below are questions that I have used in coaching conversations, and have hopefully have helped to provide some meaningful reflection in coachees.

Positive Emotion

At the core of this is about trying to minimalise the negativity bias that can often cloud our thinking about working in schools. This is, of course, an innate inner bias that makes us much inclined to let negative thinking overtake positive reflections.

The busy and unpredictable life of a teacher means that there is often lots that we can be negative about. I’m sure we can all name the staffroom snipers who have let that negativity bias completely embody their entire day in a school environment.

Giving space to deliberately cultivate positive thinking in our school day, however, can make us feel much more positive about our work with young people.

Questions:

  1. What three things can you be grateful about today?
  2. What part of a lesson went very well today?
  3. What interaction did you have today that made you smile?
  4. What colleagues do you have around you that you really value?
  5. What do you have to look forward this week?
  6. What else in the school environment helps you to channel positive emotions?

Engagement:

This is a fascinating area to consider in reflection to teacher improvement and efficacy throughout the day. It is related to flow, and its focus is on being totally absorbed in a task. I think this is an interesting one to consider when reflecting on our classroom practice – how often are we totally immersed in a lesson, and entirely focussed on the learning and young people?

Questions:

  1. What helps you to feel in ‘flow’ in a lesson?
  2. What might serve as a distraction for you during the school day? What could you do about it?
  3. What helps you to stay more in the present moment?
  4. What are your character strengths that help you to stay engaged and in the moment? (this website can help you identify your strengths: https://positivepsychology.com/via-survey/)

Relationships

Anyone who has ever worked in a school knows just how pivotal relationships are. Connections with young people and with other colleagues are one of the aspects that give our job significant joy and enjoyment.

I also think collaboration is vital in this area: are we hiding away, very much ‘captains of our own ships’, or are we seeking as many opportunities to prevent replicating the same work – through sharing and rich dialogue with each other?  I know this is one area of my own work in school that I could be much better at:

Questions:

  1. How are you celebrating positive relationships with young people?
  2. Are you investing time in supporting teachers around you?
  3. What formal mechanisms for collaboration are you engaged in?
  4. What informal collaboration are you engaged in?
  5. What are your most important relationships in the school environment and how are you sustaining them?

Meaning

This comes down to a core sense of purpose in life – finding something that is bigger than the self. I think that this idea of having a core driving purpose is key to what makes brilliant teachers: they are deeply committed to doing their best for young people.

My own experience, however, is that idealism can at times be worn down by some of the more challenging aspects of our craft – particularly the accountability and paperwork. So how can we sustain holding on to that larger purpose?

Questions:

  1. What are your values as a teacher?
  2. Are you currently employing those values in that work?
  3. What could you do in the school environment that would help you connect with your values?
  4. What can you do to channel that early enthusiasm you might have felt about teaching?

Achievement

No matter what our role is, without a sense of progression or a deepening of skill and achievement, we start to lose motivation. I think for teachers this is so important, it is such a complex craft that to not be invested in growing and improving means that we will effectively become ‘stuck’ in a particular way of being in the classroom.

Slowing ourselves down to enable some deep reflection on what goals we want to set, and how we can achieve them, can help to keep us professionally energised.

Questions:

  1. What have you recently achieved that you feel proud of?
  2. What would you like to achieve in the next five years? How will you get there?
  3. What area of your teaching practice do you feel interested in developing?
  4. What goals can you set to develop over this academic year? How can you achieve them?

This is a very general overview of a complex area, but I hope reflecting on some of these questions has been helpful. It might be that the questions appeared more challenging in one particular area, and in that case spending some time investing on that might prove beneficial to your own well-being.

The words of Seligman seem fitting to finish on, we all need a reminder to seek out the positives in January!

“When we take time to notice the things that go right – it means we’re getting a lot of little rewards throughout the day.”

Thank you for reading.

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Jamie Thom

English teacher, host of @TES English teaching podcast. Author of 'Slow Teaching.' MEd in Practitioner Enquiry, doctorate student #StrathEdD. Runner.

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