Reflection: Teacher health and well-being

Teacher health and well-being is always a hot button topic for those in the profession and those related to people in the profession. My partner has an extremely stressful, technical job that I could never hope to have the skills to do but he frequently is amazed at my patience and resilience during a school day and articulates he could never do what I do. Below are some musings I have as a “pointy end” practitioner.

So first off, I feel now (and have always felt) the most important thing for a teacher to feel valued is to pay them adequately. In my very first teaching job my head of faculty championed for me when I had an 8 week pay delay and she was very clear that this was a minimal expectation for her staff to feel appreciated and wanted – pay them on time! Pay them we enough to justify a four year degree! Where I am (Australia) has some of the best paid teachers in the western world although this certainly wasn’t the case 15 years ago. When comparing our wages to NZ or the USA, we at least earn a liveable professional wage.

Second thing is to consider the rigours and demands of a system that still mostly uses a “one size fits all” curriculum approach and standardised testing. While I won’t debate the merits of each in this post, it is certainly an identified source of frustration and burn out for teachers in the mainstream system. I’ve just finished reading Gabbie Stroud’s amazing book and it’s evident that the balance between the students needs and the curriculum was constantly impacting her personal well-being and I have to say that I can relate to that.

Finally, workload expectations. The stats on the slide below (which sadly has not copied well but the source is also linked) indicate nearly all teachers in Australia feel consistently overworked on a regular basis and well over 50% experience workplace stress and/or anxiety. Stats like that start to indicate this is becoming the norm. That it’s normal to feel constantly under the pump, normal to respond to unreasonable timelines or requests from management, normal to work 2-3hrs at home every night and more on weekends, normal to feel stressed every day. That’s where my concern comes in – I am not advocating that teaching should have no extra workload or stressful days as that’s just not reasonable but I certainly advocate that this should not be NORMAL. Work life balance really does seem to be a thing of the past in many professions these days, and that includes teaching.


What works for me when I feel burnt out or stressed to the max? Keep in mind I work in a school with some tough kids so most days have some level of stress associated with them – for me there are two types of workplace stress and burn out. There is the type when things get a bit much and you need to take a step back and then there is the type which is ongoing and impacts teaching careers.

On a daily/weekly/monthly basis I do the following to help me stay focused on the positives and enjoyment that comes from my role:

– have appropriate debriefs with staff about the good things, not just focusing on the less positive aspects of trauma based support. We often miss the positives and it’s important to articulate and celebrate them

– happy note jar….in the old days, they used to tell us to keep nice notes from kids or parents in a jar on your desk. When you had a shit day, tip them out and read them. In the digital age that’s a bit trickier but I do have an email folder where I store the positive things people say to me. The parent emails, the student thank you, pictures of something they have drawn or made for me…and emails from fellow staff or management that are positive and affirming as well

– ensure I communicate clearly if my workload is becoming unmanageable and I need help with sorting things out. I have gotten a lot better at this as I have gotten older! I’m also the type of person who frequently volunteers for extra stuff and am lucky my current bosses discuss with me if I *should* be volunteering or not

– I aim not to work on weekends but sometimes it’s inevitable. If I have to do it, i schedule the time in my personal calendar and don’t exceed it. I only ever work on one day of the weekend as well, the other is for naps and reading

– I know many people switch off their emails at home. I don’t, but I do only reply to ones as needed. When I take proper holidays, I turn on my out of office and switch off my email notifications

– I exercise 3-4 times a week and I have personal calming strategies to help me through a difficult day or moment. These include mindfulness processes, deep breathing exercises, being upfront with students and staff (I always cry after a big incident, it’s the Adrenalin dump dammit) and using essential oils on a bracelet to help me focus. We are now at the point where kids ask to sniff my bracelet when they are feeling overwhelmed….it’s weird but seems to help!

As I’ve gotten older and more experienced my strategies for self-management have improved. I have previously experienced classroom burn out though, in fact I’ve experienced it twice in my 14 year career so far.

Burn out one: I finished uni and there were no jobs so I took rural placements. School 1 moved my accomodation four times in a term and I was 1800kms away from everyone I knew. I transferred to school 2 (closer to home!) but experienced some of the worst workplace bullying I’ve ever seen or heard of. This included one memorable incident where three year 12 boys left their classroom, came into the principals office and told him they could hear him from the other section of the school and it wasn’t okay to speak to me like that. I know better how to manage this now but I was a first year teacher at that stage. I then moved on to school 3 where curriculum and behaviour management was a “suggestion” and they were raided by the AFP for fraud!

After that I needed a break. I did debt collection for awhile (school teacher voice was very effective) and also worked with kids who had auditory processing issues. I started my own tutoring business as well which was very successful but ultimately I missed being in the classroom and returned to teaching.

Burn out two: I worked casually and part time in schools again and was always struggling to find full time work due to teacher surplus. Despite this, I did some amazing things with subject areas that were dying off and writing state wide exams. When I moved states, my new state education department was pretty negative about “out of towners” and implied it didn’t matter what amazing experience I had or what I could bring to the table. I decided to have another break from the classroom and did a year working in student support at a university. Once again, I missed the classroom though so after 14 months I took a $35k paycut (!!!) to return to teaching. I’ve been back in the classroom five years this year and have no regrets.


Learning activity: art week with a Christmas theme

Level of Blooms: Understanding, Applying, Creating  

How I would use this strategy in the classroom:

As a small school we sometimes struggle to integrate all areas of the curriculum due to staffing limitations – this is particularly an issue in art and languages.

At the end of 2018 we ran a trial “art week” where we ran a series of art based activities that linked to other curriculum areas and all attempted to address a year 10 achievement standard for art so in theory….they were assessable. These also had a Christmas theme as that’s what the kids expressed interest in. I understand Christmas themed activities are contentious in some schools but this wasn’t an issue for us.

Activities we did with varying success were:

– building gingerbread houses (STEM). It’s worth noting here that not a single young person had built a gingerbread house before and it was an immensely rewarding experience

– making Christmas decorations (Maths)

– making Christmas trees (HASS)

– different mediums of painting including splatter painting and watercolours (Science) + displaying their poetry on the paintings (English)

– making Christmas biscuits (science, maths)

– making worry dolls and writing short stories to accompany them (English)


These activities are all adjustable for the individual. For example some of our students really struggled with the gingerbread house so we either grouped them or have them gingerbread men to decorate.

The role of Work Experience in a trauma framework school

Everyone remembers something about work experience from school – some hated it, some loved it, some avoided it at all costs (that would be me) and some learnt important life lessons about employer/employee relationships that they still apply in their own workplace today.

Work experience for young people with a trauma background is valuable but can be tricky to organise and support. Often, it can be their first experience ever in a workplace and there is not always a model in the home to show how “working” actually works in real life. These are things I have learnt over the past 8 weeks while trying to arrange 21 supported placements for young people in work places:

– We need to set realistic expectations with the workplace. They need to understand our context and our students experiences. They also need to feel valued and supported to encourage them to take on this opportunity and potentially change a young persons life

– getting students to initially engage has been tricky. My approach was to ask what they were interested in and work from there. My principal prefers the approach of encouraging them to have a go at something and it’s okay not to like it…I like the fundamental idea of that but found it almost impossible to engage the young people with that notion. We had a lot of refusal initially which slowly changed as more students got on board.

– Organising it as a group had been hellish on me (over 200hrs extra on my normal load so far) but has so many incidental benefits. Students talk to each other about how they feel, they help each other when struggling, they are all excited TOGETHER and that’s helped the momentum build. They are all completing pre-work experience week activities as a group and it’s been a real relationship builder

– not every kid will be able to do individual work experience at this point. I had the initial goal of getting all 21 into a workplace for at least one day but the current estimate is 15 will go, 2 are non-attending at this time and 4 are not ready. Yet. So they will come to school in that week instead.

– workplaces and young people need (and want) direct contact numbers for our help during the work experience week. Sure, the form says it’s the parents responsibility to collect them in an emergency but that doesn’t really help in the moment when someone is overwhelmed

– transport is, and always will be, a big issue for our students and they families. Drawing the line between supporting them in what might be a first ever workplace interaction and not being relied on too much is tricky. Not to mention the staffing issues on our end….this is something I need to put a lot more thought into for next time to try and get right

– the young people I am arranging to send out are all year 10s. As the younger students have heard them talk about it positively, they have asked for work experience opportunities as well

– Transition is a big focus for us. Into, through and out of the school. Work experience is a part of that but is not the sum (although right now it feels like it is to me!!) and we have to keep focused on the end goal. I’m still working on how I want to manage transitions as an overall process for each young person.

The greatest positive of this first-run work experience program for our students will be that the young people who do complete some/all days will be able to experience success in a REAL WORLD ENVIRONMENT! We try to ensure they experience success at school regularly but it is a somewhat artificial environment – modified learning, adjusted assessment, understanding staff – whereas this is a real, tangible, authentic experience they can build on.

I think I will have to come back after work experience week runs (18-22nd of June) and update how it went.

Learning Activity: Sketch Notes

Level of Blooms: remembering, applying and for those who are doing it right, analysing and evaluating!

How I used this strategy in the classroom + examples: So this is something I have only tried once and I need to work on how to further incorporate it in a trauma framework classroom where students have limited focus and confidence. There are many online resources with detailed structures, how-to lists, focus points and examples that I need to explore some more!

The term sketchnoting describes the style of visual note-taking that has become popular at tech conferences in the past few years. Regardless of the circumstance, the skills for creating a sketchnote can be broken down into four basic categories:

▪ planning

▪ listening

▪ processing, and

▪ drawing.

My thoughts: something to continue to work towards in the future….I can certainly see the value for young people who struggle to focus in class and end up drawing or colouring in.


Amazing top tips to get started


Unusual school experiences: the epic escape attempt of Charlie the croc!

As part of my role within the school, I support students to find work experience placements and engage with work places so they can transition away from us at the end of their schooling. As many of the young people I work with have unique barriers to overcome (hence why they are no longer within the mainstream system) this support can take on many different forms.

Most recently, I accompanied a student to a meet and greet at the Canberra Reptile Zoo. When we arrived for the casual meeting, we were told the main guys we were going to meet with were a little busy but to head on through and see what was happening. It turned out….Charlie the croc had decided to have an adolescent temper tantrum and smashed some heat lamps in his enclosure. They had to rope him to move him away from the broken glass and Charlie wasn’t keen on that at all! In the last 15 secs of the video you can see where he breaks the safety glass on the enclosure and I have a little freak out. I had visions of completing an incident report about staff and student injury via croc!

Zoo staff were very reassuring that we were safe at all times though and that Charlie wasn’t hurt or upset – he was just really annoyed! In the second video you can see they are able to move him away from the glass and then they moved in to replace everything.

I was worried my student would feel more worried about the work experience placement after that somewhat daunting welcome….but nope, they thought it was “pretty damn awesome” I think it will likely hold the title as most unique work experience observation for quite a long time!


P.S. it was definitely good fun to respond to all the teacher/principal joking comments along the lines of “did you get eaten by a croc” on our return 🙂

video 1: eeeek there goes that safety glass

Photo: Yep, he broke that glass good!

Video 2: Charlie finally gets moved in to a safe space by his amazing handlers

Learning Activity: Easter scavenger hunt!

Level of Blooms: remembering, applying and a bit of analysing and evaluating!

How I used this strategy in the classroom + examples: As Easter approached, we took on the task of setting up an Easter egg hunt for our 17 students. It’s something that always happened at the other campus (a farm site) and used to be a “whole school” activity. Numbers of students, supervision needs and transport limits meant that for the first time the Easter egg hunt for the older students (aged 14-17) would be at their newer, more modern campus. This gave me some issues to mull over:

– how do we hide them when every space is in eye sight of every other space?

– how do we avoid conflict or an altercation if they are searching in small, enclosed areas full of potentially breakable things?

– how do we make it fair for those who may find the noise overwhelming or opt out part way through?

In the end, I settled on a scavenger hunt.

I divided all the Easter eggs up separately into sandwich bags (equal allocations) and then had 1st, 2nd and 3rd extra prizes for those who finished the hunt quickest. In the 15 min break before the hunt, a staff member snuck around blu-tacking “animal tokens” like the one below into specific locations.

Students had to follow different clues to get one of each of the 5 animal tokens. Clues were randomly allocated by coordinating staff and given out one at a time so we only ever had a few students searching in each spot. We also had specific staff whose job was to monitor interactions and assist if students were becoming agitated or distressed.

Clues included self-written classics like:

CLUE D (location was under the whiteboard tables):

You can write on me but I’m not a board

I’m also not paper, rest assured

I’m flat and not shaped like a bubble

You can tag these without getting in trouble

CLUE B (location was next to the dead strawberry plant):

I’m in a bed, but it’s not one you sleep in

I could be red if I wasn’t dead

Mmmmm juicy

My overall thoughts on the scavenger hunt: I’ve only been working in a trauma support environment for 4 months now and I still consider myself an absolute newbie. Even in that short time I have learnt that anything which changes the status quo or standard routine can cause ENORMOUS issues. Read back to my post about the marshmallows….When you remove the routine, students become heightened and are then unable to regulate themselves which can cause big issues. The tricky part is to try and balance this understanding with valuable and authentic real life experiences that will help them move beyond a supported learning environment.

This particular scavenger hunt ran really smoothly, despite my worries. My final thoughts were:

  • It was much better than a free for all egg hunt as there were control elements in place and students had structures to follow. We were able to pair some students with staff and also keep some separated from each other which helped manage the heightened states of a few young people in a calm, unobtrusive way
  • Non-participants or those who opted out (which was only one in the end!) still felt included and valued as they got treats at the end as well as an Easter hug or high-5
  • It turned out to be an amazing literacy activity (unexpected side benefit for me, the English teacher) and it allowed those who may not always shine in their written work but have excellent creative thinking skills to “show off”.
  • We had one minor student escalation and because we had been careful to have extra staff around and specific roles allocated to supporting the students, it was quickly managed and the young person was supported to make good choices
  • A student who rarely speaks with staff and is often negative about all school activities really got into the hunt, asked to keep his tokens and chatted for the whole 30 min bus ride home about better clues he could have come up with!

Reflection and Learning Activity: Photography – learner and teacher at the same time

As a high school teacher, although we are all lifelong learners, it is common to stay within a specific content area and build our subject specific knowledge up. This means that while we are frequently learning new things, it’s often building on an already exisiting, in-depth subject knowledge.

I work in an unusual school setting and currently have a class with only two students in it for a couple of hours a week. One night in the not-so-distant past it was 11pm and I was pulling my hair out trying to work out what to do with them that would be engaging, relevant and link to literacy….and I settled on photography.

You see, I have a lovely new mirrorless Olympus EM-10 mark II which is still used mostly on auto mode. I am in the very early stages of learning the different settings off auto. The school happens to have two canon DSLR cameras for events, which I was able to borrow for the students. I had no idea how to use them though having never operated an actual DSLR! I was very upfront with the students that we would genuinely be learning TOGETHER in this situation and that they could direct the learning and skill development.

First of all, we each shared some photos we had recently taken. The two students picked a few favourites from their respective smart phones and I showed a few I had taken at 6am that morning at the balloon festival in Canberra.

As a group, we read up on the basics of how to use the canon cameras (turning it on, manual viewfinder etc) and also did some reading and discussion around composition. We then went for a bush walk around the campus to gather examples of using the rule of thirds in commotion. We printed a few of our photos out and critiqued them for application of the rule of thirds, then we also critiqued my photos from that morning and used a free online program (PIXLR) to edit them for better composition structure. This was a really valuable experience as myself and one of the students found it a useful composition tool but the other student loathed it’s restrictions on his creativity.

To conclude, we planned our next lesson, where we intend to learn about aperture / depth of field and take pictures of food with different f number settings. Our focus will very much be on the different options within the aperture setting. They have also expressed an interest in macro photography so we will be researching how it can be done without a macro or telephoto lens in the future.

This was a unique experience for me. Sure, I’ve taught something on the fly before or acknowledged I don’t know something and looked it up with a student but today we were all students – learners – together. We were at the same starting point and supported each other with learning unfamiliar concepts and skills.

We also had one really memorable instance where one of the students who struggles with self confidence was watching me get a teeny-tiny bit frustrated trying to work something out on the camera controls and when I asked him to do it for me, said “if I do it for you, you won’t know for next time. Here, watch me do it again then try on yours…”. Ummmm – what a moment!*

* I was able to really reflect on the massive step this was for the young person much later, when I was less frustrated and focused on the immediate issue and how it was making me feel in that moment. A definite learning experience for me both in camera usage and my own responses in a “learning” situation!