Many newly qualified teachers come to school filled with passion and the desire to make an impact. They see teaching as a calling, just as I did when I started teaching. But I felt unprepared and left the teaching profession after just three years. And I’m not alone. For those teachers who do persist, what helps them get through those challenging first years? As a researcher, I now study the ingredients that can make happy schools and happy teachers. Satisfactory salary and working conditions are essential, of course, but there are many other factors that can improve teacher well-being and ensure that teaching is fun and effective.

More from Julia Morinaj
What makes a happy school?

I understand from my own time standing in front of 30 students that teachers have a complex job. While there is no simple recipe for supporting teacher well-being, there are several evidence-based ingredients that can make school life more enjoyable for both teachers and learners.

Many new teachers experience dissonance between their high expectations and classroom reality. How comfortable teachers feel in school depends partly on their expertise in teaching, which can take five to seven years to develop.

Novice teachers have usually had little or no teaching practice since graduation. Most receive no mentoring or coaching as they enter the profession. They are often overwhelmed by all the demands they face. They may lack the skills necessary to deal with challenges at school. Not only are educators tasked with promoting student learning, they are also expected to be skilled communicators, possessing both intercultural competence and emotional intelligence. These high demands and expectations can impact well-being, and play a pivotal role in a teacher’s decision whether to stay or to leave the teaching profession.

Relationships with students and peers

Caring, positive student-teacher relationships boost student engagement, motivation, and achievement and have a positive effect on teacher motivation, effort, and teaching quality. Meaningful relationships also provide a sense of well-being, and student and teacher well-being are inextricably linked. Teachers with low well-being – perhaps due to weak school leadership or a lack of support from colleagues, an inability to manage growing job demands, or feeling undervalued – may struggle to develop quality relationships with students. Supporting teacher well-being promotes student well-being.

Teachers can foster good relationships by creating a sense of closeness, and showing students that they care about and believe in them. For example, they might say, “This is not easy, but I know you can do it” or “There are no stupid questions”. Closeness can be nourished by showing emotions nonverbally – smiling, gesturing, varying tone of voice, moving around the room, or sharing laughter. By revealing their true selves and sharing personal experiences in the classroom, teachers demonstrate the value of authenticity in relationships. This not only improves teacher well-being, but also models positive relationship behaviour and creates a safe learning environment.

“Meaningful relationships also provide a sense of well-being, and student and teacher well-being are inextricably linked.”

Peer relationships among teachers matter, too. In a recent study, my colleagues and I found that a weekly 40-minute peer support group improved the well-being of new teachers. This was an opportunity for them to talk about pressing issues, exchange experiences, give each other tips and feedback, and develop solutions and concrete action plans. Sharing similar challenges, such as stress or heavy workloads, showed teachers that they were all in the same boat. Speaking up, helping each other, and laughing together all had a positive impact.

Authenticity in the classroom

Teachers and students benefit from connecting the subject being learnt with personal life experiences. For example, math problems can be built around students’ favorite musicians, movies, visual arts, sport activities, or foods. It is useful to link topics to students’ personal lives or to what’s happening in the world today. Scientific concepts can be connected to articles about what is happening in the world of science. This makes the subject feel real. It connects students with the world around them, inviting them to ‘think big’, and nurtures teachers’ own passion for the subject.

Classroom life is more enriching and inspiring if teachers differentiate learning material. This can mean using a variety of examples when describing a new concept, offering extra material, letting students choose their own topics for assignments, and welcoming cultural, age, and gender differences. Teachers can also make learning fun and playful when designing learning activities, perhaps including surprises or role playing. Changing the learning setting, for example by going to the library, a hockey game, or into natural environments, and providing emotionally engaging experiences can bring new perspectives into the classroom. Teachers’ well-being is likely to benefit from differentiated and personalized instruction that reflects their own areas of interest.

“Self-reflection can show teachers and students that discomfort and negative states are often part of learning and growth.”

Authenticity goes hand in hand with self-reflection. When we openly share our feelings and perspectives, we make space for vulnerability and authenticity. By taking time to self-reflect, we gain greater self-awareness. Teachers can self-reflect and invite their students to reflect on their feelings as well. This could be done as a morning circle ritual, or through free writing. Such reflections encourage dialogue among the class community, bring focus, and foster a mind-body connection. Self-reflection can show teachers and students that discomfort and negative states are often part of learning and growth.

Making teaching and learning enjoyable

Helping teachers to develop positive relationships with students and other teachers can improve both teacher and student well-being. But it should not be on teachers alone to figure this out. They need mentoring and coaching that is embedded in their work, and not viewed as ‘just one more thing to do’. Giving teachers time and space to develop learning opportunities that allow authentic connections, differentiation, and playfulness can benefit everyone in the classroom. When teachers thrive, their students do as well.

Keep up to date with the BOLD newsletter