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Wellbeing, Relationships and Teaching as a Caring Profession?

By Mark G. Harrison, Stephen E. Chatelier, and Elke M. Van dermijnsbrugge
Wellbeing, Relationships and Teaching as a Caring Profession?

Photo by Lina Trochez on Unsplash

Wellbeing has become an area of increasing focus for schools right across the world. Given that teaching has generally been understood as a caring profession, this may not come as a surprise. And, given that the apparent need for wellbeing interventions has arisen amongst the most “developed” and wealthy, this new focus may especially be seen as something to celebrate for international schools which continue to largely serve the privileged. A consequence of this, however, is that wellbeing seems to have become an addition to the ever-growing list of things for which teachers are responsible.

In this article, we begin by considering what is meant by “wellbeing” in schools, situating its rise within the context of a broader neoliberal culture. We then go on to suggest that when wellbeing becomes a task for teachers to perform within a culture of accountability and customer satisfaction, rather than something deeply connected to human relations of care, its achievement is unlikely and, indeed, an increased focus on wellbeing might even be detrimental.

Wellbeing and teaching in a neoliberal culture

Wellbeing is now a ubiquitous topic of discussion in international schools, whose guiding statements, strategic plans, policies and practices have become permeated by discourses around the mental health and wellbeing of students. Less attention has been paid to the wellbeing of teachers. In this section, we focus on some aspects of teacher wellbeing and the neoliberal domain of schools.

Wellbeing, however, is not a very clearly defined or understood term. The psychologist Ed Diener pioneered the idea of “subjective wellbeing” as a set of emotional perceptions and personal judgements about life satisfaction, and the wellbeing of teachers has often been equated to job satisfaction. More recent research has focused on the concept of “Eudaimonia,” borrowed from ancient Greek philosophy, looking at a subjective experience of satisfaction with life, focusing on behaviour and action which is congruent with personal values. What is sometimes missing from definitions of wellbeing, however, is attention to relationships, an area which is clearly relevant to teaching, an essentially relational activity. One helpful definition which takes the importance of relationships in teachers’ work into account has been proposed by researchers Renea Acton and Patti Glasgow, who describe it as “personal professional fulfilment, satisfaction, purposefulness and happiness” which is “constructed as a collaborative process with colleagues and students.”[1]

Perhaps the most important consideration in teacher wellbeing is the context in which they work. International schools exist in a marketized environment where education is seen as a service offered to the socially and financially elite by competing providers.[2] Alexander Gardner-McTaggart, a researcher in the field of international educational leadership, has described international schools as “profoundly distinct” educational environments, offering “social and cultural reproduction for the globalising and cosmopolitan privileged.”[3]

For teachers, this can mean an outcome- and performance-driven climate of accountability, and a reshaping of the traditionally relational role of a teacher into a narrower and more technical function. Academic results and university matriculation profiles are what matter at the “top end of the market,” and other aspects of education are marginalised or, at least, rendered subservient to the primary objective of market dominance. The resources devoted to the bureaucracies of marketing and human resources departments in many international schools is testament to this neoliberal focus.

Teaching, a relation of care, and wellbeing

Acton and Glasgow suggest that an environment such as this is fundamentally at odds with the holistic, relational nature of teaching, and Sylvia Tang, a researcher in Hong Kong, has gone so far as to describe the neoliberal turn in education as constituting “an ideological assault on the primary nature, intent and purpose of school education.” Because of this, Tang suggests, teaching is no longer “a special and valued form of relating.”[4] Teachers, presumably, get into teaching because they care about young people and want to make a difference but, as the American academic Roy Schwatzman writes, “the amoral marketplace contrasts with the ethic of mutual care that lies at the core of responsible citizenry,” the fostering of which is a fundamental purpose of education.[5] The experience of working in the competitive, outcome-oriented and market-driven environments of international schools can have a negative impact on teachers’ wellbeing insofar as it detracts from this. Indeed, Acton and Glasgow suggest that teachers living with this tension can experience an “emotional tiredness” and a deep sense of alienation from their work.[6] Schwartzman puts it like this: “Prioritizing efficiency and customer satisfaction while treating education itself as a commercial transaction … frays the moral fabric of education.”

But what does all this have to do with the wellbeing of students, teachers, and the relationship of care? While the number of wellbeing programmes that include daily mindfulness, yoga, and even shoulder massages are growing, it is not really clear that personal and community wellbeing is improving. In fact, when it comes to teachers, the trend appears to be moving in the opposite direction. And key to this, we think, is that when wellbeing is understood and formed as a programme or product, rather than a “natural” partner with authentic relationships of care, it is destined to fail.

With reference to her “ethic of care,” Nel Noddings suggests that the purpose of schooling extends beyond the instrumental and also the academic to include helping “students to develop as persons, to be thoughtful citizens, competent parents, faithful friends, capable workers, generous neighbours and lifelong learners.”[7] Such an education, Chatelier and Rudolph argue, “assumes relationality as the key component to the ethic of care”[8]. This ethic of care, then, is one cantered on a relation between persons, not a programme. Similarly, we suggest, wellbeing is something that is nurtured through authentic caring relationships.

Chatelier and Rudolph have argued that “the accountability, evidence-based, data-driven, outcomes-focused logics of contemporary schooling policy function to reconfigure Noddings’ idea of relationality from one between ‘persons’ to one between ‘stakeholders’”, and that this reconfiguration distorts even that which is intended to be caring, such as wellbeing initiatives.[9] Wellbeing becomes a task that teachers must enact, provide evidence of its success, and give account for, when justifying their performance to administrators and parents who want to see results. A key problem we see with this is that teachers’ pre-established inclination to care for, and to work towards, students’ overall growth is actually undermined. Instead, as the performative pressure mounts, teachers begin to worry about their own professional and personal wellbeing.

So what does all this mean? While there is no solution as such, the key change that needs to take place is as simple as it is seemingly difficult to practice: schools need to prioritise relationships over tasks, outcomes, metrics and programmes—even those focused on wellbeing! This means that a culture of mutual support and positive intent is needed between teachers and their peers, school administrators, students and parents. When schools become driven by “customer demands,” a performative accountability culture, and the celebration of their shiny new programmes, the ethic of care grounded in authentic relationships disappears. And as such, so does wellbeing.

Mark Harrison, Stephen Chatelier, and Elke Van dermijnsbrugge have all been teachers and leaders in international schools, including in Asia. They now work in the Department of International Education at The Education University of Hong Kong where they teach and conduct research on critical aspects of international schooling.


Works cited

[1] Acton, Renae, and Patti Glasgow. "Teacher wellbeing in neoliberal contexts: A review of the literature." Australian journal of teacher education 40, no. 8 (2015): 106.

[2] Ingersoll, Marcea. "Uncommon knowledge: International schools as elite educational enclosures." The Wiley Handbook of Global Educational Reform (2018): 259-281.

[3] Gardner-McTaggart, Alexander. "International schools: leadership reviewed." Journal of Research in International Education 17, no. 2 (2018): 208

[4] Tang, Sylvia Yee Fan. "Teachers’ professional identity, educational change and neo-liberal pressures on education in Hong Kong." Teacher Development 15, no. 3 (2011): 363-380.

[5] Schwartzman, Roy. "Consequences of commodifying education." Academic Exchange Quarterly 17, no. 3 (2013): 41-46.

[6] Acton & Glasgow, 109.

[7] Noddings, N. 2006. “Educational Leaders as Caring Teachers.” School Leadership & Management 26 (4): 339–345.10.1080/13632430600886848: 339.

[8] Chatelier, S. , and S.Rudolph . 2018. “Teacher Responsibility: Shifting Care from Student to (Professional) Self?” British Journal of Sociology of Education 39 (1): 1–15. doi:10.1080/01425692.2017.1291328: 5.

[9] Chatelier & Rudolph, 6.


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