Mental health, teacher workload and secret identities [interview]

Aidan Severs

Aidan Severs is both a Primary assistant vice-principal (AVP) and a MAT's primary lead practitioner (PLP). He is concerned about the wellbeing of teachers and of the profession as a whole, but is optimistic about the future of education.

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Image courtesy of interviewee. Image courtesy of interviewee.

Until recently, ‘That Boy Can Teach’ was a whisper on the wind of education. Writing under a pseudonym, he quickly became a trusted, popular name in helping teachers and school leaders to reach their full potential (while being humble enough to balk at such a description). Now, however, Iron Man’s helmet has been removed, and Tony Stark - or rather, school leader Aidan Severs - has been revealed to the world.

Given the increasing emphasis in education on tackling issues surrounding teacher workload and mental health, Aidan seemed like just the person to interview...

On the day of this interview, TES reported that four-in-10 headteachers are struggling to provide mental health support. As a school leader with a strong passion for wellbeing, what steps do you think schools should take in this area?

Well, first of all I do not envy headteachers, and don’t pretend to know enough to advise them on such a difficult matter. However, I think the struggle is real, and whilst headteachers do have a responsibility for the mental health of pupils and staff (after all, staff wellbeing has a direct impact on student wellbeing too), most aren’t trained to know how to support pupils or members of staff who are struggling.

Let’s suppose a headteacher has already created near-perfect conditions in their school, and that a particular pupil experiencing mental health issues wasn’t doing so well as a result of the exam pressure, bullying or any other school-related issues. In this scenario, a headteacher, having created a good school environment, is still responsible for the pupil’s mental health.

Then there are two linked crucial things to take in to account: firstly, there is no one-size-fits-all approach to dealing with mental health and, secondly, relationships are key. It really is down to key staff members “There is no one-size-fits-all approach to dealing with mental health.”having a good enough relationship with the pupil in question to be able to have the best understanding of what their needs are (and to spot tell-tale signs); the headteacher has the role of ensuring this is happening. These children then need some kind individual support plan, which should involve parents and appropriate support networks, probably within the health service.

Only healthcare professionals can make diagnoses, so schools should steer away from any speculation, but a headteacher can coordinate a referral to CAMHS (Child and Adolescent Mental Health Services) who will take the school’s concerns further. However, as school staff act in loco parentis, there is still a responsibility for headteachers, and staff members, to be knowledgeable about potential issues affecting the pupils. There are many charities and companies who can provide schools with relevant training.

How can school leaders best champion staff wellbeing while handling teacher-workload?

By beginning to think about teacher workload with a mind to always keeping it to a minimum, school leaders will almost automatically champion staff wellbeing. What school leaders might also do well to consider is not just the amount of work, but whether or not the work they are asking staff members to do is purposeful. Long hours and resentment are the result of teachers feeling like what they are being asked to do is pointless. Most teachers want to do a good job, and are very committed to doing so, but begrudge having to complete work that they don’t feel has a positive impact on the children.

If indeed school leaders do have good reasons for the things they are asking teachers to do, then there are many things for them to consider when assigning tasks. The new EEF guidance report Putting Evidence to Work - A School’s Guide to Implementation is a great place to start - it outlines a couple of important factors when it comes to teacher wellbeing. Namely, teachers need to be well supported by school leaders, they need to be given time - sometimes this is a case of stopping doing something in order to start a new thing - and leaders should allow a good amount of time for things to embed before more changes are made.

The EEF School Implementation Process

It’s always a good idea for school leaders to show appreciation for the good work that teachers do - it’s probable that a ‘thank you’ for a particular piece of work - not just a generic thank you - will go a long way. Having said this, a thank you if they’re still having to work all evenings and all weekends might feel like a bit of a slap in the face.

You used to write and tweet anonymously as simply 'That Boy Can Teach'. Why the pseudonym in the first place, and what made you decide to step out of the shadows, so to speak?

Genuinely one of the final straws was that my wellbeing piece for Innovate My School was published in the IMS Guide and, whilst everyone else (even the Varndean Goats!) were credited as real people, I was not. I felt like my writing was something I could be proud of, and something that I would be happy to put my own name to.

Originally I’d gone incognito in order to protect myself - I didn’t know what sort of things I’d end up writing, and didn’t want to get in trouble from employers for the things I was saying. I also didn’t want any negative feedback to be directed to me personally; at uni my wife was the victim of some truly awful cyberbullying (before it was really a thing, and before the police knew what to do with it), and I didn’t want to expose myself to that.

It got to the point where I was sitting in a room on a course and the course leader was recommending my own blog to me; I realised that this was ridiculous! I felt guilty that my principal didn’t know about my blogging and wanted to tell her - I was also about to be published in print by the TES, so needed to ask about having my school name printed. Once she and others at school knew, I didn’t feel like I had to by anonymous anymore.

After a few conversations with some key people – the Varndean Goats (bizarrely) and Tom Sherrington especially - I decided to blow my cover. It was actually a lot of hard work having a dual identity, and I felt the weight lift as soon as I made the change.

Not only are you a Primary assistant vice-principal (AVP); you're also a primary lead practitioner (PLP) for a MAT. How do these two roles work in tandem with one another, and what do you get from them?

I work three days at my own school as AVP (same as an assistant head) and two days across the MAT in three other Primary schools. At my own school I lead lower Key Stage 2, and am the NQT and student mentor. I lead on Maths across the school, and am part of the general everyday running of the school as a member of SLT.

When I’m elsewhere I’m working with teachers and leaders in the other Primary schools on a variety of projects. For example, I’ve worked on developing a coaching cycle with one, a Maths curriculum with another, and am carrying out quality-assurance and leading staff training in the third.

As PLP I’m involved coordinating and delivering on the Primary NQT and RQT network at their half termly meetings. I also “It was actually a lot of hard work having a dual identity!”worked on developing materials for a SSIF (Strategic School Improvement Fund) bid, which focuses on developing reading and writing skills in foundation curriculum subjects. In addition to this I’m involved with the Bradford Research School; I’m developing and delivering a course on evidence-based reading and writing teaching in KS2, and am involved in the Bradford Opportunity Area working party, again focusing on Primary literacy.

They work in tandem as long as I am organised enough to know when I’m doing what - I plan my weeks to the hour to ensure I fit everything in! Sometimes unexpected things crop up, and I get temporarily worried that it won’t all get done, but it does because where there’s a will there’s a way! I love the variety that my dual role provides; I get plenty of fuel for thought, and I love thinking and coming up with solutions. Many of my blog posts arise out of reading and thinking I’ve done for something in my job.

Who are the people and organisations that have helped you in the past year?

I am part of a little group of brilliant people on Twitter: @bbcTeaching, @smithsmm, @chrisdysonHT, @Mr_P_Hillips, @macfin76 and @Dorastar1. They are great to bounce ideas off, for support and for a good laugh too.

I’ve really enjoyed working with @jon_severs (no relation) at @TES, and with the folks at @thirdspacetweet - they are always challenging me in terms of writing content for them. I’ve also done a couple of things for @TeachPrimary. The stuff I produce for each of those outlets is quite different - I like doing new and different things, I suppose!

There are just too many other people who I interact with on a daily basis - online and in real life - who I could mention here, but it would be too hard to do it. If you are looking to build a good Twitter network, have a look at whom I follow - they’re all great!

What do you hope to achieve in the next year?

Well, I’ve signed myself up for a couple of ‘speaking engagements’ – ResearchEd Rugby in June and One Literacy Conference in October. When I spoke at Reading Rocks at the beginning of this academic year I was quite nervous but hugely enjoyed doing it. I hope that I can approach these two events with fewer nerves and still do a good job on the day - that would be an achievement for me. This of course also applies to the three-day course I’m running in Bradford under the Research School banner.

In terms of my job I’d really like to continue to work on leading my team at school – we’re a new team this year, and I think I’ve still got lots to learn as a leader if I want to support them the best way possible despite only being there three days a week. I’d also like to see the changes I’ve implemented in the way we teach Maths at my school to become totally embedded, and to see a positive impact from this.

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