Have you ever wondered how many early years educators have left the profession because of their mental health? I do, because I did. I also know that I am not alone, because of the very many messages, emails, and conversations I have had with so many educators who have had to make difficult decisions about their career due to their health and work life balance.
Imagine just how many more early years educators who due to diagnosis of a mental illness, or who are neurodivergent, or live with a physical health condition or disability have felt there is no place for them as educators, who are made to feel like they do not belong because of their differences. We should all feel strongly that our workforce is diminishing because of the prejudice, stigma, and discrimination that many educators face that force them out. Just how children are missing out on the opportunity of the unique and precious care, teaching and learning from individuals who so often have exceptional skills, talents, strategies, and life experience in addition to their qualifications.
If we are privileged to live free from illness or disability, we are taught to take our health for granted. We live to work as though we are invincible and immune from illness. Historically, little consideration has been given to the health and wellbeing of educators and no care or thought is given to understand the risk factors that working in early years education in the United Kingdom brings. We should never allow the professional love we have for the day job and the children in our care, continue to drain our empathy and burn us out physically and mentally.
At this time of covid uncertainty, we understand that children, more than ever, need more responsive empathetic caregivers. Not less. Yet educators are leaving the profession and, consequently, recruitment and retention has become a matter of crisis. The reality is that it is our educators have long deserved better. Educators are entitled to the same human rights as the children that they have trained so hard to care for. Yet sadly the quality and commitment does not extend to, nor include employee health and wellbeing with the same compassion and understanding. Sadly, this is because the concept of staff wellbeing is still a rare and misunderstood aspect of quality early years practice, which is side-lined in the race for schoolification, keeping up with the trends of early years social media, along with the burden and workload that regulatory bodies and statutory requirements can bring.
I often get asked how we can make change, what is the answer, and the conversation tends to only dwells on a deficit narrative that will never bring about change. I wish that we could all at once come together and consider the power the early years sector could hold if we acted collectively – empowering a community of care and caring for fellow educators.
Imagine a workforce taught and trained to honour, care, cherish, value, respect, and protect educators’ wellbeing from day one of training, personal and professional development, and the life beyond it. When I hear exasperated managers bleakly describe how they go above and beyond for staff wellbeing, it always involves chocolate and sticking plasters. It never involves action or leads to protective factors that effectually safeguard educator wellbeing.
We must forgive ourselves for not knowing better, so many of us are from a generation that is ill equipped when it comes to dealing with mental health. In the not-too-distant future, newly qualified educators will be joining our workforce, with skills that outmatch our own, who are both emotionally and mentally literate. Now we know better is possible, we can do better.
Wellbeing at the heart of early years pedagogy
At this time of crisis, we must galvanise our collective potential and act as though what we do will make a difference, because it can. Enough is enough, and the answer is not self-care; it is a vision for the future that includes all educators. Respecting that wellbeing of educators is precious and must be protected and nationally recognised as an integral part of our professional identities and placed at the heart of pedagogy and practice.
Where staff wellbeing is the foundation for early years pedagogy, firm foundations are found, and high-quality early years provisions is established. It is never a coincidence that staff are happy, healthy, and comfortable in their workplace. Going to work should be good for our wellbeing, earning money, providing for ourselves and our families, leaving us satisfied, fulfilled, accomplished, and boosting our self-esteem and confidence. More often than not, the exact skills that working and training as and early years educator requires from us, such as, patience, caring, and empathy, are the ones that it can and will take away if we are not careful.
It should go without saying that the environment that educators choose to work in, and the policies and procedures, systems, and structures they sign up for, will significantly impact their wellbeing. There must be more consideration when looking for employment and choosing and applying for a job so that educators are consciously aware of the importance of a reciprocal relationship with their employer and finding the right organisation for them. There is a considerable difference in fitting in somewhere because you have to than working somewhere you belong.
Can you say that you were ever mindfully and intentionally taught, trained, or know for certain that you have applied for a role because of what the job role, salary, package, benefits, career progression, qualification/professional development offered to you in exchange for your knowledge, qualifications, skills, talents, and potential? Sadly, for many, probably not.
Therefore, great effort and intention is necessary to to establish a community of caring about each other and taking action to create the mentally healthy workspaces that we are entitled to.
Let us imagine some of the ways in which staff wellbeing can be honoured, valued, and respected.
- There must be an intentional focus on a balance between work, rest and play and an emphasis on a life outside work. Professional self-care boundaries should be an integral aspect of practice and not compromised. The vision for educators professional development should extend to nurturing, respectful, ethical, and professional relationships between peers with the mutual understanding that all staff have a part to play in the harmony of the environment in which they choose to work.
- Staff onboarding is given the same attention to detail as the new children and families joining the setting; interviews, induction, supervisions, and appraisals are led by emotionally intelligent individuals who have received appropriate support and training to be highly effective in ensuring staff are aligned with the philosophy, ethos, and vision of the setting. Ongoing mentorship enables appropriately skilled and supported educators are inspired to maintain the quality and standards that have been trained to carry out.
- Treating people as people, not just a number or a resource. The working environment is as carefully designed for educators as it is for children. There are welcoming, suitable, comfortable, restorative spaces for rest and recuperation for breaks and lunch, with enough space for personal belongings.
- Educator nutrition is of enormous importance due to the recognition of the risk factors educators face working long hours with short or limited breaks. The link between nutrition and stress the impact on our immune systems and overall physical and mental health. Meals are provided for educators, and they restore energy and subsistence for our bodies, so we can love, move, and care for our bodies in the same way we teach our children to do so.
- There is intentionality and recognition of educators’ unique and individual identity (ies), which embrace an intersectional approach to wellbeing that cultivates a sense of belonging, connection, and inclusion at work.
The Siksika Nation of People
The Siksika Nation of people believes in “cultural perpetuity”, which translates into the “breath of life”. It is thought that after we are gone, our families important teachings lives on through the breath of their life. As educators, we play a vital and extraordinary role in children’s lives and the philosophy of the Siksika nation is a poignant one, that shows how, unknowingly, the breath of our life lives on through each child and family. What will that mean for children and educators of the future if we continue to allow ourselves and each other to dishonour our health and wellbeing, what do we want our legacy and the potential impact of the breath of our life to mean, last and live on?
The Siksika nation can also teach us about community actualisation, as individuals, we can only thrive in our (early year’s) communities; if we all thrive, our wellbeing is interconnected to our environment and the people we choose to share it with. We deserve, our children deserve, to belong in spaces in which a deep understanding and culture of wellbeing belong and the mental health and breath of life of our future generations depend on it.
The Emergence of the Breath of Life Theory, Cindy Blackstock, PhD First Nations Child and Family Caring Society of Canada University of Alberta
Journal of Social Work Values and Ethics, Volume 8, Number 1 (2011) Copyright 2011, White Hat Communications
Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs and Blackfoot (Siksika) Nation Beliefs March 10, 2019, Barbara Bray
Article Written by Kate Moxley
Read more from Kate, in her book, A Guide To Mental Health for Early Years Educators. Routledge Education, 2022.