The Compassionate Teacher: An Interview with Andy Sammons

The Compassionate Teacher: An Interview with Andy Sammons

Episode 53 of The Teaching Space Podcast is an interview with Andy Sammons discussing his new book The Compassionate Teacher.

Introduction

Hello and welcome to The Teaching Space Podcast. It's Martine here, thank you so much for joining me. Today, I'm excited to bring you an interview with a very nice man called Andy Sammons.

Martine: Andy, welcome to the show.

Andy: Hi, nice to be on.

Martine: It's very nice to have you here. Why don't you introduce yourself to the listeners?

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Andy: I've been teaching for seven or eight years in secondary school as an English teacher. I've been a main scale teacher, worked towards being a lead teacher, a lead practitioner. I've coordinated from key stages three up to five, I've worked as a second in English, as well as now as a head of English. Everything was pretty much plain sailing for the first few years, it was fantastic.

It was only last academic year where things really got difficult for me, and that's what's let me down this path of focusing more on well-being and teacher psychology, and things like that. As a result of that, I decided to put my ideas down into a book, and luckily someone's been mad enough to take it up and publish it for me.

That's why I'm talking in this space and beginning to operate in this space as well because I am really interested in teachers' mental health and well-being.

Martine: Fantastic. Well, it's really nice to have you on the show. In today's episode we're going to be talking about poor mental health amongst teachers, and it's something that I'm really passionate about in terms of helping teachers improve their well-being, and their work-life balance. That's how we got chatting really because we have that in common, I think, don't we?

Andy: Yeah.

Martine: Tell me, what's going on with this wave of poor mental health that we seem to be seeing amongst teachers and trainers at the moment? Why is this happening?

Andy: I think it's an interesting question. I feel I'm in a pretty decent place to answer that because over the last seven years or so I think that the profession that I now see, and I am experiencing is completely different to the one I came into seven years ago or so, it really is. I think, not to blame the government completely about this, but it ties into austerity and the coalition government, and all the rest of it, if you think about a broader political and economic narrative.

I think when I spoke to Emma Keller about this for the book she said, we were talking about this seven years ago when we were all starting to go on strike over pay and pensions, and I suppose back then I was just too much in love with teaching to realize what was going on, but I think what we've seen is since then, the last seven years, a really so slow process of attrition, of wearing away, of accountability, of squeezing over funding, and that kind of divorce of intrinsic and extrinsic motivation. I think all of these things has now reared its head in manifest in the numbers leaving and the recruitment problems we're seeing.

What I think this happened is a lot of the underlying factors ... because teaching if you do it properly it's really quite a stressful job, at any level there's no escape from that, but I think what's happened is a number of the contextual factors have unearthed a lot of that stress, and have brought it to the surface a bit more.

I think the reason we're beginning to see the narrative now around even Ofsted mentioning now about work load and manageability, and even the new Ofsted framework, for example, about not just outcomes, but about the curriculum I think in some way indirectly or directly that's a response to what we're seeing to make the profession less toxic, I suppose, in lots of places. I think what we've got is we've got a combination of things, which are now slowly starting to come together and that's why we are starting to hear more about it than before. Actually, I think things feel like they're coming to a bit of a head at the moment.

Martine: I think even though I'm based in Guernsey in the Channel Islands and my government is different to your government, but my government is often influenced by the things that your government does, so I can certainly relate to what you're saying about everyone feeling a bit squeezed. Ultimately, the people in charge are wanting more for less, and the people that impacts on are the teachers because we do not want it to impact on our learners, so I know exactly what you're saying.

Andy: No. The other thing of course, is not to generalize too much, but I think people go into teaching because they have a love of either teaching young people, or they have a love of teaching or their subject itself. There's something intrinsically passion focused there, I think, for people to go into teaching and education.

I think if you're going to put such squeezed accountability measures on people, of course there should be accountability, but if you take it to the level that I think some places seem to be then I think that's misappropriating what accountability is for because actually if you want to improve your share price for a company that's a certain context that works for that context to generate a profit, but improving people's lives in the way that education is attempting to do and needs to do that's more nuanced than just an outcome in any way you measure just an outcome. I think what's happened, certainly, in the last 7/8 years or so is that this drive for measures, and this drive for proof is actually having a profoundly damaging effect on teachers, and the profession itself is well. That's my feeling on it.

Martine: Definitely. That's evidenced by the numbers of people leaving the profession very early on in their careers. It makes it so tragic when you say about that intrinsic motivation to help people, and to help young people and learners, and things like that. Then, for them to get into their dream job and go, "You know what? I just can't hack this, this is too much," that's just really tragic.

Andy: What you say there's really interesting actually because a lot of research I've been doing recently is that actually the people leaving the profession, age isn't a particular predictor of people leaving the profession, it's not so much young people, or old people. The real correlation is a lack of experience, so most people seem to be leaving within the first three years of starting teaching.

Martine: That doesn't surprise me.

Andy: Which is says something about, in terms of teacher training, the lack of actual meaningful support that's going on for those inexperienced teachers. I'll be honest, I'm happy to say I'm not sure if I would survive in teaching had I come into it in the last couple of years. I was lucky that I found myself in an incredible school for my first couple of years that just completely nurtured my joy of my subject, but also teaching itself. I feel so thankful for that because if I was just dumped into a difficult class and said, "Off you go son," that wouldn't have worked for me, and that's what we're doing to too many people nowadays, I think.

Martine: If I just reflect for a moment on when I went into teaching, I'm coming up to 10 years now teaching, and I'm in a different area to you I'm in further education, but I started teaching 16 to 19-year-olds. Prior to that I'd been working in a senior position in the financial sector, I was a director of a trust company, and the massive transition between that roll into teaching. I have never worked so hard in my life during that first year of teaching. I can vividly remember in the first week sitting in bed with my husband going, "What have I done? What have I done?!" It was such a shock.

I'm thankful that I had really supportive colleagues around me and, like you, I was with great organisations, and I'm with the same organisation. It's about having that support network, and the support from your employer, that certainly helps.

Andy: I think also a lot of the stress that we're talking about well, I noticed ... I’m married now and I've got a young boy, and what I found is that the stress has been appalling for me over the last year and a half since I've had children because your life is so much more pinched in terms of your time and resources, and all the rest of it. Whereas before my wife and I would just work into the evenings, and we'd have a bit of a chat, and we'd spend all that time together. Whereas now, because our resources, our time, and our energy, and our emotional resources are so much more squeezed because we've got children as well as our responsibility in our jobs I feel that that ‘unsustainability’ is there particularly for people who have got families that they're looking after and they've got commitments outside of work as well.

So if work is expanding it needs to go somewhere, it needs to fit that space and, ultimately, it's leading to people taking too much home, which is great in the short term for schools because it might mean better results, but in the long term it's catastrophic for not just schools, but the industry because people leave because they can't cope.

Martine: What it's forcing you to do, ultimately, is to try to do your job within the hours that are allocated to that job and people are struggling to do it. There's a fundamental problem there.

Andy: We're asking too much pf people who want to give the best of themselves, but they can't give the best of themselves, and as you say, in that sustainable way if they're not that person outside of school as well, if they're not that person outside of the building because, ultimately, we're in a room with people teaching and imparting knowledge, and that's not just about reading from a textbook. That's about being a human whose well rested and who understands the complexities of their subject, as well as human interaction. If you're too knackered to give yourself it doesn't work in whichever way you look at it, I don't think.

Martine: I know it's a bit of a cliche, but I often like to say about teachers' mental health and well-being is when you're on a plane and they do safety announcement and they're saying, "In the event of an emergency you need with your oxygen mask on before you help anyone else with theirs." That's the same as being in the classroom, if you're not looking after yourself and your well-being then you are not best placed to look after other people i.e. your students. I know it's a bit of a cliche, but it really hits home to me, you got to look after yourself first.

Andy: I know we'll probably touch on this later, but there is a real misunderstanding about the metaphor of that putting on the oxygen mask. There is a real misunderstanding about what that entails I think, and that's that's a real danger, that's a real problem I think.

Martine: Let's talk about how we can improve well-being amongst teachers. It is not as simple as ... I saw this meme recently, it was about compulsory yoga. Teachers don't have time for compulsory yoga.

Andy: Let me go and mark my books instead.

Martine: Yeah exactly. It's entirely the wrong thing. It sounds like it's well-being personified, but it just isn't what the teachers need right now. What are your thoughts on improving well-being amongst teachers?

Andy: I think there's two things that we need to understand, both of which involve education around this actual term. As you've hit upon, well-being isn't an afternoon off every six weeks, or a yoga class, or bringing in someone to paint nails while there's a quiz going on in the next room. That's not what it is, and I think that represents, as you have alluded to, a profound misunderstanding about how we should look after ourselves. I think that's something that we need to get away from. I think that the key to that is understanding that whatever we understand by well-being should be deeply personal to the individual, and we need to understand about what makes a person, what makes you as a person well mentally, what is that? I think we need to encourage professionals, teachers to stand back and understand what those small things are that make a difference to us. Only when we can fully understand what it is that makes us feel well can we really begin to create space for ourselves around our stress to separate ourselves from our stressful thoughts, our negative thought, and things like that.

A silly little thing for me is coffee. It's silly, but it's not just drinking coffee, it's what's that represents. It's that time and that space to taste something, to be present in the moment, to engage with what's happening around me as I exist as a person in this moment. I know that sounds almost hippie-ish…

Martine: No, not at all.

Andy: I think it's about presence. When I was doing some work for the book, and I've done lots of reading around this, there was really sound evidence to suggest that we should, I don't if this is the right phrase, but we should sweat the small stuff. We should be bothered about having breakfast in the morning. We should be bothered about making sure we've got a drink when we're at work in the daytime. We should be bothered about carving time out, leaving at 4 o'clock one day a week if we can, if that doesn't create too much stress elsewhere to create that space to go to the gym, or for whatever it is for that person.

If well-being for one person looks like getting in at 6:30, so they can leave at 3 o'clock, 4 o'clock of a day then that's fine for that person, and I think part of the dialogue we need to improve in schools is about recognizing that in each other, and recognizing that that person goes home early, but that's fine. That's nothing to sneer at, that's to be commended because they're managing their work load in a different way.

Often our hackles go up when we don't see the hero teacher, and this cult of hero teacher that celebrates marking until 12. That's not funny, that's not heroic, and that's damaging actually for me, for the profession, and I think we need to try, and reclaim health for ourselves actually. If working until 12 ... to retract that a little bit I suppose, if working until 12 is what works for one person then that's fine, but that doesn't mean to say that's what everyone should be doing. I think that's what I mean by that.

Martine: I know exactly what you mean, yeah.

Andy: In a nutshell, I think we need to improve our education and our understanding about what it means to be well, and how we can do that, how can we achieve that.

Martine: I love what you said about focusing on the individual, and that it's not a one-size fits all approach. When you really unpick this it's mildly ironic that we, as teachers, forget that because what we do in our classrooms is before we even meet our students we identify their individual needs, and work out what they want to get from their education experience, and then work out how we're going to accommodate those needs. We know, as educators, it's not one-size fits all, but when it comes to ourselves suddenly we forget, which is just mildly ironic.

Andy: It's one of those things, I think everything about our world, particularly in the Western World is almost directly or indirectly designed to make us feel like we're not an evolved animal. We think we're somehow above the evolutionary chain in some way, and we think that ... I don't know, we think that we don't have to look after ourselves. As teachers, we don't have to worry about all that because we'll just do, and we'll never run out of energy.

Actually, there's fairly sound evidence, there's more than sound evidence about this in terms of making sure that we need to look after ourselves, and not just keep shutting the box on that, and about acknowledging about when our body and when our mind is telling us that things aren't okay.

The more we neglect that of ourselves, and we put our students first well, I would argue that actually if we keep putting our students first and neglecting ourselves we're actually doing, as you alluded to before, we're doing our students a disservice. Then, what we're doing is we're showing a complete misunderstanding about our own selves at the same time as well because if we don't listen to when our heart rate goes up, or when we're beginning to sweat because we feel anxious or we're feeling anger, or whatever, or even apathy about certain things if we don't acknowledge those thoughts and where they came from, and what caused them, and we keep neglecting to understand that we are an evolved entity then that's really damaging for your mental health, I think.

Martine: It is. Also, you're not setting a great example for your learners, are you?

Andy: No.

Martine: The students, obviously, play a role in all of this, and regardless of the age you teach students are intuitive things, and they will pick up on the fact that you aren't looking after yourself.

Andy: Students smell fear, can't they?

Martine: Oh they do. Oh they definitely did in that first week of work that I remembered earlier.

Andy: Absolutely. They do. I was a very middle-of-the-road student at school, but you can sense it a mile off when a teacher's not prepared, or when a teacher's not in control. As you say, one thing students are, all different students they can see that you are first and foremost a human, and the moment that you aren't credible with them in terms of ... and you don't show credibility and integrity in front of them then something goes off in that room straightaway. There is something out of kilter in that room straightaway, and I think that's dangerous.

Martine: Definitely.

Andy: At least for the learning anyway.

Martine: Yeah, it is for sure. How else do students fit into this equation of teacher well-being?

Andy: Well, I think that's a really interesting question. I'm really interested in this idea of compassion, and I think there's a difference here between being compassionate with people, and being sympathetic with people in this sense. What I mean by that is, rather than with our students being sympathetic with them and saying, "Oh, that's really rubbish or that must be really difficult," or something like that. I think in terms of well-being, I think, we need to model well-being with them. I think what that means is ... There's a really good analogy about this. If someone's in a well and they're upset sympathy would be shouting down saying, "Hey, that looks really rubbish down there, doesn't it? I'm really sorry that you're down there, that's rubbish."

Whereas compassion is about climbing down into that well with the person and saying, "Yeah, I can understand why that's difficult. I can understand whether it's emotion, whether it's something to do with the subject, I can understand that," and it's about going on that journey with the young people really.

I think it's about, first and foremost, what we touched on before, about modeling that honesty and integrity with regard to emotional intelligence, with regards to what it means to look after ourselves. I think it's really important that for silly things if you mention to the students that you're watching ... I'm a football fan so I'm watching the football tonight I'll mention that. I'll mention that I took my little boy to the park at the weekend. I think it's really important that students see that human side of you, and even if for whatever reason, the photocopier's blown up and you haven't got your resources, I think it's really good just to acknowledge it with the students, and just show that you're a real human.

I think we need to be human with our students, but I think in terms of more direct educational sense I think we need to educate our students more about well-being. I think that's a lot more difficult than you might expect because one of the downsides to what we've discussed about education, as we see it now, is that this obsession with outcomes, this obsession with league tables I think there's this creeping insidiousness about, if you can't measure it we're not bothered. Inadvertently, I think teachers pass that on to students.

It struck me because once I was listening to a teacher deliver a session on well-being about exam stress to their class, and this teacher's probably one of the most inspirational teachers of ever worked with, she's just phenomenal, but the session was just dry. There was nothing in it because I don't think she was passionate about it, about that particular topic, I don't think the students were passionate about it because I think the students thought, "Yeah, you don't really get it anyway. We have to go through the hell of these exams, you don't." I think there was a real disconnect and I think educating students about what well-being means, all the things we've talked about in the last half an hour or so, it's more difficult than just saying, "Make sure you have a drink, and make sure you chunk your revision up into 30 minute sections." I think we need to go back to the start with students too, and that means when they're younger educating them when they're younger about emotional literacy, about emotional well-being too.

I think to summarize there, I think there's two parts to it. I think, firstly, it's about modeling honesty and integrity with our students. Secondly, I do think there are some curriculum implications in terms of helping students understand what well-being means, but there needs to be a culture change because if you can't measure it, and it's not a result I think people aren't motivated by it, which is one of the unfortunate byproducts of our current education system.

Martine: Do you see change on the horizon in terms of the if you can't measure it it's not important type approach? You mentioned the new Ofsted framework, and things like that. Do you get a sense that there's going to be improvements in that area?

Andy: That's interesting because I get a sense from having a couple of conversations with people off the record, and speaking to people about this in and around the hierarchy of education, I do think that what we see with Ofsted and this new framework is there's a couple of really good people at the top of Ofsted at the minute, I think. I think Amanda Spielman and Sean Harford are banging the right drum from what I can understand by people who are around them, and people who have spoken to me about those particular individuals. I think that's really important, and so I think there's going to be change in that sense.

I'm not sure whether or not we're going to be looking much longer term before we see a real change beyond that though. What I can say, but I do feel is that this new framework definitely is a step in the right direction, and I think it'd be foolish to turn our noses up at this new framework because I think at least it is, from what I can see I know it's in the consultation phase, but what I can see is that it's acknowledging that it's about the richness of the curriculum rather than just the outcome. One of the things that I like as, certainly, a middle to senior leader is that when Ofsted are coming into the school I think as a middle leader you should be able to walk around with them and justify what's happening in the classroom in terms of the direction of the curriculum, what you're doing and why and the rationale.

Yes, I think baby steps would be the short version to that answer. Baby steps, but I think there needs to be a lot more done, and it takes a long time to unpick a culture.

When I was at school, if it was PSHE I didn't care, if it was general studies without something that was going to go on my UCAS form, I didn't care. I think there's a lot of that in schools nowadays, and that's what we need to turn round, I think, and that starts right from Primary whether or not that's on the agenda for change in the future I couldn't say.

Martine: It's a case of coming at it from all angles, isn't it?

Andy: I think so.

Martine: Whether you're senior leadership, whether you're one teacher starting this well-being journey, whether you are Ofsted. Whoever you are, it's coming at it from all angles, and that's the way we're, ultimately, going to achieve positive change.

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Andy: The sad thing is that I'm not sure what's motivated the inspection framework change, but the fantastic book written by Becky Allen, The Teacher Gap really explores what's going on with teaching in terms of what we need for our students, and what we're providing them as a profession at the moment. Those hemorrhaging numbers are a problem. I think these hemorrhaging numbers in terms of profession, and not the numbers but the quality that we see in front of the students at every level, I think that's going to be felt for a good few years, unfortunately.

What we can do in the meantime is take ownership over our own well-being, and make sure that we are the best for our students in front of us everything every day, that's what I think we can do.

Martine: Definitely. One of the ways that people can make a start in the right direction is your book. Tell me about a bit about your book, Andy . Did you like that segue? That was beautifully timed wasn't it?

Andy: Yeah, that was fantastic. Yeah, that was beautiful. It's a bucket list of mine to write a book, and actually I've had a fairly difficult 2018. Actually, it was really difficult, and as part of my coming back from where I was emotionally I went through a form of therapy called compassion focused therapy. Effectively, what it does is it's an evolutionary psychology model that helps us to understand what motivates how we see the world. What is it that we see as threatening about the world, and how can we unpick that in order to be kinder and be more productive with ourselves? The source of helpful things we can say to ourselves rather than keep having these unhelpful voices in our minds almost, this critical voice.

Once I really began to emerge from how awful I was feeling in 2018 I began to think about well, actually does this model of compassion focused therapy about threats and drives and soothes, which you can find out more about in the book, does this apply to education as a whole? As a culture, as an educational culture have we become plagued by threats, have we become plagued by drive, drive, drive to get results and threats if you're going to lose your job, or whatever is going to happen if we don't get these results rather than actually being on the soothe drive axis? This axis where you feel safe, and you feel content, but actually you're able to go to work and feel passionate, and feel safe, and be the best version of yourself. I began to start with that model, and then branch off into all other kinds of psychology and things in the book.

What it is, is a bit of a frank disclosure of what happened with me before, in Chapter 2, it goes on to thinking about the wider education system and how it is, in some sense, it's almost wired for poor mental health. In the second half of the book it's much more practical, it's much more how we can see ourselves in schools in a much more healthier way and the relationships with our colleagues and students. Then, in Chapter 4 it's much more about practical methods to cut the work load and be well, but also be effective in the classroom. It's around the topic trip in terms of mental health in schools, and how we can be productive as best we can be. That's the book in a nutshell, if that's at all clear. I hope that's clear.

Martine: No, that sounds fantastic. Where can we get a hold of a copy of it? What's it called and where do we find it?

Andy: It's called The Compassionate Teacher and you can find it on Amazon, and you can also find my blog and there's a couple of excerpts from the book put up on the blog, and that's compassionteach.weebly.com, and you can find it on there. If you go through Amazon you'll be able to find a little bit about the book as well, and things like that, and that's going to be out on the 15th of March in paperback and Kindle as well, so I'm excited.

Martine: Congratulations on the book, that's quite an achievement. It's so good to hear you've come out the other side of not such a great year last year, and you've put all of your energy into something so positive helping other teachers who are struggling with their mental health. I think that's fantastic Andy, you must feel really good about it.

Andy: Yeah. It felt really great to start the year as it started, but then finish it towards the end of 2018 being able to put something together. Actually, the way the book shaped up it was quite cathartic disclosing everything that happened with me, and how the theoretical approach of compassion focused therapy help me. I think anyone who might want to buy it would be pleased to know it's not my autobiography. It's a disclosure about what happened with me, and then the model, but then it goes into a thorough, fully contextual understanding about education in this country, and all the rest of it.

I do sincerely hope it helps at least one person, if it does then it's not in time wasted. Even if it doesn't then all I wanted to do was add to the literature, add to the debate in some way. I'm thrilled that someone's actually said they'd like to publish it, and the final manuscript's gone in now, so it's just off to them to do it now.

Martine: Fantastic stuff. Andy, it's been a real pleasure having you on the show. Thank you so much for joining me. Any final words to listeners of The Teaching Space Podcast?

Andy: I would say, be very clear about what your soothe is, be very clear about what things relax you, hold them close, make space for them because if you don't you'll pay it back somehow later, I think. I think it's really important to treasure the things that make you feel safe, and make you feel happy.

Wrap Up

Massive thanks to Andy for the interview. Don’t forget to check out his book and whist you’re at it why not hop over to The Teaching Space Facebook page here.


The Compassionate Teacher: An Interview with Andy Sammons