A CONTROVERSIAL return to the classroom this week holds extra significance for Suneta Bagri who fears the pressures of a pandemic could bring an already struggling profession nearer to breaking point.
Improving wellbeing mental health in education is central to the mission of the former headteacher who is striving to transform the wellbeing culture in schools across the country – a subject that, as teachers prepare for post-COVID teaching practices, has never been in sharper focus.
Between 2015 and 2019 Suneta ran schools in Birmingham, Daventry and her new home city of Coventry and is now the founder of the new Every Teacher Matters Project and Network, which delivers mental health first aid training and coaching in educational settings.
Established under her business umbrella of Cultivate Coaching & Consultancy, the network marks a personal milestone for the passionate campaigner who now believes she is fulfilling a life’s destiny.
And it comes at a time of reported ‘crisis’ in a profession which is reported to be losing nearly half of its new cohorts within the first three years of qualifying.
Suneta, 43, said: “The profession was in crisis even before COVID came along but now there are extra concerns for teachers to contend with, including the fear of contracting the virus, the pressures of having to work in bubbles and the huge emphasis on risk assessments. That’s all they’re able to focus on at the moment whereas usually they’d be focusing on the teaching and the learning aspects.”
She added: “Teachers are burning out due to a number of reasons – workload, lack of autonomy, lack of control and a narrow curriculum which relies completely on rote learning of facts. It’s all about gearing them up to just pass tests rather than take part in deep rich learning experiences which serve them for life.
“Schools have become more like exam factories, ramming Maths, English and Science down their throats while squeezing out other creative arts and just getting children to achieve certain thresholds and it doesn’t matter, if in the process, that holistic character of education is lost.
“The politicians back in 2012/13 did us no favours unfortunately with the landscape of education moving away from local authority schools to academies which just turned some school leaders into power-driven individuals taking their focus away from teaching and learning. Their priority and moral compass has been changed and it’s gone off in a direction that is not about the children any more. That personally makes me very sad.
“Politicians are making decisions when they have absolutely no clue about what actually goes on within a school environment.”
The youngest of three siblings born to immigrant parents, Suneta harboured dreams of becoming a teacher and effecting change from a young age – but was forced to overcome cultural traditions, discrimination, and a lack of parental support if she was to succeed.
“My passion for learning developed at a young age. My parents’ priority was to keep a roof over our heads and food on the table, meaning that getting a good education was secondary,” recalls Suneta.
She added: “My father’s aspiration for me was to find me a suitor when I turned eighteen. His wish? That I work in a bank. As this would make my marriage proposal ‘attractive’ to ‘potentials! University certainly wasn’t part of their plan for me but eventually it was agreed I could go if I funded it myself so I maintained a part-time job all week and throughout the holidays whilst also studying full time.”
“I fought hard, really hard for the privilege of an education and discovered a love of learning that has carried me through my entire life. I knew that I wanted to be a teacher when I was still at primary school. I loved school and I was very grateful for the opportunities that I had. I loved everything about my school, it was my happy place, and it became my dream to become a teacher at the school where I was taught.
And so it was to be when Suneta graduated and took up her first teaching post, aged 21, at her former primary, Holy Trinity CofE School in Kent.
After just a year in the role she met her husband Tej before settling in Coventry, going on to take up a variety of teaching roles in schools around the West Midlands.
But she was soon to find herself facing a very different kind of challenge outside of the classroom – and one that brought an abrupt halt to Suneta’s teaching ambitions. Twelve years ago her second child was born with a severe genetic condition so rare, it has still not been diagnosed today. Overnight Suneta became a full-time carer to Roop, who overcame all the odds.
Suneta said: “It is nothing short of a miracle really. But everything about my son’s needs was complex, which required around-the clock care. His condition was so rare it baffled the medics, he was referred to as a medical enigma and this remains the case to this day. His prognosis was bleak and after the first year of his life, due to his failure to thrive, we were told to prepare for palliative end-of-life care. I honestly don’t know how anyone can possibly ever prepare to do that. All I can say is that at the time his suffering was so significant, that I just wanted it all to end.”
Roop, who relies on the support of a part-time home carer, has been left with little speech; delayed learning; complex dietary needs (he was tube fed until the age of eight); sensory processing disfunction and severe allergies.
But years of research, therapies and campaigning, with the support of specialist consultancies around the world, have drawn no medical conclusions. It’s this journey that’s led Suneta and Tej to recently fundraise for the charity SWAN (Syndromes Without A Name) www.undiagnosed.org.uk by taking on the Yorkshire Three Peaks Challenge.
“Having invested in personal development, I had a strong mindset, I refused to focus on anything other than what I wanted, a healthy boy.
Two-and-a-half years later however, and now as a mum of three, Suneta felt the time was right again to pursue her career ambitions, going on to take up four headteacher roles.
“I believe that being a head teacher is a position of great responsibility, not power. Responsibility for others is an opportunity to serve and help others, “giving back” is another core value of mine.
“Although I made myself available in this way, it was incredibly demanding and emotionally draining. So I took to self-care like I was a woman obsessed!
Self-care is not a luxury within a role like teaching or leading, but a necessity. I focused on self-care more than ever during my time as a headteacher and used all known resources within my toolkit to survive the challenges. This was hugely beneficial and really helped me to manage as well as I did with all of my responsibilities at home and at work.”
“I began to use coaching strategies in the schools that I worked in and prioritised staff wellbeing as of equal importance to the children’s.
She added: “It was reflective of who I am. People are important to me. Relationships are important to me – connection is important to me. Helping others to be the best they can be is my true purpose. As a teacher, helping children to become better was my goal, as a headteacher helping the adults to be the best they could be became my goal.
“This approach was really working for the school communities that I led. Where staff were valued, acknowledged and invested in – progress was an inevitable and natural part of the school improvement journey.
“By the end of 2018, I was absolutely convinced that key to a school’s success was indicative of the wellbeing of its staff. Experiencing first hand the impact of poor mental health, overwhelm, and burnout had on myself and many, many teachers that I was working with, I felt that something had to be done, so I decided that to see the change… I must become the change.
“I decided to leave my senior role to focus my time and efforts on supporting other teachers with their personal growth and development, which meant I could continue to have a positive impact upon future generations.”
And so Every Teacher Matters Project was born.
And already it’s inspiring educators and entrepreneurs alike. Suneta is now an advisor for the Mental Health Foundation as well as a Fellow of the Chartered College of Teaching and has earned recognition in several national awards programmes.
And she is about to announce the launch of her new Every Teacher Matters Network Membership, being rolled out in different parts of the country, in collaboration with the Teach Well Alliance, based in Manchester. https://www.teachwellalliance.com
But what is her ultimate ambition for the network?
“I want teacher wellbeing to become high profile and I want to be able to make systemic changes that make a difference to initial teacher training.
“Eventually I’d like to see that personal development and wellbeing coaching become a common feature for head teachers and teachers in schools. I would like to think we will completely break the stigma around mental health in schools.”
“My argument is, if teachers aren’t being given the environment to be able to look after their own mental health, then I don’t know how they can be expected to identify the triggers in the children they teach.”