Dr Ben Arnold is investigating the issues impacting educators’ health and wellbeing.

Dr Ben Arnold is a Senior Lecturer in Education Leadership and a Research Fellow working on the Educator Health & Wellbeing program. He investigates the relationship between education policy and governance, work environments and educators’ health and wellbeing.

Here he talks about his love of teaching and how he has managed to merge his interest in social psychology with sociology in his work with teachers and educational leaders.

Can you talk about your background?

I grew up in Hertfordshire just outside London and stayed in that part of the UK until I was 18 when I went to university in Liverpool. I studied Psychology with the idea of being an educational psychologist. At that time in the UK you had to have some teaching experience to be an EdPsych so I did my two years of teaching and loved it so much that I stayed in teaching. I was a teacher for seven years working in primary and secondary schools. My first job was in East London in a primary school and then I taught high school English, Maths and Humanities in a small international school in Bali.

After five years working as a teacher, I did my Master of Educational Research and applied for an internship with UNICEF in India. The internship was for Masters students to work on government projects in collaboration with UNICEF. Through that project, I then went on to do a PhD project on global education agendas and the role they play in addressing socioeconomic and gendered inequalities. The field work focused on the impact of policies on the experience of students in Indian schools. I was interested in how students’ gender and socioeconomic status affected their experiences in schools.

When did you become interested in this area of research?

After my PhD I moved to Australia and in 2019 I started working as a Research Associate with Associate Professor Radhika Gorur at REDI. Radhika’s project drew on sociology of numbers and quantification and Actor Network Theory to examine Accountability and global education policy networks in India and Cambodia. Shortly after that project came to an end, I started working as a post-doctoral research fellow with Professor Phil Riley on the Educator Health and Wellbeing project.

My interests lie in social psychology in education, educational psychology and the sociology of education. These different sub-disciplines offer different perspectives on issues of work and health in the education sector. Working on the Educator Health and Wellbeing research group brought together these different disciplinary perspectives to frame issues and challenges in relation to work in the education system. I found that studying educators’ work and health enabled me to develop my interests in sociological and psychological perspectives on work in the education sector.

What is the Educator Health and Wellbeing project?

The Educator Health and Wellbeing Project examines the issue of the health and wellbeing of educators by talking and listening to them. We ask educators how they feel about their health and their work and connect these responses to patterns across the country and internationally. We are building an evidence base about the opportunities and challenges of working in the sector to inform debates about the status of teachers, principals and other education professionals.

The key issues for educators include workload, emotional demands, relationships with colleagues, autonomy, trust and justice at work. Our data show that professionals working in the education sector experience pressures that are different from other professions. The nature of work in the education sector is shaped by systems and policies beyond educators’ immediate work environments, and educators often don’t get much of a say about how their work is organised and the expectations of their role. In recent years, the policy voice has dominated decisions about educators’ work, and educators haven’t had a strong voice in discussions or debates.

Is this work unique to Australia?

Professor Riley started this project in Australia in 2011 and he has set up projects in other countries, including New Zealand, Ireland, Hong Kong, Finland and Estonia. We are currently working in New Zealand, Ireland and Australia. By using similar methods to investigate these issues in different countries we are able to see similarities and differences between different countries and region.

What does this research mean for the community?

There is widespread recognition across the education sector that there is a problem with workforce shortages. Historically, the policy approach to addressing workforce shortages has been to focus on increasing the supply of teachers. Now, there is greater interest in retaining teachers. A really important aspect of retention is ensuring that educators feel that they have the conditions that they need to do their work well. Our research sheds light on the key working conditions that impact on teachers’ health, wellbeing and career plans. We use evidence from surveys and consultations with educators to develop recommendations for policymakers and professional organisations so that they can respond to educators’ needs. We give teachers’ perspectives on these issues and show the types of challenges teachers face in terms of their work and their mental and physical health. This doesn’t solve all the problems but it does provide good evidence to inform discussions.

What are your next steps?

I am currently working with Dr Katrina MacDonald on Deakin’s Master of Education Leadership and Learning. We are looking at the practical challenges faced by leaders in the education sector and providing them with the theories and research frameworks to develop ethical and sustainable approaches to leadership and innovation. I will also continue my work on the Educator Health and Wellbeing project to understand workforce issues and promote educators’ perspectives on the challenges they face at work.

News 26 September 2023