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The Happy Teacher

In schools where happiness is on the agenda, teachers and students work with more pleasure and energy, are sick less often and perform better. “Happiness should be a priority in every school.”

In an industry with the highest burnout rate, you would expect teachers to be hard-pressed. However, research has not shown that, says 'happiness professor' Ruut Veenhoven, emeritus professor at Erasmus University.

He has been working on the subject of happiness since the 7,2s and was the founder of the World Database of Happiness, in which all studies on this have been brought together. “A teacher scores a XNUMX on happiness, which is just as high as the score of the average working Dutch person,” he says. “He is generally happy and enjoys the work.”

'Dutch teachers are 1,5 points happier than French'

Whether you feel happy depends on the extent to which your needs are met. Autonomy and freedom of choice are important in this, according to Veenhoven. “Dutch teachers, for example, are 1,5 points happier than French teachers. That's because France is a very hierarchical country, where much of life is determined by others. The more freedom there is, the more likely you are to live a life that suits you.”

“The great thing is that the way of teaching in the Netherlands contributes to greater happiness in the longer term,” Veenhoven continues. His own research shows that actively involving students in education strengthens their autonomy, making them better able to follow their own path later on. “The fact that we are happier than the French is also due to education and we can be proud of that.”


Yet teachers themselves often experience a lack of autonomy and professional space. As a lateral entrant, Paul Baan saw many teachers leave for that reason and he himself stopped after a year. “The way I was treated as a professional didn't make me happy,” he says. “I feel like I was limited in my development. As a starter, for example, I was obliged to attend a study day on personal leadership, while I myself have given that training for years.”

As director, Baan had seen his IT company grow from 17 to 350 people from the moment they started to focus on happiness, partly by strengthening autonomy. They participated in the study Great place to work, in which companies are compared on all kinds of aspects of happiness at work. “Our goal was to be in the top 3 every year and it worked very well.”

After he stopped teaching as a lateral entrant, he decided to set up Klassewerkplaats using the same approach to retain teachers. Schools that participate in this annual survey and excel in their contribution to teacher happiness at work are awarded the Class Workplace designation and are put in the spotlight. This should stimulate positive employership in education and prevent the outflow of teachers: after all, who wouldn't want to work at a school where all teachers are happy?

'Salary and workload are less predictive of teacher happiness than the role of the school leader and growth opportunities'

He searched the Veenhoven database for aspects that contribute to teachers' happiness at work and filtered six of them: school leader, salary, work pressure, impact of the subject, collegiality and mutual atmosphere. Baan: “Across the board, we see that salary and workload are less predictive of the teacher's happiness than the role of the school leader and the growth opportunities. In a school where the school leader is not directive and knows the teachers well as individuals, and knows what they can, want and how they can achieve that, the professionals thrive there.”


This is also noted by teacher Maike Douglas (Miss Maike). She describes in her book 'The Happy Teacher' practical tips and lessons on how to stand up for your profession and yourself as a teacher. “Teachers are most happy with a rock-solid director who stands behind them and offers space for a conversation about what good education is and what this means in practice. There must be space and time to look at each other in class, to be allowed to do where your talents lie and to inspire each other with what is going well, instead of focusing on what is not going well.”

According to her, this involves a balance between autonomy and support. Douglas: “Letting go of people completely so that they go their own way doesn't work either. Then you miss the togetherness and the main line. Good education therefore requires clear agreements and an open and safe climate in which you feel supported to try new things and in which you can learn from each other.”

beach chairs

The Leonardo da Vinci school in Amsterdam seems to meet this ideal. School leader Audrey Verschuren sets clear frameworks and always comes up with something new to surprise her team. For example, they met in beach chairs in the schoolyard, they received letter socks with Sinterklaas or chic hand soaps in corona time. “A small gesture makes a big difference,” says Verschuren. “It makes the team feel appreciated and that pays off.”

Under her inspired leadership, the school made a transition from work pressure to happiness at work in five years' time. Last year, the school participated for the first time in Klassewerkplek and promptly ended up in second place in the top 10 of schools with the highest happiness at work. Verschuren, who now works for the Education Inspectorate: “My main job was to set up the processes in such a way that people can just do their job and not be burdened with all kinds of nonsense. As a school leader, I keep a lot out of the door so that we can focus on our core task.”


It determines 'the playing field': the space within which teachers can make their own decisions. According to her, transparency is a precondition for this, for example with regard to financing flows. “I think it is important that teachers are well informed, because that leads to understanding for certain choices and more involvement. For example, by discussing the formation, they saw that we had too few students and too many ambulatory staff. Around the 1 October count, the question is often asked how many students we have.”

'There is never a study day here where they think: what am I doing here?'

It takes time to think carefully about your profession. She literally started to create this by increasing the teaching time per week by one hour, so that the team can schedule no less than ten study days per year. Instead of energy-guzzling meetings after school, once a week there is a meeting lunch of up to an hour for current affairs.

“We shouldn't waste time, so we prepare everything well,” she says. “There is never a study day here where they think: what am I doing here? If a program for lower secondary education is not interesting, we will make two programmes. We sit down with external trainers to discuss what we want to learn and all fluff as energizers from their program.”


The intervention that, according to the teachers, has resulted in the most happiness at work is organizing work groups differently. “During a study day about working time, we found out that we had far too many tasks and too many different ones. As a result, you constantly had the feeling that you only do everything halfway and nothing works," says teacher Sabine Kuiper. Everyone is now only part of one working group or is a coordinator. “Now it fits better, although we sometimes walk around totally stressed.”

'I really like the freedom and trust I get here'

“But it's really nice that you can always go to someone. The atmosphere is very family-like, you can just be yourself here”, adds colleague Merle de Heer. “I really like the freedom and trust I get here. Then you really want to make something beautiful out of it. But if things don't go well, that's okay too." Kuiper: “When you come to Audrey with a problem, she always jokingly says: 'Watch out, you'll come out of this stronger.' That humor is also very important.”

Know yourself

Happiness transcends everything and should therefore be a priority at every school, says professor Ruut Veenhoven. “Happiness is contagious. When teachers are happy, it reflects on students, with all the positive effects that entails. However, we should not only point to the employer, because we can also do a lot about our happiness ourselves.”

'When teachers are happy, it reflects on students'

The ancient Greek inscription on the temple in Delphi already gave the key to this: Know thyself. A proven effective tool for this is the Happiness Guide (www.gelukswijzer.nl), which Veenhoven co-developed and in which you can keep track of what you do and how you feel about it. By comparing the results with those of other teachers, you know where you stand.

“If it turns out that they score much higher, then it is apparently possible to enjoy your work more. That means that you have to find out what gives you satisfaction: who am I, what can I do and what do I want. Only when you know that you can make better choices,” he explains. “The art of being happy is finding a way of life that suits you. You often only find out by trying things out, that applies to relationships, but also to your work. The few scratches you incur are well worth the effort.”


Read also: Five tips for more happiness at work

On November 27, the celebrates AOb celebrates its 25th anniversary in Zwolle with the Een Klasse Apart festival. Paul Baan (Class workplace) and Maike Douglas (Miss Maike) are also on the program with the workshop 'Happy for the class'. Look right here for more information and registration.


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