Last reviewed 17 December 2012
According to Sir Michael Wilshaw, head of Ofsted, teachers are not stressed and have no reason to be. That is excellent news and it must be true, because as we all know, says Michael Evans, Ofsted is always right.
The problem is that one does not have to look very far to find indications that this might not actually be the case.
Last year Channel 4 reported an 80% increase in teachers committing suicide, which means that suicide figures for teachers are now 30% to 40% above the national average.
It is reported that last year, in Suffolk alone, almost 10,000 teaching days were lost as a result of stress, but during the same period, The Scotsman reported that the total number of teaching days lost for the whole of Scotland was 7000. Of course, Ofsted does not operate in Scotland.
Naturally, it would be quite unfair to lay all the blame on Ofsted for teacher stress. The Teacher Support Network is a charity that provides a helpline for teachers and, between 2010 and 2011, the charity received 45,633 calls or e-mails.
A total of 7334 of these calls related to financial worries, but nearly 17,000 related to health and wellbeing, with over 4500 specifically relating to anxiety. Over 2000 calls were from teachers who were losing sleep because of their worries.
In a study conducted by ATL earlier this year involving 1292 members, a quarter of those questioned said that their current job had led them to take sick leave from work and 40% said they had visited their GP.
Nearly three quarters of those surveyed said that they felt that their job was having a negative effect on their health and wellbeing, with 84% saying that it was the excessive workload that was the prime cause of their stress. Sixty nine per cent cited long hours and nearly half blamed pressure from inspections.
Nearly 60% said that they had seriously considered leaving the profession.
More than two-thirds felt that the stress of the job was actually damaging their professional ability to do their job and 62% felt that it was affecting their relationships with family and friends.
The Health and Safety Executive places teachers alongside health and social service managers as being in the most stressful of occupations.
The Guardian recently ran an article by a head of department in a south of England comprehensive school. Writing anonymously, he likened teaching to performing on stage to a packed house, the only difference being that rather than having an audience made up of the paying public, they were your most fearsome critics.
Throughout the show these critics give you a continual review. If things are going well, they might let you know; if things are going badly they certainly will. The rewards can be great, but so can the consequences.
This particular teacher wrote of his overwhelming need for things to go well. The highs he described as being like mountains, while the lows are like deep canyons. The highs, he said, were fleeting but the lows were long lasting.
The teacher went on to say that although he managed to put on a brave face in school, the fear of failure became paramount. He would lie in bed at night worrying about what might go wrong in lessons and it eventually got to the point where his partner essentially told him that he had better sort himself out or their future together would be in some jeopardy.
He eventually managed to go to his GP and tell him what was going on. The GP casually informed him that it sounded like a case of mild depression. To the teacher his depression was anything but mild, but fortunately he was referred to a counsellor and that seemed to help.
A serious question is how this teacher was allowed to get into this state in the first place. He was, after all, a head of department and presumably one of the school’s senior management team.
The answer is that depression is an illness and there is no telling where or when it will strike and to whom.
Demands on teachers are definitely escalating. Teachers have to cope with endless government initiatives, pressures from inspections and pressure from parents, schools and colleges to get pupils through tests, to mention but a few.
ATL General Secretary Dr Mary Bousted commented that: “The Government doesn’t seem to care about teachers’ workload or their mental health and is showing callous disregard for teachers’ wellbeing in many of its policies”.
Schools really need to take this problem seriously. Stress begets stress and depression begets depression. In any environment, if individuals are stressed and depressed this will have the effect of lowering the morale of others and rather than encouraging them to do better, will simply lower their performance. If this happens in the world of commerce, an individual’s distress might affect maybe two or three colleagues, but in a school if a teacher is having a bad time it could affect hundreds of pupils and their futures.
All too often when teachers feel signs of stress, they try to hide their unhappiness. Teachers need to work in a positive environment where they can receive appropriate support when needed. It is important to realise that stressed-out teachers are not simply whinging, but are expressing genuine concern.
They should not be made to feel fearful that they will be singled out as poor teachers simply because they are expressing their vulnerability. Asking for support should be seen as a sign of strength, and investment in support of the workforce should be seen as a principle of effective management.
But while thousands of teachers leave the profession every year, many relish the intense nature of the activity. It is a highly demanding job to manage 25 to 30 pupils, all of whom have individual needs. You have to be on top of things, particularly if the class is at all challenging.
Late entrants to the profession who have come from professions such as law, finance, journalism or the military, often comment that it is the most demanding, tiring and busy thing that they have ever done. And it can be so rewarding.
The school term leading up to Christmas is usually the longest term of the year and many teachers find this the most exhausting. Young children in particular get swept up in the euphoric anticipation of the festive season, with its round of Christmas parties and discos, Christmas shows, etc. Significant numbers of teachers are involved in these additional activities and even for those who are not, the excited children are often much harder work than usual.
For many teachers, the joy of the autumn term is on the last day after final assembly, when the children have all gone and they sit in the staff room sipping a glass of sherry and congratulating each other on making it to the end.
Without doubt teaching is a very rewarding job. Some people will always suffer stress, but good management systems should be in place to ensure that everyone feels valued and is working in an environment of mutual support.