Talking about teacher stress is a huge part of my work. I am passionate about raising awareness of this issue. The statistics around stress in education are well documented, yet for the most part this problem is accepted as “part of the job”.
I don’t think that statistics like “twice as likely to commit suicide” and “the highest divorce rates of any profession” are little things to be ignored though. These are huge problems. Those are just the big issues. How about the fact that 75% of teacher admit to feeling stressed. The fact that 11% of the profession are on antidepressants and 1/5th of teachers are aware that they have increased their caffeine or alcohol intake since starting teaching.
I say are “aware” that they have intentionally, because I believe that this statistic is much higher but most have slowly increased their consumption and now believe that the amount they are having is “normal”.
Why am I so passionate about teacher stress?
The simple answer is because I have been there.
I started teaching in September 1999. I was so excited. I spent all summer preparing resources, planning all the amazing lessons I was going to teach, making my classroom beautiful and getting as organised as I possibly could. I was fortunate that my Mum was a teacher, although she taught secondary school I had grown up understanding many fundamental aspects of teaching that may not be fully appreciated by those without that insight. I knew that it wasn’t a 9-3:30 job and that the holidays were a myth. My auntie was also a teacher and she did teach primary school so I had gone and done some extra classroom experience with her after I finished my degree and then she had spent a day helping me prepare for the first couple of weeks of September.
I had trained to teach the whole primary age range but had specialised in KS1 and Early Years (3-7 years) but my first job was in Y5 (9-10yr olds) so I was a little out of my comfort zone but ready for the challenge.
My first classroom was a brand new portacabin because the school system in Bradford changed that year from First and Middle Schools to Primary. So my Y5 class were first Y5 that the school had ever had. I had all new resources and a shiny new classroom.
In the adjoining classroom was another teacher who was new to the school. She had come down from the local middle school with the changes and she was my angel. Hazel was an experienced and truly wonderful teacher. She held my hand from day one and we became firm friends for life.
Despite her amazing love and support though I found myself lying in bed three days before the Christmas holidays crying. No, sobbing. I couldn’t move. There was absolutely nothing that could have got me into school that morning. I have never experienced anything like it in my life. I made an appointment with the doctor who prescribed antidepressants.
I sat, three months into my teaching career, a young and enthusiastic 23 yr old, with tablets in my hand. I hadn’t spotted the signs. I was so busy I hadn’t noticed that I had been struggling for weeks. I didn’t want to admit that I wasn’t coping.
Did I really need to be medicated to cope with my chosen career?
I had always been a happy, outgoing, conscientious young woman. Every task I was given I did, every form, every planning sheet was immaculate, and the paperwork was ridiculous and most of it never looked at by anyone. There were lots of factors that led to this point; an unsupportive Head, the pressures of teaching in a deprived inner city area, tensions in the community (it wasn’t long before the terrible Manningham Riots), disengaged muslim boys, the pressures of teaching in a Church of England schools with a 99.9% muslim intake…
All of these things would have been bearable with a little support from senior management. Unfortunately the opposite was true and I was made to feel like a total failure.
I only had three days off in the end, by the start of the new term the medication had kicked in and I felt able to return. I won the class round and we had a fabulous year, by the end of it. I didn’t want to leave them. I had already taken the decision to move to another school though due to the senior leadership team’s lack of support.
I managed to come off the antidepressants over the summer holidays and started work at a new school, in a similar area but with a very different team, the following September. It wasn’t easy, but having the support of more than just one colleague made it bearable and even fun!
Currently the average career length of a teacher is 8 years.
1/3 of teachers leave the state sector within 5 years.
83% of teachers polled by NASUWT said that teaching impacted in a negative way on their physical and mental health.
1/5 of all teachers are working 60hrs a week.
These statistics upset me.
I know how few of the people I qualified with almost 20 years ago are still teaching full time.
I see the average age of teachers getting younger and younger. There are some amazing young teachers, don’t get me wrong, but there are also benefits to having more mature teachers in an environment. They have seen the changes over the years, they have a perspective that younger teachers can’t have. They give their classes a very different experience too.
I also know that people who would be amazing teachers are being put off joining the profession in the first place because they have seen how challenging it can be.
What can we do to change the situation?
Well, being aware is the first thing.
Learning how to spot stress not just in others but also in yourself. Teachers are incredibly strong and will keep going and keep going, often without realising how difficult their situation is getting.
Check out these blogs if you want to know the signs:
This week I have started some work at a local college. I have been asked to visit and teach the trainee teachers how to spot stress and how to handle the strains of the job. I am also helping their mentors to spot stress in themselves and in their mentees. I can’t tell you how excited I am to be able to talk to these young enthusiastic trainees and show them how to stay calm before they get to a point where they need my help.
Often when I visit schools to deliver training I see often tired looking teachers either in total denial about their own wellbeing, because they can’t remember a time they didn’t feel like this, so this is their new normal, or I see a lightbulb go on when they realise how challenging things have got.
Prevention is always better than cure.
Teaching is a stressful job. There is no denying it. But you can thrive not just survive if you learn to manage your own wellbeing. If you learn some simple stress relieving techniques, make sure you take time for yourself to do things that make you happy, and remember that while it is undoubtedly a vocation, it is ultimately a job. No job is worth your health and happiness.
There is a saying that you can’t pour from an empty cup. You have to make sure that you are rested and full of energy in order to teach.
Ensure that your cup is always overflowing so that you can ignite the passion for learning in your students without dulling your own sparkle.