Is the teaching profession reaching fever-pitch?
With teachers and students returning to school with the dark nights and winter bug looming thick and fast, the topic of workload, sickness and mental health remains applicable today as it ever was. If you’re working in a system where perhaps you are trying to manage the un-manageable, then read “a day in the life of a helpline counsellor“. This article resonated with me towards the end of last term, as tempers and thresholds started to fray between students and staff.
No teacher should feel ill-equipped to deal with a troubled pupil. (Theresa May)
I still believe that if you add to someone’s workload, then you must commit to taking something away, yet this is rarely achieved in reality. How often have you been asked to do XYZ with little or no consideration for your current work commitments? Or to hear that someone else volunteer – with all good intentions – to do a task because you are snowed under, knowing too-well that a) you will end up completing the task anyway (because you were reluctant to take on the additional work in the first place) or b) see your own job responsibilities thinly spread out to other volunteers who are waiting in the wings to jump into your shoes?
With the recruitment crisis reaching fever-pitch, and with school budgets thinly stretched, are things in education going to become much worse before it gets any better? And if so, what are we going to do?
According to the Education Support Network, they receive “a lot of calls from very experienced teachers” who are coming to the end of their professional life and moving towards retirement. Often they feel that they are being pushed aside in favour of younger and cheaper colleagues. I have yet to experience this personally, but I have heard many wise colleagues say this is how they feel when newer staff are deployed to take over various tasks. Perhaps there is a need for us to slow down and focus on what is achievable for everyone, rather than continue to work at such a rapid pace?
As a solution, it is recommended that headteachers consider re-evaluating staff roles and responsibilities and using the experience of much more expensive staff to complete other projects, playing to the strength of a teacher’s experiences. For example, instead of being a head of year, redeploy a teacher into a new role that would bring about more benefits for the staff, rather than the students:
- mentoring colleagues new to middle leadership roles
- establishing an alumni for the school to help with recruitment and retention
- identifying fundraising opportunities and potential bids for funds
- networking and bringing in expertise from outside
- … and so on.
It doesn’t matter whether you are an NQT or an experienced member of staff, teachers share some common personality traits. They tend to broadly be defined as:
- Having a very strong work ethic
- Great deal of loyalty to the children and their colleagues
- Very, very hard-working.
- A sense of guilt when missing deadlines or taking a day off sick from work.
These qualities can really work against you when you are trying to manage the un-manageable, but I firmly believe teachers are by default, loyal and hard-working people who want the best for their students and co-workers.
Today, our Prime Minister Theresa May has announced “additional training for teachers, an extra £15m for community care, and improved support in the workplace.” (BBC) Yet, it takes 5 years university training and over 500 hours in clinical practise to become a certified child mental health practitioner. How is this achievable?
I want to see mental health addressed not just in our hospitals, but in our classrooms and communities. I want to see the stigma stripped away so that no-one in this country feels unable to talk about what they’re going through or seek help …For no parent should feel helpless when watching their child suffer. No teacher should feel ill-equipped to deal with a troubled pupil. No teenager should have to leave their local area to seek treatment. No child should ever be left to feel like their life is not worth living. (Theresa May)
Although I welcome May’s announcements, do not believe the rhetoric. It is striking that we find that teachers, who may have had that conversation with their doctor, continue to work as they are so dedicated to their students and colleagues. One in four adults has been diagnosed with a mental illness at some stage during their lifetime, the annual NHS health survey which asked 5,000 adults, found 26% said they had received a mental health illness diagnosis. Other findings in the survey include:
- Depression was the most frequently reported mental illness, with nearly one in five (19%) people diagnosed.
- Women were more likely than men to have depression, the survey found.
- Half of those who reported being diagnosed with a common mental disorder said that they had experienced the condition in the past 12 months
- 3% of men and 5% of women reported they had self-harmed
- 4% of men and 7% of women reported suicide attempts
- In terms of depression – including post-natal depression – 24% of women reported having had the condition at some stage, compared with 13% of men.
On a day I find myself at home unwell – for the first time in 3 years – I have found myself still up at 6am to set cover, notify colleagues of my absence and put in place information for missed meetings and classwork for my absent classes. I admit this is not as serious a case as colleagues who will be suffering from serious mental health issues, but it is important that we talk more about health and well-being as teachers more often. As a deputy headteacher, I am not shy to admit when I am over-worked, stressed or feeling a bit blue, but over the years I have learnt how to keep this to myself because it has been etched into my psyche that this is the preferred ‘leadership thing to do’, to be able to cope with the demands of a 50+ hour working week. It has become so normal, I am numbed to the sensations of stress, tiredness and guilt. But is that acceptable?
Of course it isn’t. So, although we can now acknowledge there is a growing crisis with mental health, even though May pledges to tackle the stigma, there is going to be no additional funding to help those who are reaching fever pitch!
Teachers: look after yourself, because if you don’t, you’re no good to those around you, or to the students in your care. There are experts who are here to help, so make sure you listen to those around you and stop, listen and act.