Fever Pitch!

Reading time: 4


Ross Morrison McGill founded @TeacherToolkit in 2010, and today, he is one of the 'most followed educators'on social media in the world. In 2015, he was nominated as one of the '500 Most Influential People in Britain' by The Sunday Times as a result of...
Read more about @TeacherToolkit

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)

Work Differently?

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.

Teacher Traits:

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:

  1. Perfectionism
  2. Having a very strong work ethic
  3. Great deal of loyalty to the children and their colleagues
  4. Very, very hard-working.
  5. 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.

Mental Health:

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.


3 thoughts on “Fever Pitch!

  1. I really find this writing pertinent and important Ross. I’m running artist teacher well being Saturday courses at the moment and it’s like opening a lid on a boiling pan. And, as you say, people carry on spinning plates when they should be saying ‘no’ or ‘I can’t’. Mrs May is offering to train at least one teacher per school to spot mental health issues in children. One? Plus, as you say, what level of training will that be? She’s not offering any true solution to a crisis which affects so many young people. A lot of that pressure (which leads to depression etc) comes from the regime of testing, accountability, pass and fail culture that the last three governments have heartily created and endorsed in our schools. (The government ditched Natasha Devon when she pointed that out.). Teacher burnout emanates from the same. And that’s also why both recruitment and retention are in crisis. I must go now and prepare for my next day with my PGCE group, they all come back from placement exhausted but still want to be teachers, to make a difference. That’s what keeps me going.

  2. As a teacher of 25 years who has anaemia and migraines and therefore has moods which dip and soar like a roller coaster this blog has resonated with me. I decided early in my career that Inwould take the time off work as and when I needed it otherwise I would not survive. Over and over again I read and hear professionals stating this is what you need to do – put yourself first. Yet the guilt I still feel for doing this is immense and at times as crippling as the migraines which force me back to bed. Part of the reason For this is encapsulated in the phrase you use when referring to your day of illness – for the first time in three years. Teachers have this competitive desire to prove their worth through their attendance. It is a badge of honour. It is a badge I cannot claim and yet I am hardworking, committed and successful. So yes I feel even more guilt. This is probably true of more professionals than teaching and does suggest we need to look really carefully at why it has come about within our working culture. (I suggest would suggest links to neoliberal policies and an overly competitive consumer society but that is for another discussion.)
    I think for the teaching profession it is an acute issue as a school needs a teacher in front of a class of students. However if we accept that we are not superhuman that each of is likely to have days when we are ill maybe we should be looking at how we deploy staff. Maybe more team teaching, job shares and other creative ways to deploy staff would ease the pressure on all of us. The first step is to reach an acceptance that all of us will need time to recover, recuperate and rest at some stage of our working life and that this is okay. Get well soon and take care of yourself.

    1. I agree re. badge of honour. The only reason I wanted to go into work, was not to tarnish my 100% attendance. Doesn’t make me any better or worse in performance or health! Job shares and team teaching are not financially viable, but are a sure way to rescue and motivate the profession which is on its knees.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.