Are Teachers Too Fragile To Teach?

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John Dabell

I trained as a primary school teacher 25 years ago, starting my career in London and then I taught in a range of schools in the Midlands. In between teaching jobs, I worked as an Ofsted inspector (no hate mail please!), national in-service provider, project...
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Why has resilience and wellbeing been dumped onto teachers?

It’s hard to deliver a world-class education when you feel awful and your resilience tank is out of rebound fuel. It’s even harder when system failures have deployed stingers across every road you drive down.

The base of school’s castell is seldom strong enough to support a wellbeing pyramid. Wellbeing is always precarious and is always in danger of collapsing without proper support.

According to the National Education Union (NEU) Workload Survey, most teachers still haven’t had a workload review two years’ after government recommendations said that they should be done. The survey notes,

“Workload is one of the main reasons teachers have for leaving the profession. The fact that 69% of primary teachers believe their marking workload is unmanageable should be of great concern to Government.”

Throw in a funding crisis and it really isn’t surprising then that an unhealthy chunk of system-frazzled teachers quit within their first five years because the stress is making them physically and mentally ill.

A survey by Leeds Becket University and, found that students’ progress and attainment is suffering because of poor mental health experienced by many teachers.

So, is it because teachers aren’t resilient enough and lack support? Why can’t teachers thrive under pressure and be what Nassim Taleb calls ‘antifragile’?

Wellbeing Crisis

According to the Education Support Partnership Health Survey 2017,

“The majority of education professionals do not feel that they receive sufficient guidance about their health and wellbeing at work. Seven out of ten (72%) professionals report this, indicating the need for greater information and guidance on health and wellbeing across the sector.”

Then in its Teacher Wellbeing Index in 2018 this goes up another 2%.

Emotional resilience (ER) is seen as a necessary condition for teachers’ commitment and effectiveness.

Everyday ER is needed by the bucketload because teaching is far from straightforward. It is often messy and stressful, sometimes chaotic but always a thankless task especially when every lesson is a battle.

It’s needed because teaching bleeds you dry and has the knack of breeding self-doubt and anxiety about whether you are doing a good enough job.

But who defines what this resilience is and what it looks like? As Day et al (2011) note, resilience “is a multi-faceted and unstable construct.”

Is it something you’ve had in your genetic locker for years but didn’t realise was there?

We all like a quick-fix. So is resilience an off-the-shelf quality we can reach for in the self-help section on a Saturday afternoon for a bit of weekend DIY psychology?

Being Resilient

There is an abundance of advice out there from all sorts of lifestyle gurus, wellness sages and health experts. You can calculate your Resilience Quotient, access a resilience prescription and learn how to flourish. You can get to grips with the Losada ratio, learn to bounce with adversity and work out how to be sunny-side up.

Some talk about ‘connecting with you better self’ and “getting to know yourself on the smallest cellular level” which sounds great. Some recommend yoga, brain brushing, Scandinavian tostada recipes and herbal dust; if that works for you then knock yourself out.

No one has a monopoly on what is right and each to their own. Don’t let anyone make you feel guilty if your coping reservoir for bouncing back and absorbing negative conditions includes dowsing, an Indian rope trick evening class and functional imagery training whilst eating a tube of Pringles.

Personal ER is linked to our team and career resilience and the ability to adapt to changing circumstances, even when the conditions are unfavourable or disruptive. The factors associated with career resilience and our personal and team resilience overlap and include:

  • Internal locus of control (seeing yourself as an agent of your own destiny, rather than a pawn)
  • Flexibility
  • Creativity
  • Sense of purpose
  • Optimism
  • Courage and determination
  • Minimising focus on blame or guilt
  • Capacity for emotional expression (both positive and negative)
  • Problem solving skills

In A Spin

Teachers living at a hundred miles an hour need to be resilient but so does the system and that’s not easy when the system is failing and a toxic cocktail of factors conspire to make resilience a dirty word.

If the system had a good circulation and was functioning well then we wouldn’t be plonking responsibility for wellness onto individual teachers. Why are we being made to feel like it is our fault?

A system that is unable to recruit, retain, value and support its teachers is a system that is empty of resilience. A system that sheds its best teachers because it has applied too much pressure has lost the plot.

Teachers who leave for better terms and conditions overseas do so because they know that wellbeing and resilience initiatives are like cheap sticking plasters. When your teaching soul is falling apart then Band-Aid won’t hold you together.

Accountability, political meddling, constant change, long hours, wild workload, poor work-life balance, Ofsted, constant learning walks, work scrutiny, lesson observations, burnout – it’s the perfect mental health storm.

Save Our Souls

Resilience training and guidance is desperately needed. If we are expected to teach resilience, teachers need training in it along with in-school mentorship and counselling. Although some schools try hard as organisations to provide this, getting quality and cutting-edge support is crucial.

In 2017, Leeds Beckett opened the Carnegie Centre of Excellence for Mental Health in Schools which is the first centre of its kind in the country.

It provides high-quality mental health training and has established a quality mark for schools.

The Centre offers “professional development courses for everyone working in schools; a professional community to harness experience across schools; support and guidance to help schools develop and improve mental health policies and practice; world-leading research to back up projects with evidence; and partnerships with like-minded organisations, such as Minds Ahead, to add support to schools.”

Find out more about their School Mental Health Award and the CPD courses they have available.

And finally….

As Evans and Hardaker (2015) note the “relational nature of resilience needs to be acknowledged.”

If we want bouncy teachers and bouncy pupils, then we need a support system with bounce too. As things stand, the job of individual, team and organisational resilience has been dumped on teachers because of system failures. If we want to get well soon then we do it by ourselves.

Being adaptable, agile, robust and having a sense of agency is not easy in the face of funding cuts, wacky workloads and fire fighting when the business of the system is put before the needs of children and teachers.

When schools will have to axe staff to afford teacher pay rises then no amount of yoga or mindfulness is going to save the day.


Anyone who works in education can call a free helpline on 08000 56256. @EdSupportUK counsellors are there to listen in confidence 24/7.

For a comprehensive picture of the mental health and wellbeing of education professionals then see the Education Support Partnership Teacher Wellbeing Index 2018.

Take a look at the Children’s Voices report from the Children’s Commissioner which examines the wellbeing of vulnerable groups of children in England and their relationship with mental health services.

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