Teachers are reportedly some of the most stressed people of any occupational group, with the National Foundation for Educational Research (NFER) finding 20% of teachers feel tense about their job all or most of the time. According to Sir Cary Cooper, professor of organisational psychology and health at the University of Manchester’s business school and a former government adviser on wellbeing, teaching is in the top three most stressful occupations of the 80 or so he has studied. According to Sir Cary, anxiety, stress and depression are “endemic” in teaching, and leading causes of sickness absence. But what are the causes of teachers’ stress and the subsequent mental health issues that arise?
Sir Cary, who is a world-renowned expert on organisational wellbeing, identifies five key issues affecting teacher wellbeing:
- People management
- Workload management
- Relationships with parents
- “Naming and shaming” (extreme accountability)
- Autonomy (or lack thereof)
The issue of work-life balance is also often signposted as a key issue. When averaged out, teachers work roughly the same number of hours as other occupations, but in practice they work significantly more during term time which poses challenges for managing work-life balance. Some may imagine teachers as having an ‘easy life’, which can be far from the truth. Others may suggest teachers get to “work, work, work” for a few weeks at a time with half-terms and long summer breaks to “kick back and relax”, but the reality is (marking and planning over holidays aside) those stints of “work, work, work” can have a really negative effect on teachers’ health and wellbeing.
The issue of teacher wellbeing has existed for a long time, but the recent upheaval of education due to Coronavirus has brought with it new challenges and issues. Teachers have, almost overnight, had to become experts in delivering online, remote teaching. Some teachers have had to juggle the remote teaching of children on lockdown with the provision for, and support of, children of key workers still coming into school. Many teachers also have their own children at home whose remote learning they need to support, and all this in a global pandemic which is itself a cause of stress, panic and worry for many.
At the start of the pandemic, teachers received some well-deserved (and perhaps long overdue) recognition and praise, as they did their best to support parents and children with remote learning. Unfortunately, the tone has already started to turn to one of blaming and shaming as teachers voice their concerns over the government’s decision to begin re-opening schools. The risk of severe illness, and potentially death, are another addition to the list of things to threaten teachers’ physical, mental and emotional wellbeing.
Long before Coronavirus and this strange new world it has created, teachers reported their ‘top five’ emotions as being “frustrated, overwhelmed, stressed, tired, and happy” (1/5 ain’t bad). In March (mid-pandemic) these emotions were “anxious, fearful, worried, overwhelmed, and sad“. Of course, living through a global pandemic can certainly have an effect so these can’t all be blamed on the profession. The important question: what emotions to teachers want to experience? The answer?: “happy, inspired, valued, supported, effective, and respected.” ‘Happy’ may very well be ‘an inside job’, and is certainly a state easier to attain when one integrates certain healthy habits into their life (such as mindfulness and time in nature), but some of those other emotions do point to organisational and leadership problems.
Whilst I would argue that teachers’ emotions and wellbeing matter for very obvious reasons per se (hopefully no one would argue against feeling content and enjoying life), there are also many secondary reasons why these issues are important. According to the Yale Center for Emotional Intelligence, teachers’ emotions matter for five main reasons:
- Emotions matter for attention, memory, and learning, all of which are necessary for effective teaching and subsequently for students’ learning.
- Emotions matter for decision making, meaning they can affect how educators plan and teach their lessons, and how they respond to challenges in the classroom.
- Emotions matter for relationships; unhappy teachers can subconsciously show negative body language and facial expressions, making students less comfortable and safe.
- Emotions matter for health and well-being, which are clearly valuable for the individual teacher in all aspects of their life, as well as having innumerable secondary benefits for their students and school.
- Emotions matter for performance. Chronic stress causes low teacher motivation and engagement, subsequently leading to ‘burnout’.
The stress of the teaching is not only driving experienced teachers out of the profession (as well as a high number of newly qualified teachers within their first 5 years), it is also clearly effecting the quality of teaching, and subsequently, learning. Chronic stress may be one of the key underlying issues of the recruitment and retention crisis in teaching, which in turn often means schools are understaffed, rely on ever-changing supply teachers, or have to recruit non-subject-specialists to lead classes.
When I was at secondary school myself, I remember two of my teachers leaving due to having had “a mental breakdown” (the only explanation we were given). One of them was my tutor, meaning for the next year I would have innumerable supply teachers take my tutorial, with whom I had no connection, who knew nothing of my life, and who could often not prevent what should be a calm start to the school day from descending into utter chaos. To be completely fair to them, neither could our actual tutor, which may partly explain the mental breakdown.
Of course supply teachers do essential work and can be very effective substitutes during a short period of absence, but to rely on a number of supply teachers to cover an extended period of absence (or permanent leave with no notice) due to mental health issues, has obvious and serious repercussions on the quality of students’ learning, and causes wider disruption to their education (as well as their own wellbeing).
I believe that addressing the issues mentioned here will be paramount to securing the future of education and ensuring children receive the best possible education. Happy teachers create happy students, and happy students learn best and become happy adults. If we are to live and teach in an ‘Age of Measurement‘, we could at least take the time to measure the levels of happiness in schools.
If you are a teacher and worry about your own or colleagues’ emotional and physical wellbeing, check out these ideas (and some example school-wide policies) from the Teacher Toolkit.