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Teacher Stress


John Simkin
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According to a survey by the Schools Advisory Service that was published this week, one in three teachers working in schools in England and Wales took sick leave last year as a result of job-related stress. It claimed that more than 213,000 days were lost to stress, anxiety or depression suffered by the teaching profession at an annual cost to schools of over 19m.

Stress was largely ascribed to excessive workload, lack of support from management and co-workers, lack of communication and the pressures of having to deal with poorly behaved children and difficult parents.

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According to a survey by the Schools Advisory Service that was published this week, one in three teachers working in schools in England and Wales took sick leave last year as a result of job-related stress. It claimed that more than 213,000 days were lost to stress, anxiety or depression suffered by the teaching profession at an annual cost to schools of over 19m.

Stress was largely ascribed to excessive workload, lack of support from management and co-workers, lack of communication and the pressures of having to deal with poorly behaved children and difficult parents.

I wonder how much teacher stress is actually self inflicted by members of the profession who cannot manage their time, self or work in any sensible way?

We seem to attract a fair number of workaholics and people unable to know when to stop or understand where their responsibilities begin and end.

Teaching is stressful not least because the day is regimented and the continuous social interaction is draining. All the more reason why entrants to the profession should be rational in their approach to themselves and their work - an issue for teacher trainers I feel :)

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While I'm sure there are such teachers, I could also ask how many teachers are caused stress by managers who expect them to be workaholics, because they themselves are. I know of many teachers here who are intimidated by management into coming into school at weekends, doing excessive work at home etc, otherwise they are obviously not a good enough teacher. Teachers' workloads and the responsibilities imposed on them by society and bureaucracy are totally unrealistic - that is the bottom line. They are made to feel responsible for curing all the ills of a fairly sick society, and in return treated like navvies in their own schools, disrespected by society and comparitively poorly paid compared with IT boffins, accountants, stock brokers etc.

On the TES website there is a discussion among teachers about how many teachers who are still teaching after 60. The answers suggest it is very, very few - they are largely burnt out and retired by then. Can you say that about people working in other govt areas, or in private enterprise? Possibly police, ambulance drivers and emergency workers, but they have similar conditions to teachers. My partner is a desk journalist and he is happily working long past when he coukld have retired because he loves it, it is not stressful and it is well paid. Teaching used to be like that but it aint any more.

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While I'm sure there are such teachers, I could also ask how many teachers are caused stress by managers who expect them to be workaholics, because they themselves are. I know of many teachers here who are intimidated by management into coming into school at weekends, doing excessive work at home etc, otherwise they are obviously not a good enough teacher. Teachers' workloads and the responsibilities imposed on them by society and bureaucracy are totally unrealistic - that is the bottom line. They are made to feel responsible for curing all the ills of a fairly sick society, and in return treated like navvies in their own schools, disrespected by society and comparitively poorly paid compared with IT boffins, accountants, stock brokers etc.

On the TES website there is a discussion among teachers about how many teachers who are still teaching after 60. The answers suggest it is very, very few - they are largely burnt out and retired by then. Can you say that about people working in other govt areas, or in private enterprise? Possibly police, ambulance drivers and emergency workers, but they have similar conditions to teachers. My partner is a desk journalist and he is happily working long past when he coukld have retired because he loves it, it is not stressful and it is well paid. Teaching used to be like that but it aint any more.

I think we are all battling with our own "work-life" balance, and I agree with much of what Jean has said here - (though it has put me off emigrating to Tasmania!). However "teacher stress" in my view is an issue that needs to be tackled from the bottom up as well as from the top down.

I have "managed" a number of people over the years as a Department Head and Head of Year and I have to say that there is a recurrent personality type in the profession which brings a lot of stress, worry and guilt on themselves, without any encouragement from their managers. I have also represented both the genuinely bullied and some right lazy sods in my role as union rep.

My advice to all teachers would be to learn early on the boundaries of your role and responsibility and of course to perfect the art of gently and politely saying "No" to your Boss when unreasonable demands are placed on you. Perhaps we have problems because we are embedded in institutions where "doing as you are told" is portaryed as such a positive virtue? :)

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Whenever I tell anyone about how stressful teaching is they reply it is true of all jobs today. Of course, all jobs are indeed stressful. I have done several jobs. Working in a factory was stressful. As surveys point out, it is very stressful doing work where you have so little control over your actions. I also found running a business very stressful. This is mainly because of your fear you will go bankrupt and that you will lose your house in the process.

But nothing compares to the stress of being a teacher. I think there are three main reasons for this.

(1) However much you prepare before hand, you can never be certain that it will go well. A class of young people are unpredictable. Just one student can wreck your plans. What makes it worse, this action usually has nothing to do with anything you have done.

(2) You aware that it is the most important job anyone can do. This brings a level of responsibility that creates stress. Doctors and nurses suffer from similar forms of stress.

(3) As a teacher you feel constantly guilty. Teaching is an open-ended job. You know you should have spent another 30 minutes preparing the lesson or marking the books. As a result, when things go wrong, you blame yourself.

Of course not all teachers feel like this. Some convince themselves that it “is just a job”. That teaching really does not matter too much. They create a “mask of authority” that allows them to be unaffected by what goes on around them. They don’t expect too much out of teaching and therefore are not disappointed. All enthusiasm goes and they wait patiently for retirement. They are the survivors. Those that care too much get burnt out and suffer from stress-related illnesses.

When I first started teaching I took a look at members of staff who were in their last few years of teaching. I was deeply shocked by what I saw. I was determined not to stay in teaching long enough for the job to do that to me.

I have worked for two national newspapers. It is often claimed that journalists suffer badly from stress. Deadlines obviously cause problems. They tend to drink too much and their marriages suffer. However, it is rare for them to seek early retirement. Very few teachers fit into this category.

I am now self-employed. My stress is now economic rather than emotional. It does not compare to the stress experienced by a teacher. True you don’t get the highs of being a classroom teacher. Nor do you get the lows. I prefer balance.

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I find the stress of teaching to be like that of being sleep deprived. Every day into a cycle seems to knock you a little behind and you can never catch up. As it continues you become less and less competent and less able to do the things to the standards that you aspire to.

Then comes irritability and the incessant wave of deadlines that come with each period with each wake up alarm and with each unexpected surprise.

As a teacher in a private school I am provided with the environment that allows me to still feel that I can teach the ideal class. On the other hand as I become more and more of a part of the community more and more shows up on my plate.

I find that the worst of the stress (and it is as bad as it could possibly be right now as our term is winding down and I have 60+ ungraded term papers while my peers walk by and ask me why I do such a thing to myself and my students wonder audibly what the point is) is the fact that the job is more of a lifestyle that hangs on over your head constantly. There is always something that can be done and there is almost always something that absolutely needs to be done.

There is also the responsibility of being a constant role model in the way you teach, in your personal life, the way you talk. The influences you have on teenagers are pretty profound and it makes you definitely modify your actions and words.

I find the most unfortunate aspect of teaching is that it absorbs nearly every ounce of my patience, something I generally don't sense during my school day but I feel it immediately as a leave school and spend time with my family. I leads me to unfortunate quips or to try to block out everything I possibly can to hide from my family and thoughts of undone school work.

I have noticed that teaching has a much more demanding day and the outside society sees it as a part time engagement. Yet I don't know of many other professions where 5-6 hours of seminar/presentations are lined up every day. My wife outearns me (in her first year in sales) and she set 3 or for appointments per day. The responsibility of being prepared to instruct 5 fifty minute classes per day is itself a constant feat of management.

The biggest mistake I have made by financial necessity (and yes the third child is on the way) :D is that I have used my summer "breaks" working as many hours as I can. I really need that time to decompress. But it seems awfully whiny when all of my friends in other professions have work responsibilities all summer.

We do get a lot of down time. It is helpful. But, like now, at the end of semester with too much to be done in too little time, the stress of teaching makes you wonder.

And then there is the thing that brings me to this site, where I search between JFK posts for ways to be a little bit better at what I do and to find in a community of colleagues a few pieces of wisdom to get better and better.

Yet, teaching a class that is compulsory to standard level kids doesn't result in a lot of immediate positive feedback. This profession does show immediate results and one can devolve into despair wondering if one is making a difference, or worse if one is taking up space that could be better used by a more competent and energetic instructor.

But i stick with the sleep depravation model, because with proper rest and real time away from school (prep, grading, seminars, and all) it is a great profession. One has to keep an open heart with the kids and fight off unwarranted intrusions into ones time or compensation.

That's enough rambling. At the very least it was therapeutic.

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And another stressor we've omitted is change. The rate of change in education on top of an already stressful job, is what can break the camel's back, especially in what is an ageing workforce. Here, the rate and size of mandated change in the last 12 months has been monumental and teachers are dropping like flies as a result.

I am also finding, in my job as union President, that women in their late 40s to late 50s, who are in large numbers in our workforce, are at the most demanding stage in their lives - menopause, difficult young adult children, sick or elderly parents, the double shift of work and home, older husbands approaching retirement. I'm not saying men don't have any of these but they often fall more heavily on women - and on top of that because of broken service to have children, many women (and especially divorced/single women) don't have enough pension/superannuation to retire early.

While I agree that many jobs ARE stressful, I also see people doing almost totally stressfree jobe - there are some here in my office I could name!!

My present job is stressful in very different ways from teaching and I can't decide which is worse. For the first time in 30 years I haven't had school holidays this year and my body is telling me it hasn't adjusted!! Roll on next week and 2 weeks' leave during which I am going to do as little as possible, while my unstressed partner continues to work at his newspaper with not even Christmas Day off!

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(3) As a teacher you feel constantly guilty. Teaching is an open-ended job. You know you should have spent another 30 minutes preparing the lesson or marking the books. As a result, when things go wrong, you blame yourself.

Of course not all teachers feel like this. Some convince themselves that it “is just a job”. That teaching really does not matter too much. They create a “mask of authority” that allows them to be unaffected by what goes on around them. They don’t expect too much out of teaching and therefore are not disappointed. All enthusiasm goes and they wait patiently for retirement. They are the survivors. Those that care too much get burnt out and suffer from stress-related illnesses.

I recognise many of these features in my colleagues and some in myself. However I have to disagree with John regarding the rather dogmatic division he seems to make between "Teachers who care" and "the survivors".

It is my view that many of those who burn themselves out do so because of personality traits within themselves rather than pressures of the job. Stress induced illness is not evidence of a teacher who "cares too much", frequently it is evidence of a person who cannot manage themselves or their work. Teachers who really care about the education of their students over the long term are able to make rational decisions about managing their work and pacing themselves which ensure that they don't have lengthly absences through illness or exhaustion.

We actually need more "survivors" in the profession. I would put myself in this group. I work very hard, but I know when to stop. I also know that I am much more use to my students as I am rather than as a workaholic for 6 months who has to have 6 months off a year "with stress" to recover.

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If I were to ask our two Membership Officers who deal with this issue on a daily basis, for the most common reason for early retirement or "enforced" retirement for teachers, they would both tell you that it isn't teachers burn-out because of their own work-aholic personality. There may be a few of those, but they would be like that in any organisation - it's intimidation and bullying from the system or from local managemnt, unmanageable student behaviour, unreasonable (for anyone) workload and insufficient resourcing. And if you wanted to statistically put them in order, it would be intimidation and bullying first, followed by being assaulted/attacked by a student. I'm sure the stats wouldn't ber much different in the UK.

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I am afraid I think there is a lot of old nonsense talked about "stress" both inside and outside the teaching profession.

If stress is to mean anything then its root is probably in the word distress. People feel distress and therefore some degree of tension when they cannot balance life's competing demands or pressures.

Stress is of course entirely subjective and it my view therefore it is pretty meaningless to talk of "teacher stress" in any generalised way. What is stressful for me will not be so for someone else and so on.

The only sensible approach to helping a "stressed" person is to strengthen her/him to resist damage from life's pressures. For someone in a busy and important job like teaching part of this lies in empowering and persuading the teacher to manage themselves and their work more effectively.

In 16 years of teaching I have seen one genuine case of staff bullying in a school resulting in very negative effects on the victim. I have however witnessed many hundreds of self destructing "stressed" teachers deperately in need of person centred counselling.

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Then all I can say, Andy, is that you have worked in a very untypical environment for 16 years. And if you want to read about bullying by management in the workplace, log on regularly to the TES staffroom site and you will soon see that it is a very common problem in the UK just as it is here in Tasmania. And these people are not just those who cannot manage to balance work and life. Last year I saw a strong, sensible male primary teacher driven to a nervous breakdown and ultimate retirement from a profession he loved, by a bullying female Head. This particular Head was responsible for the breakdown of several of her staff. The DoE finally made a settlement out of court (tacit admission) and then promoted her into head office.

I could describe in detail to you case after case such as this one - it is one of the things we as a union spend most money on: helping members to deal with bullying and intimidation from senior staff. In fact, it has become so widespread that we have this year employed a new officer who is a qualified lawyer because it was necessary to have someone with sufficient standing to fight for these people in the courts. You have either been very lucky in your work environment or you are burying your head in the sand.

Also, if you become the victim of intimidation and harassment from students, as is becoming extremely common, the stress is certainly not of your own making. Almost on a daily basis we have teachers who are being regularly verbally and physically assaulted, threatened, abused and stalked. Last year I saw a teacher with whom I used to teach, again a strong, sensible, secondary Maths teacher, who was harassed and stalked by students to the extent he dared not leave his home and eventually took early retirement looking 20 years older than he was. We had another last year who committed suicide because he had been attacked by a child with a pair of scissors - he got almost no support from management who wanted a cover up (that is very common) and the stress of trying to get his case heard and believed, sent him totally round the bend. The police do almost nothing in these cases because they do not want to arrest minors and merely put them through anger management courses which the offenders simply laugh about. Parents support their delinquent children and lie on their behalf and management will often choose to believe them because it's easier than putting it through the proper channels and stops the school getting a bad name.

I can only think you live in a part of England where you are protected from reality if you do not understand why teachers suffer from stress. In fact, I am beginning to feeel so angry about your lack of understanding, that I have to go before I say something rude.

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Then all I can say, Andy, is that you have worked in a very untypical environment for 16 years. And if you want to read about bullying by management in the workplace, log on regularly to the TES staffroom site and you will soon see that it is a very common problem in the UK just as it is here in Tasmania. And these people are not just those who cannot manage to balance work and life. Last year I saw a strong, sensible male primary teacher driven to a nervous breakdown and ultimate retirement from a profession he loved, by a bullying female Head. This particular Head was responsible for the breakdown of several of her staff. The DoE finally made a settlement out of court (tacit admission) and then promoted her into head office.

I could describe in detail to you case after case such as this one - it is one of the things we as a union spend most money on: helping members to deal with bullying and intimidation from senior staff. In fact, it has become so widespread that we have this year employed a new officer who is a qualified lawyer because it was necessary to have someone with sufficient standing to fight for these people in the courts.

You have either been very lucky in your work environment or you are burying your head in the sand.

Also, if you become the victim of intimidation and harassment from students, as is becoming extremely common, the stress is certainly not of your own making. Almost on a daily basis we have teachers who are being regularly verbally and physically assaulted, threatened, abused and stalked. Last year I saw a teacher with whom I used to teach, again a strong, sensible, secondary Maths teacher, who was harassed and stalked by students to the extent he dared not leave his home and eventually took early retirement looking 20 years older than he was. We had another last year who committed suicide because he had been attacked by a child with a pair of scissors - he got almost no support from management who wanted a cover up (that is very common) and the stress of trying to get his case heard and believed, sent him totally round the bend. The police do almost nothing in these cases because they do not want to arrest minors and merely put them through anger management courses which the offenders simply laugh about. Parents support their delinquent children and lie on their behalf and management will often choose to believe them because it's easier than putting it through the proper channels and stops the school getting a bad name.

I can only think you live in a part of England where you are protected from reality if you do not understand why teachers suffer from stress. In fact, I am beginning to feeel so angry about your lack of understanding, that I have to go before I say something rude.

Teachers do indeed suffer from "stress". But that "stress" is not some uniform "bad thing" imposed from without. Down such a road leads real confusion and real misunderstanding which can be of little help to individuals concerned.

Incidentally Jean I have taught in State schools in very challenging circumstances all my teaching life and rather resent the throw away assertion of yours that I must be living some kind of sheltered existence..... far from it I am glad to say.

I am equally sorry to note that you have apparently chosen to take this discussion personally and would urge you to concentrate and on the gravamen of my position rather than getting so angry unnecessarily.

I of course understand that it is "heresy" to question the origin of the "stress" we are all under. However I would like you to open your mind to the possibility that it may also be educative to do so.

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I recognise many of these features in my colleagues and some in myself. However I have to disagree with John regarding the rather dogmatic division he seems to make between "Teachers who care" and "the survivors".

It is my view that many of those who burn themselves out do so because of personality traits within themselves rather than pressures of the job. Stress induced illness is not evidence of a teacher who "cares too much", frequently it is evidence of a person who cannot manage themselves or their work. Teachers who really care about the education of their students over the long term are able to make rational decisions about managing their work and pacing themselves which ensure that they don't have lengthly absences through illness or exhaustion.

I am sorry if I gave that impression. That was not my intention. I was just making the point that "teachers who care" find it difficult to survive in the current situation. One way they can survive is to reduce their desire to "change things". They know they will be rewarded for concentrating on making the current system work.

I agree that not all those suffering stress "care too much". In fact, I would say that many suffer from this problem came into teaching for the wrong reasons. As a result, they find it difficult to cope with the stress that comes with the job.

It is also true that some teachers suffering from stress are not particularly hard workers.

Stress is of course entirely subjective and it my view therefore it is pretty meaningless to talk of "teacher stress" in any generalised way. What is stressful for me will not be so for someone else and so on.

The only sensible approach to helping a "stressed" person is to strengthen her/him to resist damage from life's pressures. For someone in a busy and important job like teaching part of this lies in empowering and persuading the teacher to manage themselves and their work more effectively.

In 16 years of teaching I have seen one genuine case of staff bullying in a school resulting in very negative effects on the victim. I have however witnessed many hundreds of self destructing "stressed" teachers deperately in need of person centred counselling.

I think it depends what you mean by bullying. I am surprised that Andy has only seen one example of this. I have seen dozens of cases. However, I am sure my definition is different from that employed by Andy. In most cases the problem has been caused by mismanagement. The senior member of staff was trying to change the behaviour of the member of staff by bullying (usually for good reasons). It would have been more effective if they had used other methods of staff development. Unfortunately, senior members of staff seem to be keen to use bullying tactics. The same is also true of a lot of teachers when dealing with the students. In fact, I would argue that most schools have a "bullying culture". It goes so deep that most teachers are unaware of it.

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I think it depends what you mean by bullying. I am surprised that Andy has only seen one example of this. I have seen dozens of cases. However, I am sure my definition is different from that employed by Andy.

Perhaps you could share with us what your definition is?

I wonder if it is possible that teachers can sometimes cry 'bullying' when all that is happening is that they are having their time occupied or their performance managed legitimately?

Having said this I agree strongly with John that there is an awful lot of inept management in schools, but surely this is a different matter from bullying?

All of which is a little :D though interesting nonetheless.

Am I to take the fact that no one has taken issue with my assertion concerning the essentially subjective nature of "stress" as evidence of broad agreement?

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No.

However, I think we will have to agree to disagree on this one. We obviously come from very different points of view and are unlikely to see things from the same perspective.

My comment was not meant to be a "throw away assertion" - I was simply amazed that you had so rarely come across bullying when it is rampant in so many workplaces and I could think of no other reason except you had been working in an untypical setting. I can only describe what I know to be true and have to deal with daily and I don't believe my comments were any more personal than anyone else's - they were simply observations of actual situations which happen so regularly and with so little support for the victims, that it is very difficult not to feel angry with such a system.

I will try to stick to the "gravamen" of the discussion - although I believe my comments were pertinent. It is hard to know how the stress of having a pair of scissors stuck into you, could be subjective and differ from person to person, but perhoas it can.

I'm sorry if I let my feelings get in the way of an objective discussion, but I find it excessively difficult not to feel angry about a system, no different here from there from what I read daily in the UK papers, which allows the sort of managerial behaviour which results in good teachers being made seriously ill, and driven out of the profession.

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