What makes teachers’ stress so special

It’s been 4.5 months since I published my last blog post and the reason is quite simple. I’m a schoolteacher and we – as in the profession – are considered to be one of the most stressful jobs out there. Let’s look at some stats:

  • The Teacher Workload Survey 2016 by the Department for Education (released: February 2017) states that teachers in England work on average 54.4 hours (Source). Across all professions, the European average lies at 37.4 hours and the British average at 36.3 hours (SOURCE), which means teachers in England work approximately 18 hours more per week (that’s 3.6 hours more per day) than the average British worker.

But it’s not just the hours. It is the nature of the job as well that has teachers switch professions at an impressive rate:

  • Nearly half of England’s teachers are planning to leave the profession in the next five years (Source) and a third of newly qualified teachers actually quit within five years after qualifying (Source).

Here is why I think teachers’ stress is very different from many other professions:

 

  1. It’s emotionally draining

Teachers are actors. They need to be able to express any type of emotion and direct them towards specific students. That in itself is very tiring. Within just 10 second you could find yourself expressing impatience at Abdul for not taken off his backpack, calming down Jared who is upset about having lost his favorite pen and express disappointment at Joel for sticking glue sticks onto the table. Now, let’s start with the lesson…

That lesson you thought was brilliantly planned the night before is very likely going to be torn to shreds. Much of the work a teacher puts into his/her work is not rewarded. On the contrary, students may refuse to do the activities you have meticulously planned and tell you straight in your face that your lessons are boring. As a teacher you are not supposed to condemn your students, but rather ask how you could help them succeed in your class. They may have just launched a successful attack on your self-confidence and shown you nothing but disrespect, but that’s what education is all about: helping young individuals better themselves.

Kids deserve a teacher who exudes passion about their subject at all times. A terrible lesson with your year 9 class doesn’t give you the right to be all cranky with your incoming year 8 class. They are not responsible for your bad mood and deserve an engaging teacher. So, put on your acting show and express emotions that are completely the opposite of what you are actually feeling 😀

 

  1. It’s cognitively exhausting

“A teacher makes 1500 education related decisions a day” (Source). Just getting 30 kids settled within the first 5 minutes of class requires insane multitasking, completely overwhelming your mental capacities. You need to be in the DEFENSE: “Sir, I don’t have a pen”, “can I quickly run to the toilet”, “I can’t find my book”, “MJ hit me”, “Abdul is sitting in my spot”, “Frances made fun of my mom” – as well as in the OFFENSE: “Get a pen from your partner”. “Have you checked for your book on every table?” “MJ, stop hitting him!”, “Abdul, go sit at your seat”, “Frances, one more insult and you’re out of here!”

While your main task should be to get the whole class settled: “All right everyone, take a seat”, “Jared, take off your backpack”, “stop running around and sit down”, “pick that up please”, “get going with the starter”. Great, so let’s start with the lesson…

 

  1. It has an insane learning curve

Starting as a newly qualified teacher feels like learning to juggle. Your brain cannot keep up with the relentless torrent of the classroom. I often found myself running around like a headless chicken frantically trying to put out fires as they occur. Many weeks passed before I had a moment of success and even then, I usually never found out why it worked. That makes repeating these moments very difficult and deprives you of that wonderful feeling of progress.

Teaching is not a list of procedural steps that will lead to success. Instead, teaching is an intuitive feeling about what will work and what won’t work. That feeling needs to be developed over many years. A juggler doesn’t say: “Now I need to move my hand to the left and catch the falling ball.” Instead, the juggler will intuitively know how to move to keep the balls in their air. They say that it takes about 3-5 years to become a good teacher. That time is need to develop that intuitive feeling – that ability to see the bigger picture and effectively work towards it rather than trying to dodge incoming bullets.

 

  1. Accountability

“OFSTED” – just an utterance of this word strikes fear into the hearts of most teachers and especially school heads. It is the name of the English school inspection body that rates schools on a scale from “Requires improvement” up to “Outstanding”. This label has a big impact on whether parents choose a school or not. Ofsted is the top of a long chain of accountability that empties into the teacher. To be prepared for an Ofsted inspection at any point in time (Ofsted may inform a school of an upcoming inspection only 24 hours in advance), line managers need to make sure that the teachers working under them do their job effectively. Hence, he/she may pop-in unannounced during a “learning walk”. Since it’s unannounced, teachers live with a constant worry that someone might catch them in a bad moment. Having your work judged by someone is always very stressful. Not knowing when that might happen even more so.

The other issue regarding accountability has to do with ticking all the check boxes that Ofsted would be looking at in order to derive their final ratings. Have you given written feedback to every child? Have they improved on their feedback? Did you call the parent upon issuing a detention? Did you enter all the marks for the term onto the system? Do you have evidence of how you support students with learning disabilities? What are you doing to push the students that are not making any progress?

Don’t get me wrong. An accountability system is a great quality assurer, but it also causes tremendous stress. Ticking all those boxes under such time constrains is difficult. Teachers WILL take shortcuts and the measures will not have the intended outcomes.

 

  1. It’s relentless

There is very little flexibility. 30 students will be expecting you at 8:30 AM. You can’t come a bit later to work or push the lesson to the afternoon. With 20-25 lessons per week there are an equal number of unmovable deadlines you have to meet. It doesn’t matter how much you feel like taking a break. How often have I sat at desk at midnight, trying to come up with creative lessons while battling the overwhelming feeling of being tired? It is relentless because this cycle won’t stop for 5-7 weeks. It’s like being strapped into a roller coaster. You can’t get out until reaching the end point

Teachers do get a LOT of holidays. In fact, English secondary teachers get XXX. But let me tell you – these holidays are absolutely essential. It is sadly quite difficult to communicate to non-teachers how essential these holidays are. I seriously doubt that I could stay in the profession without harming my physical and mental health if I didn’t have my holidays. All that drainage and damage need to be replenished and repaired.

 

What’s the solution?

 Although I haven’t reached that point yet, I do think it’s possible to reduce the teaching stress to an acceptable level under the current working conditions.

However, much of the stress reduction only happens after a long time. A teacher needs time to develop that intuitive feeling for what works and what doesn’t work in the classroom. The daily routines need to be handled without thinking about them much. The thick emotional armour needs to be developed and the learning curve will eventually level out. The most important skills a teacher needs to have are discipline and patience. That will get you over the hill – eventually.

An alternative would be to reduce the number of lessons a teacher has to teach per week. If I had to prepare only 15 lessons per week instead of 20, I could probably reduce my working hours from 50-60 to 40 hours per week.

 

But reducing teachers’ work load is just crazy talk.

 

Who would do such a thing…

 

 

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