When you think of teaching, you probably have an idealised image in your head of a teacher with a travel mug of either tea or coffee, smiling at their students and prepared to teach the whole day. In reality, teachers are tired. We have an extraordinary amount of caffeine, crave the breaks more than the students and have a never-ending to-do list. Work does not stop after school, the holidays are not spent in a carefree manner and weekends are never your own.
Mental health is something that seems to be overlooked. When you see your colleagues, it seems like a weakness to admit that your wellbeing is suffering. And it’s not just me, thousands of teachers up and down the country have admitted to the same thing, but under the cover of confidentiality.
According to the Teacher Well-being and Workload Survey, which asked a random sample of 1000 schools (600 primary, 300 secondary, 50 special schools and 50 PRU’s) found that challenging behaviour, inconsistent behaviour management, workload and marking is contributing to the mental wellbeing of teachers. The hours that are spent planning, marking, assessing, and data inputting, running extra-curricular activities, leaves very little time to enjoy teaching. According to statistics, teaching has one of the highest level of stress and one of the main factors is the excessive workload.
The NASUWT poll found similar results in a survey of over 5000 teachers.
- 22% had increased their alcohol intake
- 21% had consumed more caffeine as a direct response to stress
- 7% had increased their reliance on prescription drugs
Statistics like these may make people wonder about the reality. I have lost count of the amount of times teachers have said they 'can't wait to drink a bottle of wine when they get home', or complaints that the tea and coffee machine have 'run out of coffee' or even the jokes about the top drawer having a 'cocktail of medication' within them.
- 5% had increased their nicotine intake
- 14% had undergone counselling
- 79% had reported work related anxiousness
- 86% had suffered sleeplessness
-2% of teachers had self-harmed as a result of work related stress
Let's take this in turn. Most people have to undergo counselling at some stage in their lives, but we usually expect that in relation to death, divorce and other life-changing experiences. However, when colleagues are taking anti-depressants and suffering anxiety as a result of work related stress - it's a big problem.
In the last year, I have known colleagues to suffer from anxiety attacks and have even been subjected to them myself. The night before school had been affectionately named 'the Sunday night shivers' because it is damn near impossible to relax your body. It's funny, I never felt this way before an exam, deadline or even an interview, but knowing it would be Monday, filled me with dread. My mental health was suffering, but people were uncomfortable talking about it. I felt as though I was letting people down by not being there (even though my reasons were valid) and I knew that some of my friends felt the same. It wasn't the children, it was the atmosphere. The constant need to meet targets and deadlines that aren't actually there to improve target grades, but to jump through pointless hoops.
As a current cover supervisor, I am quickly learning that this term means a healthy supply of work. But, we need to question why that is? Teachers are burning out. My cousin told me a few weeks ago that 6 teachers are leaving the school she attends. Nobody is pregnant, moving to a different school or at retirement age, they are simply exhausted.
Frequent comments include:
"I haven't slept properly in weeks. These year 11 papers are not going to mark themselves but I am so tired."
"I don't even get to spend time with my children anymore, I know these kids more than my own."
"I know my colleagues are talking about me, I'm only doing what I think is right."
"Only x more days to go and then I can recharge - I'm drained!"
"How have they still not learned how to answer q4, I've taught them ten different ways to."
"Please God, don't let the learning walk happen p5 on a Friday, my books aren't marked because I've had to mark year 8 assessments and input the data."
These may sound like ordinary woes for a teacher, but it's common for all of these thoughts to run through a single teacher's mind at any given day. When you accumulate the books, assessments, feedforward tasks and then the actual lessons, there is no time to be a human and a good teacher.
There seems to be time for students to have 'time out', but if we have a bad day, we are told to 'slap a positive face on and continue.' There is no on-site counsellor for teachers, time off for a 'mental health day', without being looked upon as 'selling out' your department. We are teachers, parents, counsellors, role models, punching bags and disciplinarians, but more importantly, simply human. You only need to look at current retention rates and national statistics to see why there is an increase in permanent teaching vacancies in schools nationally.
The Dept for Education has had to develop a 'Teacher recruitment and retention' strategy because there are not going to be enough teachers in the profession to support the growing number of children in education. Once again, how does this function in the real world?
Do mentors have the time and energy to support NQTs? Does the training and DT have a positive impact on reducing workload? Or, are new teachers being promised support that never seem to arrive?
If we want to ensure that our children are educated to achieve their full potential, it is crucial that we all address this very serious issue and work together to support teachers in their vital roles.