The fear is creeping in. The headaches are convulsing across the eyes. The neck and shoulders tense. There are only a few days of the holiday remaining and the work fear is already mounting.
With bomb-shell records of teacher burn-out, according to Education Support’s Teacher Wellbeing Index, 2021, 72% of staff members are ‘stressed’, it is no surprise that morale in schools among staff is at an all time low.
Stress. By definition, stress is how we react when we feel under pressure or threatened. It usually happens when we are in a situation that we don’t feel we can manage or control. The perception of teaching, mostly encouraged viciously by the media, is that teachers have a cushy job – 14 weeks of holiday (on average) per year, weekends off, a 3pm finish – the reality is so far from this ‘truth’ that is spewed out among communities. My readership does not need me to highlight how wrong these assumptions are (and anyone with half a brain can figure out for themselves that this is very far from the truth), however I will highlight the two words that stand out to me in that definition: control and threat.
Firstly, the word ‘threat’ carries with it highly negative, violent connotations, along with a statement of intention. What does this ‘threat’ look like? And how does it link with teaching in UK schools? From my experience, this threat isn’t necessarily a literal one, but more of a deep rooted fear of what’s going to happen next. The threat of the future. Schools during and post-pandemic have been a hive of negative energy – teachers and students have struggled with returning to structures, and OFSTED continuing with inspections has only increased the threat of failure among staff bodies. This threat then manifests into new initiatives and pushes for change. The nature of a threat creates hostility and disorganisation, resulting in stress.
I am sitting at my kitchen table, on a dreary December 31st, overwhelmed with sadness. Sadness for the loss of my hopes and dreams with my teaching career. I am engrossed in reading other blogs and reviews of pedagogical work, attentively nodding my head and hastily adding them to my Amazon wishlist.
But why? What’s the point?
Two questions that have shaped my year, both professionally and personally. As with all sectors, but especially in education, we find ourselves looking for solutions to problems that are easy to solve, or is it that we are asking pointless questions?
Why am I sad? What is the point in adding books to my reading list (that I will probably never find use in reading)? I have lost all sense of self and have little to no enthusiasm for even the most enjoyable activities. Work has been all consuming and monstrous. My passion for teaching, and learning, and education is still there, but over the last year I have realised that I have reached my ‘glass ceiling’. My ceiling of potential. My ceiling of commitment. My ceiling of desire to want to carry on. My future has been threatened.
*obligatory cheese and biscuit break*
Secondly, we have control. The concept of control is again often negative, but it carries with it an element of determination, of managing different aspects of our work and personal lives. Often we find that our work-life balance as teachers is out of our control – think assessment dates, mocks, data capture points, targets, learning walks, book looks, student focuses, being put on ‘rarely’ cover almost every week etc. (now the threat and stress have an open door to begin to creep in: our mental well-being and lack of boundaries is threatened by our lack of, or misunderstanding of, control).
The pandemic pressure cooker has resulted in our control as teachers, as academic professionals to slowly slip away from us. What would be considered as totally unacceptable practice pre-pandemic is now assumed to be ‘business as usual’. The amount of time staff are absent in secondary schools across the UK has sky-rocketed. In 2020-21, 45 percent of teachers took sickness absence, not including isolation or shielding, down significantly on the 54 per cent absence rate in 2018-19. Figures were not collated in 2019-20. But the average number of days off jumped from just over 4 per cent between 2014 and 2019, to 8.6 days in the last academic year. (Schoolsweek.co.uk, 2022).
Is this due to post-pandemic stress disorder? The pressure that both leaders and teachers are under is immense, and this makes me come back to my two questions: Why? What’s the point?
If our current practice is having such negative impacts on both staff and (although I have not touched on this) student wellbeing, why are we doing it? Who are the new initiatives for, in reality? Why are we making lists of tiered vocabulary for students, when they already have key word sheets for each unit of work? Where will this be implemented? Where has this idea come from? What are we doing with this information? How are we teaching it? When will this next reinvention of the wheel come to an end? What’s the point?
The pressure, along with threat and control, creates a recipe for disaster – schools have become a breeding ground for toxicity and, I suppose, that is also why I am sad. Perhaps we need to get back to basics, and this is my intention for the remainder of my time teaching in UK secondary schools (the expiration date is slowly looming). Control the threats. I can control how much time I spend on encouraging the students in front of me to be the best that they can be, and to be aspirational, global citizens. I can control how fun and engaging I make the often mundane curriculum. I cannot control what new initiatives are force fed to me, but I can control how these are delivered to my individual classes. It is time to flip the teacher burn-out narrative on its head.
I hope my glass ceilings can be smashed.