If you were to ask people to envisage a ‘high-pressure work environment’ I’d imagine that the boardroom, the busy factory floor or perhaps an operating theatre would first come to mind.
When I do it, I think of a school.
Although not an immediately obvious choice, schools are places that put a multitude of demands on those who work in them. In some ways this is only right and proper, as our job involves helping young people to realise their potential (which is never something to be taken lightly). However, the job also comes with numerous pressures (both internal and external) and an expectation from all quarters (both reasonable and in some cases, less than so) that is fairly unique in a professional role.
With the publication of Randstad Education’s new report on the changing face of education certain issues surrounding work/life balance have been thrown into sharp focus. One of the starkest (but perhaps not the most surprising) findings was that ‘the top factor teachers gave was the desire for a good work/ life balance with 47% citing this as the main reason for leaving.’ It seems as though that, as a profession, we are struggling to obtain that balance which in turn has contributed to an ‘exodus, which has almost tripled in six years, and is contributing to the growing skills shortage, leaving the remaining teachers exhausted and stressed.’ Why might this be the case?
As a teacher it is very easy to put your own well-being at the bottom of an absurdly long ‘to-do’ list. Workload, behavioural issues, safeguarding, marking, organisation of extra-curricular activities, planning, contact with parents and perhaps a little teaching (if there is time) are all immediate concerns that can leapfrog over such trivialities as a portion of the day to one’s self or spending time with loved ones, or a diet that consists of more than just coffee and biscuits or exercise that isn’t running after Jimmy to give him the worksheet that he ‘forgot’ to pick up off your desk.
It’s very easy to lose yourself in the maelstrom of red pen and assemblies, normalising what can be extremely high levels of stress until the point where this is no longer tenable and it starts to affect both your emotional and physical health.
So, as a teacher, how can you go about trying to minimise these effects? In such a relentless role where the stakes are extremely high, how can you try to make sure that you do spend some time looking after yourself?
Unfortunately, it’s not easy and can come with a large amount of guilt, either in prioritising your own needs over those of the kids, or the self-perception of having ‘failed to cope’. Neither of these concepts are helpful. The first fails to address the reality that a healthy teacher is a good teacher and your ability to do the best for the kids that you teach will diminish as your stress levels rise. The second doesn’t take into account the very real pressures that a teacher faces (even more so in places that are struggling with behaviour, results or ineffective management). There is no shame in a reaction to those pressures, it is a perfectly natural response.
Identification that you are finding it difficult to cope and taking steps to address the reasons why instead of ‘soldering on’ is the first, and perhaps most difficult, step to take. It involves being honest with yourself, accepting you are struggling and asking for help. It can also involve challenging some of the expectations placed on you as being unrealistic. If a school values you as a professional (and in doing so shows that they actually care about the kids’ education as well) they’ll listen to your concerns and perhaps some form of agreement will occur. If not, then serious consideration should be given to leaving and finding somewhere else.
A process of prioritisation, where things that are important to you are bumped up that ‘to-do’ list can also go towards trying to maintain that crucial balance. At first it can seem frivolous - selfish almost but with the report stating that 30% of teachers are considering leaving the profession within the next 12 months a certain amount of ‘self protection’ must be employed without guilt and with a view of the long-game in mind. As time goes on and you feel the benefit of doing the things you enjoy as a counterbalance to work issues it is often the case that a certain amount of perspective can be gained and this, in turn, can relieve some of the stress you may be under.
Also, being aware and empathising with colleagues who may be struggling is important. Stress can be massively isolating and those struggling might not be at the point where they are able to help themselves. A friendly word and the offer of support can act as the catalyst for someone to start their own process of healing.
Teaching is a fantastic job. It has given me unrivalled joy and satisfaction over the years. I work with the future and it’s a privilege. However, it is also very, very hard sometimes. In accepting this, and taking steps to offset that difficulty, we can reach our potential and in doing so, help children reach theirs.
If you are looking for further support and practical advice visit: https://www.educationsupportpartnership.org.uk/
Tom Starkey, Teacher and Writer
Tom Starkey is an experienced teacher and education writer.
He regularly contributes to both TES and Teach Secondary magazine.
He also consults with businesses to help improve their educational resources. @tstarkey1212