NQT Special Edition: Handling the stress

Written by: Dr Stephanie Thornton | Published:
Image: Adobe Stock

It is no secret that teaching is a stressful profession and learning to handle the pressure will be key to a successful and long career at the chalkface. Dr Stephanie Thornton offers some advice

Teachers are stressed. In fact, one report from Cardiff University published a while back by the Health and Safety Executive found that teachers top the league table for occupational stress, with 41 per cent reporting high levels of stress at work – significantly more than the second most stressed profession (nursing, at 31 per cent) and double the average across occupations (20 per cent). Why are so many teachers so very stressed? It is not hard to identify the kinds of pressure that might well explain this.

Workloads are heavy: a recent survey found that teachers in England work on average 51 hours a week, those in Scotland 45 hours – the difference probably reflecting the English use of national academic testing, which Scotland doesn’t.

Many teachers report that they have too little time to prepare properly for lessons or to keep up with the marking and paperwork the job now demands – and that work now intrudes into family life and school holidays.

But British teachers carry smaller workloads than their Japanese counterparts (who average 61 hours a week), yet report more stress. Workload is certainly a major factor, but not the whole story. Pupil behaviour can be challenging, whether it is a matter of unruly excess or the actual abuse that seems to be ever more common.

But again, the evidence suggests that pupil behaviour is not the main cause of teacher stress: the Education Support Partnership teacher helpline received only half as many calls complaining of pupil behaviour as complaining about conflict with managers and colleagues, for example.

It is easy to see why teaching generates so much conflict: our schools are highly structured hierarchical institutions in which there is an ever-growing emphasis on performance and public accountability. The culture of constant monitoring and evaluation to ensure standards and/or offer remedial support, combined with the lack of autonomy, is a surefire way to undermine confidence and generate tension and conflict.

This negative culture affects all, but particularly the newly qualified. Pressures of this kind may well explain why so many NQTs leave the profession each year, and why 75 per cent of all teachers quit before reaching retirement age.

What’s to be done? Something certainly needs to be done: teacher stress is not only inherently noxious, not only a hazard for the individual’s mental and physical health, but a threat to the success of our school system. A stressed and distressed teacher is not the best for pupils – and such distress can affect the young. The rapid turnover of staff undermines continuity and the development of expertise.

In an ideal world, headteachers would be free (and have the extra staff and resources) to reduce the burden of work on individuals, to ensure that line managers addressed the audit processes in wholly sensitive and constructive ways, and to build a culture that enables teachers to share worries and concerns without feeling judged or embarrassed, ensuring access to emotional as well as practical support.

Alas, this is not easy and learning to manage one’s own stress is still a vital survival skill for any teacher. But how does one manage stress more effectively?

Identify the problem

Surprisingly, it is easy to fail to recognise when stress first starts to get out of control. Any demanding task calls forth adrenaline, a heightened activity. And often, the resulting energy generates a sort of joy. It is when that joy begins to slip away, when the buzz becomes hyperactive, when energy is replaced by fatigue that stress takes over.

Recognising that border early may allow us to stop, draw breath and regain calm. But often we miss the early warning signs, or are unable to step back from the problem causing them. Stress escalates into physical problems, from fatigue to high blood pressure, and mental problems, from depression and anxiety to even breakdown. We lose concentration, become irritable and exhausted, carrying the stress home with us from work. Anyone working in a stressful environment, as teachers do, should monitor themselves for the warning signs of stress building up.

Disruption

Disrupt stress as soon as possible: as you feel stress mount, simple things such as deep, controlled breathing may offer immediate help in restoring a sense of calm. On a larger scale, cultivate relaxation. Different techniques work for different individuals, but a hot bath, a brisk walk, laughing with a friend, a game or a puzzle may distract and allow space for calm.

Label the stress

Articulate the reasons for your stress: all too often stress attaches itself to every aspect of a challenging situation, so that everything becomes amorphously stressful (even the mere sight of the school building may come to trigger anxiety). Narrowing down, defining what it is that actually triggers your stress and what is actually either neutral or even actively pleasurable in your work offers a powerful foundation for re-orienting to the work environment in a more discerning way. Treasuring little moments of calm throughout the day can be a powerful way to diffuse stress.

Change something

Can you change the situations that trigger your stress? Ideally one would fix the problem – job done. But fixing the problem may call for a creative solution: if one cannot reduce targets, are there more efficient ways of organising time and effort to reduce the load? If one cannot avoid an abrasive manager, is there a strategy that would reduce the stress – such as a more assertive response, or better self-confidence? Websites like Mindtools offer online support for boosts of these kinds

Your response

Can you change your emotional response? What we can’t alter we must accept. Acceptance can be negative, a wallowing in resentment that achieves nothing but rachets up stress. Or it can be positive: re-conceptualising the situation to accept that it is as it is, re-conceptualising ourselves to accept that we are nonetheless okay. It is when we set very high standards for ourselves and others, and are intolerant of imperfection, that we are most susceptible to stress. Does whatever is triggering your stress matter so very much, in the grand scheme of things?

Build resilience

Some individuals are naturally resilient, shrugging off the setbacks, struggles and conflicts of the day quite easily. Most of us are less resilient, easily stressed by such things. Sometimes that is quite simply because we are exhausted by the chronic stress of an inescapable situation – short on sleep, not eating well, not exercising, perhaps smoking or drinking more – all of which exacerbate stress. The remedy is obvious. But sometimes the problem is more psychological: a lack of self-confidence, a low self-esteem which makes us vulnerable to stress. It is hard to build self-esteem at the best of times. Stress undermines us, makes us feel that we are not coping, further damaging self-esteem. Treat yourself with kindness and forgiveness, and nurture your sense of worth.

It’s good to talk

Talk it over with a colleague, a friend, a partner, your union – or with one of the many agencies offering support to teachers, such as the Education Support Partnership or other charities.

  • Dr Stephanie Thornton is a chartered psychologist and former lecturer in psychology and child development.

Useful websites

NQT Special Edition: Free download

This article was published in SecEd as part of our November 2016 eight-page NQT Special Edition. The Special Edition, which was published with support from the NASUWT, offers best practice advice and guidance ranging from classroom practice and wellbeing to workload and your rights and entitlements as an NQT. You can download the entire NQT Special Edition as a free 8-page pdf via http://bit.ly/2fAp3q0


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