Teachers and headteachers “too often make excuses for poor performance – it’s just too hard, the children are too difficult, the families are too unsupportive, this job is far too stressful”.
These comments from Sir Michael Wilshaw at a conference in May caused outrage among teachers, unions and led to substantial coverage in this very newspaper.
The Ofsted chief went on to elaborate: “Stress is, I’m sure, what many of the million and a half unemployed young people today feel unable to get a job because they’ve had a poor experience of school and lack the necessary skills and qualifications to find employment.”
Is he right? Are teachers making excuses or do they really not know what stress is? Teacher Support Network figures suggest they do.
In 2010 and 2011, we received nearly 5,000 calls and emails from teachers suffering from anxiety – 4,256 teachers indicated that they had a low mood when contacting the charity while 3,293 felt overwhelmed.
This could just be the tip of the iceberg, however. Recent research estimates that as many as 40,000 teachers could be struggling with anxiety, depression or stress, while sickness absence figures for teachers across the UK are high.
The Scotsman recently reported that 7,000 teaching days had been lost to stress or similar mental health conditions in the last year, with stress and depression accounting for almost a third of all long-term sickness absence among staff in city schools between 2011 and 2012.
A survey by the Welsh Conservatives revealed that stress leave taken by teaching staff in Wales had increased by 14 per cent in 2009/10, while it was reported that teachers in Suffolk took almost 10,000 days off sick as a result of stress.
The truth is that many teachers are stressed. Indeed, it is likely that most teachers in the course of a long career will experience stress that is non-productive. For some it will deeply impact on their professional and personal lives. Like it or not, teaching, though a deeply rewarding profession, can also be very challenging. To suggest otherwise flies in the face of the reality expressed by thousands in the profession.
One teacher when asked in a Teacher Support Network survey how workload impacted on their health and wellbeing said: “Due solely to pressure of teaching I have been having anxiety attacks and suffering from stress to the point where my life was greatly affected. I have been signed off work for three months and am only just beginning to feel better. However, I know I have to face all the pressure and work again when I return.”
Another respondent in the same survey: “Always feel stressed, often tearful. My family and social life has suffered immeasurably.”
We know that teachers are not making excuses. Teachers are not whingeing; they are expressing genuine concern and they should not be made to feel fearful or at risk of being singled out as poor teachers simply because they express their vulnerability when the going gets tough. Asking for support is a sign of strength and investing in and supporting the workforce is a core principle of effective management.
We must listen more to teachers at the chalkface, and to those headteachers, teaching unions and others directly involved in education to truly understand the impact of low morale, stress and depression, not only on teachers, but also on their pupils.
Consequently, the charity is actively working to establish a review with teachers, educationalists and those who work with them, that independently identifies and measures teacher wellbeing, its impact on pupil outcomes, and how teacher health and wellbeing can best be improved.
In the meantime, we feel that the teaching profession needs to be better recognised and valued. It is time to celebrate the teaching profession – the vast majority of whom are deeply committed and do an excellent job day-in, day-out. How else will we attract, and just as importantly retain, the best candidates to teach our children?
Julian Stanley is chief executive of the Teacher Support Network. Call 08000 562 561 (England), 08000 855088 (Wales).