I had hoped to start this column in 2013 with something positive, yet even before the celebrations were over, the National Union of Teachers (NUT) told us that morale among teachers is “dangerously low” and has “declined dramatically in recent months”.
At the end of last year, 55 per cent of teachers polled by the NUT said their morale was low or very low, a 13 per cent increase from April 2012.
The NUT suggests a variety of factors for this decline – 71 per cent said that they rarely or never felt trusted by the government, while 76 per cent said cuts and austerity measures were having a negative impact on some or most children and their families.
These are valid causes for concern, but could there be additional pressures on teachers that contribute to this low mood? The teachers that we talk to on a daily basis believe so. Teachers like Tassa.
After a number of years in the classroom, Tassa has recently quit the profession. “I’ve come to the conclusion that teaching isn’t for me,“ writes Tassa in a letter to TSN’s supporters, explaining how teaching led her to therapy.
“Whether it’s the job itself, or the stress it entails, I’m not sure. What I am sure of, though, is there are a LOT of teachers out there working really hard, receiving no praise and suffering a poor work/life balance.”
Tassa believes many teachers are stressed and facing potential burn-out.
“A lot of teachers are suffering but feel the need to hide what they are going through – and the more you hide it, the more it affects your health. Teachers are very reluctant to seek help because it admits there’s a problem and often the problem is too big for them to solve. Don’t I know it, it’s taken me years.”
It is Tassa’s own experiences of stress that have made her share her story with other teachers.
“Looking back, I can see how my path of destruction was inevitable. I really wanted to do my job well and tried to excel in every area of teaching (and believe me, there are many areas). From planning and marking to resource-making to classroom and behaviour management, many different skills are called upon.
“I wanted to do well and, I suppose, internally wanted to receive praise for my efforts. Little did I expect that trying my absolute hardest and working all the hours in the world would not be enough.”
Before she left teaching, Tassa tried to warn her colleagues: “I see their bloodshot eyes with the tired skin below. I hear stories of them getting ‘the shakes’, working ‘til midnight and for whole days at the weekend. I try to tell them to stop before they burn-out but I know the words are meaningless.
“The only people who understand me are the ones who have been there and survived. It seems that the first step on the path of teaching is that you must indulge in the belief that the impossible is achievable. When you finally realise that it isn’t achievable but still expected of you, that’s when cracks appear and your world begins to crumble.”
It is not just Tassa’s colleagues who are suffering. The Guardian recently reported that there had been a 10 per cent increase in the number of teachers taking stress leave; 40 local authorities saw an increase between the academic years 2008/09 and 2011/12.
Given the reality of teaching described by Tassa, and with morale as low as the NUT’s survey indicates, the question is how many more promising, dedicated and, let us not forget, experienced teachers will leave the profession? This year we all must take heed of research like the NUT’s and continue to listen to and share stories of teachers like Tassa, so that we can begin to understand and address the real issues facing teachers every day.
Julian Stanley is chief executive of the Teacher Support Network. Visit www.teachersupport.info or call 08000 562 561 (England), 08000 855088 (Wales).