“Your teachers are only human” was the title of Rod Liddle’s column in the Sunday Times recently. He went on to ask: “Are teachers not even allowed to say stuff in private?”
He was talking about the cases of some Scottish teachers who had been struck off for various wrong doings, and one who was subject to “stringent conditions” for, among other reasons, calling her pupils “beasts” in front of colleagues. Mr Liddle concluded: “They have so little recourse, our teachers; they should at least be allowed a little freedom of expression in the staffroom.”
The piece struck a chord because we have been looking at the human face of the teachers we support. We have a large array of data that tell us how many teachers contact the charity and on what kind of issue.
However, we wanted to gain a clearer idea of the teachers behind the figures, so we talked with our clinical team – the people who provide the “in-the-moment” support and counselling on our support line.
Without breaching confidentiality, they gave us an insight into the people who contact the charity and why they do so. They told us that most teachers calling are obviously quite anxious and stressed, but that in the main, there were two groups.
The first group is new teachers. They have usually been stressed for a relatively short period of time, but are often crying or incoherent when they first call. As they begin to calm down, they explain that they are struggling to deal with the difference between their expectations of teaching and the reality they are facing.
Many have had supportive first placements, but have found themselves in second placements without the same level of support. For many, this is the first job ever and they feel ill-prepared for the complexities of working in a school. They have learnt their subject, but not learnt the politics. In short, they do not feel trained for the job. The NQTs feel disappointed and deskilled. Many tell the counsellors that they are questioning whether they are in the right profession.
The second group is classroom teachers, those who have been teaching for a long time. They have been experiencing prolonged or chronic stress. They are desperate, in extreme distress and at crisis point. They might call in-between classes and will often say how their GP is urging them to take time out, or that they have already been signed off with stress.
They tell the counsellors that they feel guilty and ashamed for being off – everyone is in the same boat – and they worry that they have abandoned the children, which, in turn, increases their stress. Others say that while they may benefit from time out, they are worried about repercussions and/or capability procedures. They feel that they are between a rock and hard place. They feel disempowered.
What these two groups have in common is that they need someone to talk to. They are not whinging or moaning.
Indeed, the counsellors were at pains to tell us that these are intelligent, capable, competent, resilient, passionate professionals, who really love the kids they are working with, but what they are dealing with on a day-to-day basis is not what they signed up for.
Our counsellors will help teachers “normalise” these feelings, explain that they are not alone, and encourage them to find their own solutions, without judging or colluding – but what of the teachers that still do not know who to talk to? How do we help those teachers that do not feel free to express themselves?
Perhaps, it is as simple as Mr Liddle suggests. We need to create appropriate spaces, where teachers new and old are free to express themselves, without fear of judgement, so that they are not left to struggle on alone. After all they are only human.
- Julian Stanley is chief executive of the Teacher Support Network. Visit www.teachersupport.info or call 08000 562 561 (England), 08000 855088 (Wales).