Are we in danger of becoming The Stepford Teachers?

Redefining teacher stress as 'a lack of resilience' will leave us with a profession of automatons, says Fiona Birkbeck
1st November 2020, 6:00pm


Are we in danger of becoming The Stepford Teachers?
Teacher Wellbeing: Basing Recruitment On Resilience Risks Turning Teachers Into The Stepford Wives, Warns Fiona Birkbeck

Fellow teachers, I think I have uncovered a plot. Have you noticed? Nobody in teaching has stress any more - they just lack resilience

Martin Seligman, of the University of Pennsylvania, has given politicians and academics the twin concepts of positive psychology and emotional resilience

Stress is definitely out. If you think you've got it, and you think it may be caused by external factors such as sudden, bureaucratic directives from above, or under-socialised, overindulged pupils, well, you are wrong. The thing is, you haven't got stress, it's just that you are probably not the right type to be a teacher. You are not resilient.

Teacher recruitment: Screening for resilience

Back in 2013, the Teaching Agency, then the recruitment arm of the Department for Education, told us: "By screening applicants for a range of attributes and behavioural competencies considered essential to good teaching, we will reinforce what is already a rigorous selection process."

Those pre-entry resilience tests never happened - perhaps because there was suspicion that merely testing prospective employees for their resilience to working in a difficult workplace might take away attention from actually improving that workplace. 

Now the resilience testing of potential teachers has raised its head again. In 2018, George Madine, a business consultant and an associate lecturer at the University of Bradford, put forward a possible resilience test to the DfE. And in May this year, in Impact, the journal of the Chartered College of Teaching, Rachel Davis, of Teach SouthEast, described the successful application of resilience factors from recruitment onwards to support teachers in the job. Seems sensible: we need resilient teachers. 

However, one of the implications - perhaps an unintended consequence - of this psychometric testing is that, whenever a negative event occurs, the focus will be on the teacher's behaviour around the event. External factors, like time constraints or impossibly large groups, will be left unaddressed. The implication will be that it's not the job, it's the failing teacher with the "less-resilient personality" who's the problem. And this is where my uneasiness with personality testing lies. 

Stepford Wives: The whole thing is a sham

You can see that, to the DfE, a psychometric test that will weed out the "less-resilient" personalities before they start their teacher-training courses is a marvellous idea. It will save loads of money, which gets spent when teachers get stressed - oops, sorry, less resilient - and take time off. 

But wait a minute. Will the survivors of this test really be more resilient, or will they just be the people less likely to complain when things become increasingly unmanageable? Will this be the DfE equivalent of those famous Stepford wives? Schools will have teachers who look the part, who seem happy in their work…and nobody notices that the whole thing is a sham, because the recruits who have their critical faculties intact have been weeded out. 

As long as it looks OK, no one - except perhaps the pupils - will notice that it isn't OK. Not for a while, anyway. 

There will be classrooms where small movable objects are flying around, while the teacher sits calmly addressing one pupil's individualised learning programme. Resilient. 

There will be confrontations where a teacher will say mildly, "Yes, Albert, I am very happy to talk to your dad about my confiscation of your new smartphone." Heart rate normal, breathing steady. Resilient. 

Resilient teachers feel no pain

Of course, this resilience will have to be maintained. How? Well, by offering a mentor to talk you through the worst of your experiences. To train you.

Picture this. In the staffroom all is peaceful. The usual vitriol is absent. Resilient teachers feel no pain. Then, in the silence, a teacher keels over. He can be heard muttering expletives into the carpet. The others pick him up and dust him off. 

Over by the sink, a mentor raises her hungry head, sensing prey.

"I'm fine. I'm fine," the collapsed teacher will cry, pushing himself upward on to the nearest chair. "Just a little dizzy after completing 30 listening tasks in 45 minutes with two bottom sets."

For, in this brave new world, going to the mentor will be a mark of failure: your failure. Your practical problems won't be solved by this mentor. Nobody will actually address them. No, no, no - don't be silly. 

No sharing of responsibility

If you are a middle manager, the bureaucratic nightmare that is your workload won't be reduced. If you are a class teacher, the astonishing multi-level aspects of accountability - SMT, parent, child, God, the universe - won't be removed. No, you will be expected to become more "resilient". Resilient enough to cope with it all.

You will leave your counselling session more able to put up with the more unpleasant aspects of your job. Nobody will want to know your opinion of developments in your workplace - if you stray from a happy acceptance of the next assessment grid or the sudden inexplicable replacement of your whole syllabus with gobbledygook, you will be deemed to need more resilience training, as you are obviously not coping. 

You may think that the behaviour policy (or lack of it) of your leadership team may have some responsibility for the success of what happens in the classroom. Or you may even think that the Department for Education might take a smidgeon of responsibility for reducing the number of support staff. Or even - what's that thing again? Ah yes - wider society might hold some responsibility. 

But, no. If it all goes belly up, you are the one who is going to be sent to the resilience counsellor, because you are not coping.

And, of course, it is your records that will show you as having problems. It is you who will be asked to leave - particularly if you are employed in an academy - because you have required so much expensive "help" that it has been agreed that you are in the wrong job. 

Try flower arranging.

Fiona Birkbeck is a teacher of A-level psychology at a school in Derbyshire, and a researcher at the University of Nottingham

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