A while ago, an NQT on Twitter asked whether it was OK that she had cried in front of her mentor. I followed this up for Tes, explaining why it was absolutely right for teachers, regardless of their position or experience, to cry in the workplace if they should so wish.
However, this piece gave rise to a number of responses, which gave me pause for thought: are tears more prevalent in the teaching profession than anywhere else? And, perhaps worse still, in our desire to support people, were we at risk of not only normalising crying at work, but accepting it as part of the job?
Crying, of course, is a response to a complex array of emotions: it can be prompted by happiness, pride and laughter, as well as sadness, frustration and anger. In an – admittedly less-than-scientific – Twitter poll I conducted of more than 8,000 teachers, I found that a whopping 81 per cent had cried at work.
I followed this up with a poll of teachers and non-teachers. Again, there were issues with sample size and a skewed demographic, as I am largely followed by teachers, so was by no means a scientific measure. But there was a clear distinction between, on the one hand, teachers who had cried at work and, on the other hand, those working in other sectors, who had not.
When school feels like a pressure cooker
What is it then that has created this situation? Is it something about the people who want to join the profession, in touch with emotions and highly empathetic? Or is it about the environment and demands of the job?
One of the interesting differences my poll revealed related to the different experiences of men and women. While many men did say that they had cried as part of the job, many more women reported having done so.
There was also an emerging difference in the reasons behind the tears. Men often talked in terms of frustration or anger, while women spoke about pride, empathy with painful situations, and their own distress.
One thing that does seem to be certain, though, is that schools can feel like pressure cookers at times. Dealing with young people who are still learning about their own emotions and place in the world can mean you are often working in an environment that feels highly charged.
This is true even with the best behaviour systems in place and the most wonderful students to work with. I recall being observed as part of my first Ofsted inspection. A student who had previously only ever been hard-working, engaged and seemingly happy, threw herself face-first down on the table in tears. I don’t know what caused it – perhaps the new tension in the room, perhaps simply life – but it made for an interesting wait for my feedback that day.
An outlet for all those emotions
It is easy when you are working in a close environment to infect other people with your own emotions. As much as we try to shield our students or colleagues from the pressures as far as possible, it isn’t really possible. Again, I can remember feeling quite confident in the run-up to that inspection, until I looked at the fear written on the face of my head of department and leadership team, and suddenly realised that maybe I hadn’t understood the gravity of the issue. That pressure needs to go somewhere.
Then we have the culture of high-stakes accountability, a personal responsibility to do the right thing by our students, and the desire to be the best we can. This can all lead to us needing an outlet for all those emotions.
So, the question we really need to consider around this is whether, by accepting that teachers will cry and normalising it, we are less likely to address those issues which could lead to this. Is it OK to say that people are likely to cry in those early years, or at certain pressure points in the year, and it is unavoidable?
We are all individuals and will have very personal responses to the difficulties we face. Often, it will be a combination of stresses at home and at work that make tears more likely – at least for me. But do we want to create a profession where people feel driven to tears, or have no other outlet when things are difficult?
I would assume that the answer to this will be no. Given that we aim to create a profession people are eager to join, and – even more importantly – are eager to remain in for many years, we need to consider what this says about us.
Maybe next time we reach for the tissues to console a crying colleague, we need to take a closer look at what lies behind the tears and make sure we are really working on supporting emotional wellbeing, too. Yes, some people will always be self-described “criers”, but nobody should feel that they have proven their worth by amassing soggy tissues in the waste bin.
What we really want is a workplace where we don’t judge people for tears. But, equally, when they do come, that they are linked to feelings of pride, joy and laughter – emotions that should pervade the schools we work in.
Zoe Enser is lead English adviser for Kent. She tweets @greeborunner