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Are great expectations destroying teacher wellbeing?

As teachers, we are careful to set reasonable expectations for our students – but are you doing the same for yourself?

expectations teacher wellbeing

As teachers, we like our expectations loud and proud, clear and high. We expect a lot of our students, because we want them to learn, grow and gain as much as they can while they’re in our care and we want them to become skilled, successful individuals.

And yes, because we’d quite like to get through just one lesson without little Johnny’s constant boundary-pushing.


Quick read: Five ways I reduced workload and embraced ‘me time’

Quick listen: The truth about mental health in schools

Want to know more? Stressed teachers ‘struggling to cope’ with work pressures


So we set ambitious targets for our students, asking them to do things that they find difficult each and every day... but we are careful not to overdo it. We understand that setting lofty, unachievable goals often has the opposite effect on morale. It demoralises and demotivates, leading to stress and feeling overwhelmed.

Teacher wellbeing

Sadly, us teachers don’t seem to be afforded the same consideration, with the government constantly piling on requirements and expectations.

teacher expectations

It’s no surprise, then, that according to the Teacher Wellbeing Index 2018, 57 per cent of educators have considered leaving the profession in the past two years.  

But what about our own expectations? Those silent, secret demands that we place on ourselves to get things done, in a certain way, by a certain time. Are they actually helpful? Ask yourself these questions to find out:

Are they realistic?

Yes, it would be nice to get all of those assessments marked before Friday, but is it really going to happen, considering that you’ve also got X, Y and Z to do this week?

Is getting this done, by this particular time, so important that it’s worth all the extra pressure? Is it worth making yourself ill? Is there an alternative approach you could take that would allow you to get this done in a less pressured way?

Are you being flexible?

Even when your expectations are realistic and achievable to begin with, circumstances change. Maybe writing a unit plan takes you four times longer than you’d planned, or you lose an evening’s marking because of a meeting, parents’ evening, or, God forbid, something related to your life outside of school.

Whatever the reason, you need to be able to adjust your expectations to accommodate this change of circumstance. A ship might be sailing towards a set destination, but if it doesn’t alter course to match the change in weather, it’s much more likely to sink.

Are your expectations upholding unhelpful thinking?

Thanks to a course of much-needed cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) in my NQT year, I was really able to see how my own thoughts about what and how I should be were really making a bad situation worse.

I expected myself to be brilliant, perfect and completely invulnerable. So if a lesson didn’t go well, my black-and-white thinking told me that the whole day was a write-off; that it was my fault because I was a crap teacher.

My thoughts were a sea of shoulds, musts and oughts. I should be able to get these books marked, I shouldn’t feel or look anxious when speaking to a parent. Always striving (and failing) to be perfect fed my insecurity, anxiety and depression. Nowadays, I just expect myself to be human, which works… at least 90 per cent of the time.

Are other people’s expectations unreasonable?

If your own expectations aren’t the problem, it’s time to have a conversation with your line manager about what’s reasonable and realistic. Try to avoid complaining, negativity and excuses, and stick to the facts.

Tell them that you’ve worked out that if you mark as frequently as you’re being asked, that will mean 250 books to mark by Friday, which, at three minutes per book, is 12 hours of work. With any luck, they’ll listen and make changes. If not, perhaps they shouldn’t expect you to work there any more.

Jo Steer is a teacher and experienced leader of special educational needs and disability interventions, as well as wellbeing strategies

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