Feeling the strain

Mike Kent

I have spoken to three teachers recently. All are excellent practitioners, but all feel under stress and find the job harder now than ever. I can't imagine them leaving the profession - they are too good at their jobs - but if these people are feeling intense pressure, what must it be like for teachers who are less sure of themselves?

I was reminded of the recent TES feature about teachers who become so emotionally broken that they take their own lives, which made terrifying reading. That any teacher should be so unhappy they commit suicide is frightening enough, but the article made us realise that this is the extreme tip of the iceberg. Beneath that, hundreds of teachers struggle daily to keep their heads above water and cope with the demands of the job.

Good senior management is crucial to the ethos, atmosphere and well-being of a school. As a head, most of my administrative work was done at home and I worked several hours in the evenings and half a day at weekends. My wife wasn't particularly happy about this, but my hours in school had to be reserved for the people working in it. Access to me, or my deputy, was always easy.

Often, a teacher would want to discuss an idea, a lesson, a child or a way of doing something that needed my full attention and enthusiasm. But just as often, a teacher, teaching assistant or somebody on the administrative staff would want to talk about something in their lives they were finding upsetting or difficult to cope with. And this wouldn't necessarily be related to work; a school is a society in miniature, and people go through difficult relationships, have money problems, trouble with their own children or experience illness and death in their families.

As I became increasingly experienced as a head, I realised that although my principal job was to lead and inspire, my position also involved being a counsellor, a friend, a confidante and a support for anybody who needed it. I gave as much of my time as was needed, and I was rewarded richly. People loved coming to work and, of course, the children were the ones who benefited enormously.

But I also remember experiencing the signs of stress myself, early in my headship, when I was working long hours and struggling with the many things that needed to be done to put the school on an upward curve. I began to feel a vague sense of unease and a faint dizziness, as if I was experiencing everything at a distance. I even went to the doctor, who checked everything and pronounced me well, but warned about the dangers of working too hard. I thought it impossible that I could suffer from stress, simply because I loved the job so much, but from that moment on I became a little more cautious.

For the teacher today, the demands of the job can be overwhelming if not managed carefully. The threat of an impending Ofsted inspection, ridiculous paperwork demands and intensive monitoring all take their toll. And that's without mentioning the children, who can be more challenging and demanding today than they have ever been.

I spent a lifetime in primary education, and loved it to bits, but I feel much anxiety for today's teachers. I believe they are better than ever, but many are working under conditions that can easily burn them out. It is so important to recognise the signs and act on them.

Mike Kent is a retired primary school headteacher. Email: mikejkent@aol.com.

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