There are many stresses on those who work in education, such as balancing an enormous workload along with student mental health, GSCE reforms, and so much more. Teachers need support to deal with these daily challenges to boost their well-being, maintain productivity, reduce staff absence and save on management time.
Karen, now head of geography at a secondary school, found that her workload was spiralling out of control. As the only humanities specialist at her free school, she had been asked to set up key stages 3 and 4 from scratch. After two years of relentless pressure, she ended up breaking down in front of a class.
This was just before the Easter break last year, and when she returned things were no better. “On the Monday morning, I stepped into my classroom and instantly knew I couldn’t be there. I went to find someone to speak to and just broke down in tears. I couldn’t explain.”
At the end of her tether, Karen called the helpline set up by the charity Education Support Partnership, which operates 24 hours a day, 365 days a year.
“The first time I literally just talked at a counsellor,” Karen says. She later rang up a second time after the school, she says, made her “feel like the stress and anxiety I was feeling was a result of my own personality”.
Karen adds: “My emotions came out. I cried a lot but still the counsellor listened and tried to keep me calm. She was fantastic. We ended up talking for two hours and at no point did I feel she wanted to end the phone call until she knew I was calm and safe.”
Karen returned to work the next day after seeing her doctor. “I wouldn’t have gone back the next day without the support I received from the helpline. I can honestly say the support I received has kept me in teaching.”
Counselling is just a call away
The helpline is free and available to all teachers, lecturers and support staff, with its trained counsellors on hand to listen to problems and issues without judgement.
According to Education Support Partnership, teachers’ most common concerns include emotional health, workplace worries, grants and legal issues. Anxiety, panic and workplace stress dominate, with these issues accounting for more than two-thirds of the day-to-day worries that affect teachers. Other concerns include conflict with colleagues or managers, and workplace performance.
Depending on an individual’s needs, counsellors might deal with a call personally and offer emotional support straight away. Or they might offer coaching via an action plan, connect callers to other services or assist with referral for long-term treatment.
All the partnership’s counsellors are trained and accredited, and in addition understand the education system and life in the classroom. Emotional support counselling involves up to six sessions of telephone counselling with one of the charity’s accredited counsellors.
Primary school teacher Sally also used the helpline. Miserable and suffering panic attacks, she said it was her husband who noticed her mood was deteriorating. “I felt that I was not being either a teacher or a mother properly.”
She tried moving to a new school, thinking a change of scene and a new role would help. “However, it just made things worse and my feelings of failure increased,” she says. Remembering an advert for the helpline, she picked up the phone and called. “The phone call was the moment when things started to get better,” she says. “I cannot thank [them] enough. [The] number needs to be on every staffroom wall.”
Same problems, different century
The issues with which teachers contact the Education Support Partnership aren’t new. Set up in 1877 when it was known as the Teachers’ Benevolent Fund, the charity was designed to provide financial support for teachers and their families. By 1927, people were contacting the service over housing difficulties or having suffered a nervous breakdown – problems that sound familiar today.
Nowadays, the charity, which is independent and not linked to unions or the government, helps education staff with issues that are universal across the sector: high workloads, stress, student behavioural problems and work-life balance. They also offers grants for those suffering financial hardship and a training and development fund to help with CPD costs.
When someone calls the helpline, those on the other end of the phone usually hear people in a state of crisis, panic or high distress. Anna (not her real name) has been a helpline counsellor for four years. She says the line receives 7,500 calls a year and adds: “When people call it’s almost like a last chance. They’re feeling absolutely desperate and things have been building up for quite some time.”
Anna says that callers often include newly qualified teachers anxious that the job they have started doesn’t resemble the training they have received; experienced teachers coming to the end of their professional life and worried they are being pushed aside in favour of younger colleagues; and retired teachers who feel a loss of status and limited social contact now they are no longer part of the school community.
She says that a typical teacher will continue working through their problems, even though a doctor might have recommended that they take a break from work. “We find teachers continue to work as they are so dedicated to their students and colleagues. There’s a huge amount of guilt and feelings of failure.”
Anna’s advice to teachers is simple enough. Call the Education Support Partnership before a crisis or situation escalates. “It is fantastic that we can offer this lifeline.”
The free and confidential helpline is available 24 hours a day, seven days a week on 08000 562561.
Dave Rogers is an education writer.