'My heart breaks for our education system. But mostly it breaks for the burned-out teachers for whom life will never be the same'

Every year, we lose 150,000 teachers because of work-related stress. For those individuals, life is tainted forever, writes one headteacher

David Jones

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Because of work-related stress, another dedicated, giving, loving, resilient, primary school teacher is going on sick leave. A teacher who has worked 45, 50, 55, 60, 60-plus hours a week, for the last two, five, 10, 20, 30 years. Who has, in every sense of the words, given, of herself, to her profession.

She is crying, inconsolably, as she walks out of the door. Confused, she forgets to grab her coat from the back of the classroom door. She looks ruffled, even a little dishevelled. She is trying desperately to evade the gazes of curious, concerned, children and staff, as she rushes through the building and out into the busy playground. Head down, she shields her eyes with a hand, as her handbag drags behind her.

She doesn’t remember how she gets there but she finds herself in the hallway of her house. Mercifully, no one else is at home.  She climbs the stairs, exhausted, numb, and stumbles into her bedroom. She pulls the curtains because she cannot bear to see the world outside, to be seen by the world outside. She crawls under the duvet, without bothering to take her clothes or shoes off and cries. 

A brilliant, teacher has lost her sense of herself, as a caring, capable professional: as a loving and lovable human being. She feels humiliated, defeated, desolate, broken. She feels enraged that the system has done this to her, enraged that she has not been able to meet the expectations that she has set for herself.  But mostly, she feels guilty and ashamed.

Work-related stress

The education system has lost a tiny fragment of the future. It doesn’t miss a heartbeat. She is such a minuscule statistic, representing just 0.000002 per cent of teachers in the UK, that her situation fails to register, at all. She is just one out of 150,000 teachers who will take leave, with work-related stress, this year. Life will carry on. There are always more talented, idealistic, ambitious, young people to train, to fill the void. And, if there are not enough in the UK, there are always lots of other countries to recruit from. The system will bear the loss. But a loss it will be.

The school has lost expertise that was shared with others, that improved the learning and attainment of the children that she taught. It’s lost her enthusiasm that was uplifting. It’s lost a role model.

Others will step into the breach – take over her leadership role if she has one. Take on responsibility for her area of the curriculum, do her assemblies, take on the extra burden of supporting whoever covers her class. Life will carry on. The progress and attainment data may not be quite as impressive for her class, this year. A recruitment process may need to be put in place for the longer term. The school will bear the loss. But a loss it will be.

Thirty, 60, 100 members of staff have lost a colleague, some, a friend, a confidant. Many have lost somebody who laughed with them, empathised with them, consoled them in their time of need. Some have lost a role model, some an inspiration. They will be angry that this has happened, yet again. They will be concerned for her, anxious about her. Some will speak in small groups about her. Some will text her. But they probably won’t contact her directly, face to face, voice to voice, because they will be mindful about intruding upon her suffering. Life will carry on.

Not the same

The atmosphere in the staff room will not be quite the same. There will be an empty space, for a little while, where she used to sit. Staff gatherings will not quite be the same. There will be a void, where her infectious giggling filled the room, at somebody’s silliness. The staff will bear the loss. But a loss it will be.

Thirty sets of parents and carers will feel different degrees of compassion towards the teacher, different degrees of disappointment. Some will, maybe, get their children to make a card and even write a comment in it themselves, to show love and support. But they will, all, feel anxious about what this means for their children. Some will feel disenchanted. The headteacher will have to divert some of her, already scare time and energy to meeting with them, to reassuring them. Life will carry on.

The headteacher will, in all likelihood, bear the added stress without breaking, because despite the enormous pressure she is under, she is resilient. But, added pressure it will be. 

Thirty children have lost somebody really significant in their lives. Someone that accepted and valued them for being just as they are, someone that listened to them, someone that encouraged them, someone that empowered them. Some of the children have lost a role model, some an inspiration. Other teachers will valiantly and professionally step into the breach – probably from an agency – but they may only be able to stay for a few days, weeks, or months. Life will carry on.

The teacher’s coat will hang on the back of the classroom door for weeks, months, maybe even one, two, three, or more, years, as a reminder of the shell of the person left behind. The atmosphere in the class will not quite be the same. The relationships within the class will not quite be the same. The quality of learning will not quite be the same. The children will bear the loss because they are resilient. But, a loss it will be.

A family has lost a daughter, a sister, an auntie, a cousin. She won’t feel up to seeing anybody for a while. She will avoid family gatherings for months, or a year or more because it will be too much to see everyone in one place at one time. Life will carry on.

Bearing a loss

Gradually, contact will be made, little steps towards reunion will occur. The family will bear the loss. But a loss it will be.

A husband, a boyfriend, a partner, will lose a companion, a friend, a lover. If the teacher is lucky, he will be incredibly loving, strong, robust. He, or she, will be there, as best as he is able, compensating for the loss: doing more of the cooking, shopping, cleaning. He may even learn some new skills – learn how to use the washing machine, how to manage the household budget, how to decorate a room. If she has children, he will try to get home from work a little earlier. Life will go on.

He probably won’t mention it at work but, if he does, he may even find that he has an employer understanding enough to give him a bit of extra legroom. He may or may not be able to bear the loss, to stay around long enough to see a renewal. But a loss it will be.

What of the teacher? Well, she may return to work in a few weeks, a month, three months, six months, maybe even a year, or she might leave the profession for good. She may be ousted, "…for the good of her own wellbeing" – roughly translated as, "…for the good of the school budget." She may have an incredibly compassionate headteacher who will move mountains to ensure that her talent is preserved. If her return is not supported, she may find herself in Year 6 the next year – where the pressure is even greater – where she is most likely to break again. If she is lucky she will have a loving family, loving friends, doctors, a therapist, mental health professionals that enable her to recover, that are present, that travel the journey alongside her. But, even if she does, it will be a journey that she will have to make by herself.

Life, as she has known it, will not carry on. It will be a long journey, a tough journey, with more troughs than peaks. She may never, truly, recover from the blow. She may well end up on benefits. She may lose her home. If she has children, the blow will be even harder.

A broken system

I pray, with all my heart, that, ultimately, she can bear the loss, tolerate the pain, the uncertainty, the anguish. I know that there are some that cannot, some, even, that take their own lives, causing the greatest devastation that is possible.

I also know that there are many who do recover, who incredibly, amazingly, exceptionally, come out the other end stronger, happier, more knowledgeable, with a deeper understanding of themselves and of how things are.

My heart is breaking. My heart is the education system.

David Jones is a primary headteacher in the Southwest.

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