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Praise the Lord, pass the Prozac

Josephine Gardiner reports on the student teachers desperate for stress relief. Student teachers are turning to drink, cigarettes, Prozac, psychotherapy and, last but not least, God, in an attempt to combat the stress generated by their training, according to research published in the Journal of Education for Teaching.

That teaching is right at the top of the league table of stressful occupations is well documented, but this study indicates that the tensions set in before the first job is acquired.

Tutors at King's College, London University, asked the 1994-95 cohort of PGCE students to report on what made them anxious, what the effects of stress were on their physical and mental well-being and how they coped. The students were surveyed twice (in December and at the end of the course), and a total of 108 questionnaires were returned.

The researchers were surprised by the amount of stress reported, particularly in the December survey. Women appeared to suffer more than men, though apparently women are, in general, more likely to admit to problems in surveys. More surprising was that scientists were more angst-ridden than those working in the arts subjects, contrary to the findings of previous surveys. This is probably because, after specialising at university, they find themselves having to teach all the sciences up to GCSE level.

Money was a major worry; many students were heavily in debt before they started the PGCE year and, apparently, many had assumed that because the grant for a PGCE course was mandatory, it was also exempt from means-testing. "Finding themselves still dependent on parental support . . . was disheartening," say the researchers. As one student put it: "I have had to give up a weekend job because I felt too stressed and had no time to do my work. But this now means I will have less money which is also a worry."

The problems experienced by the students varied according to the type of school where they did their practice. Some said that the college should "vet" schools more carefully, and others suffered from the combined pressures of being constantly on trial at school, yet lacking the status and established relationships enjoyed by permanent members of staff: "The students are . . . dancing to tunes which are played by others."

Fear of failure, plus lack of control over school placements, classes taught and workload, seemed to be the greatest cause of distress.

Symptoms included sleep disturbance, panic attacks, loss of appetite, and some of the women experienced irregularities and difficulties with their menstrual cycle for the first time in their lives. Students resorted to traditional remedies such as "heavy bouts of drinking", comfort eating, smoking, physical exercise and (a small minority) psychotherapy. Other coping strategies ranged from the modish (Prozac) to the spiritual; some said that they had taken to going to church regularly, becoming dependent on "God, reading the Bible and praying".

The researchers admit that surveys on stress are inevitably unreliable because they rely on self-reporting, and definition of both stressful situations and stress symptoms can vary wildly - one person's "stress" is another person's "everyday life".

Not mentioned by the researchers is the fact that a few of the students' written comments could provide ammunition for those who are currently casting aspersions on the quality of trainee teachers. Take this incomprehensible sentence written by a student about drinking and pill-popping: "Personally I eventually will trip out - not seriously though", or this one about a school placement: "Having a crap teacher that slagged me off".

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