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‘The system pits teachers and pupils against each other’

Both teachers and pupils are buckling under the pressure of today's education system – and ending up at odds with each other

Teachers, pupils, wellbeing, mental health

Monday: Sophie puts her hand up after I have explained how to write a PEE paragraph for the second time. “Sir, I can’t do it,” she tells me. Sophie can do it. She did it last week and for homework. I sit with her until she overcomes her total lack of confidence and writes the paragraph.  

Wednesday: Miss Hayes comes into the staffroom frazzled. In her last lesson there were three pupils who were chatting among themselves while she was speaking: tired, stressed and on the edge, she sent them out without any warning.

In theory, these two incidents are not connected.

As a society, we like to compartmentalise these sorts of issues. But actually, they’re part of the same problem: low self-esteem in the classroom affects both pupils and teachers. While Sophie’s poor self-esteem prevented her from learning, Miss Hayes’ mood made her less likely to resolve her conflicts with pupils in a positive way.

My 12th year of teaching was awful. When I was in class, I was cranky, lacked patience and found it progressively harder to de-escalate conflicts with students. I lost the ability to spend the necessary extra time with the Sophies and Annas of my classes and started cutting corners with marking and lesson planning. I wasn’t coping, and ultimately I burnt out and left teaching for a while.

Now I see my departure as a natural psychological reaction to a highly bureaucratic and hierarchical system that had systematically undermined my self-esteem. I was a cog in the machine. The machine was failing and so, too, was I.

Pupils too experience this. It’s what happens when the system pits us against each other when we should be supporting each other.

To make things worse, when I was not coping, I felt ashamed that this was the case and I developed strategies to "hide" my distress. Ultimately teachers have a choice: they can leave. Pupils don’t have this luxury. Instead they act out and misbehave.

Teachers and pupils mirror each other all the time. As a teacher, I often got the sense that the pupils could almost "smell" when I had not slept well or was not at my best. I used to joke that office workers could have "off-days" but not teachers. When this did happen, my lessons and relationships with my pupils would suffer, which would increase my sense of shame and lower my self-esteem – and decrease the quality of their learning time with me. It was a vicious circle.

Transforming this negative spiral into a positive one has been a long process.

One of the best things I’ve ever done for my pupils was to work on myself. I already had an interest in psychology, so I read a great deal and tried to improve my practice as a teacher and a behaviour manager. I started writing about behaviour and would do inset with other staff.

I realised that teachers all experienced similar issues and that by focusing on what we could control – ourselves, our emotional states and a positive sense of self – we could begin to foster really great relationships with our pupils, experiment in class and grow ever more competent as teachers.

A few years on, I have taken a sideways step and trained to deliver inset for other teachers, building self-esteem and responsibility, using a coaching model, working in schools with a clear need for this type of intervention. I am still working on myself, as I can now see how vital this type of intervention is in how I deal with every aspect of my life and in every relationship, both personal and professional.

Looking back to myself as a teacher and I can see how little time and energy I invested in my own mental health. I still wonder about the pupils I could have done more for, had my own self-esteem been stronger.

Rob Salter is the education lead at GOALS UK, a social enterprise specialising in building self-esteem and responsibility.

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