Teacher stress: 'The workload wasn't what broke me – it was the change in my school's culture'

This teacher will not be returning to school this month after being signed off with stress. Here, she reflects on the straw that finally broke the camel's back after 14 years in the classroom


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It's going to be strange this week. For the past 14 years I have experienced mounting anxiety, along with an adrenaline-fuelled mixture of dread and excitement, leading up to the night before I go back to school. It won't be a problem this year, though, because I'm not going back this month.

Halfway through July, and just two weeks before we broke up, I broke. Just like that guy who collapsed at the end of the London Marathon and had to be dragged over the finish line, I experienced complete and utter burnout. I've read plenty of articles about burnout but didn’t really understand how completely debilitating it is.

Looking back, I had seen the signs as far back as September last year. I had a nasty sinus infection that just wouldn't completely go away and agonising headaches that felt like they were boring into the centre of my skull for days at a time. Still, when you commit to a job as consuming as teaching, it can take over your whole life, and so I let it. I loved it, I was good at it. I worked at a supportive school for an appreciative boss who respected my ability and work ethic. So how did I let it all get so horribly out of proportion?

'The exams were just too challenging'

First of all, I had the weakest and largest cohort of GCSE students ever. We hit the revision sessions from the first week of September, twice a week, every week. Then there were the extra revision twilights, every Thursday night until 7pm. We had holiday learning revision days every holiday after Christmas. Two days out of a half term of five days, plus half a day's planning, does not really make for a refreshing holiday. Yet the students continued to refuse to turn my red and orange spreadsheets green. Despite our heartfelt endeavours, the exams were just too challenging for a large proportion of them.

Then we had organisational pressures, including the tightening up of our progress review cycle to include ever more complex and detailed diagnostic analyses. We had a particularly tense and protracted build-up to a crucial Ofsted inspection, which did not materialise until the summer term, despite it being due in March. I also have an inherent workaholic nature and whilst the pressure was cranking up around me, there I was in the thick of it volunteering on several different working parties and even running the school's social media accounts. What was I thinking?

'The culture shift broke me'

The workload wasn't what finally broke me, but it certainly reduced my resilience. What did it was a culture shift. Firstly, I was evicted from my lovely classroom to one half the size. I'd spent hours of my own time, at my own expense, making my classroom the best learning environment in school and I was unceremoniously shoved into another, without enough desks or chairs, or even time to pack my stuff up. Then we all got told that we had to do cover. Not an occasional lesson as a genuine emergency but on a regular day-to-day basis. I objected and was summoned to see the head, clutching my union guidelines firmly. Next, we had the early timetable turnover to grapple with. Three weeks before the end of term, when I could barely stay awake past 6pm, I was expected to meet and greet my new classes and fill them with fresh enthusiasm for the coming year. Then there were several last-minute changes to my timetable, including things way outside my specialist subject inflicted on me without any consultation.

The day I finally broke I was called in to see the boss regarding the wording of some internal email of minor importance. After a fantastic working relationship based on years of mutual respect, I stood there listening to him, red in the face, berate me for something so apparently minor that I couldn't even believe it warranted a conversation. Resisting the impulse to say what I really thought and walk out of the door never to return, I taught my day’s lessons and phoned my GP at break. By 5pm I had an emergency appointment and was signed off with stress within about 10 seconds of sitting down in her office.

So this month I will not be going back. Whether I do at a later point is not a decision I can make right now. I will sleep soundly on Sunday night. But I endured so many sleepless nights this July and August, lamenting the uncertain fate of my wonderful students, my stoic colleagues, my career and the grief of being ripped away from a job I love and genuinely feel I was born to do.

The writer taught at a secondary school in the north of England

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