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'The teacher who was signed off with stress, and the leader and pupil who caused it'

When teachers are forced to leave the classroom because of stress, workload is often cited as the reason. But mismanagement from SLT can be as much to blame, writes one history teacher

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When teachers are forced to leave the classroom because of stress, workload is often cited as the reason. But mismanagement from SLT can be as much to blame, writes one history teacher

Alice* was strict. Her parents were strict. Her own expectations of herself were strict. Driven by a deep-seated belief that high expectations had propelled her through her own schooling, on to university and into teaching, she aimed to bring that same tradition into her classroom. Nevertheless, she also had a sense of humour, a sense of fairness and, due to her own 'working-class' background, an understanding of the way many of the students would think.

Judgment day for Alice arrived when she started teaching at Osmand High School. The school served a largely deprived area, and was regulary in the media for stories about children misbehaving, swearing at adults, even assaulting teachers. But that didn’t put Alice off. She was determined that she just wouldn't tolerate it. She would single-handily raise the behaviour bar. She’d watched Coach Carter five times – particularly the bits where Samuel L Jackson demanded the players "call me Sir”. She’d watched Goodbye, Mr Chips. She’d read the Ofsted report for Osmand high, a "good" school. That, coupled with the fact she had been rated "outstanding" as a trainee, gave her high hopes.

The first few lessons with the notoriously tough Year 9 class went pretty well. She knew she was a "new face" and that very soon the students would start to test the water. And they did. When they shouted out a few too many times, she set detentions, and because of the centralised detention system, she presumed they’d attended them.

Undermined by the boss

Her boss, Tony, was very popular with the students. It was in week 3 that she realised that one or two of the children, apparently the ones with a really good relationship with Tony, hadn’t attended any detentions, but instead had been permitted to sit in the "inclusion centre" and chat to Tony.

Alice saw what was happening but felt powerless to change it, given her relative inexperience. Things took a turn for the worse when a few of the Year 9s decided they were unhappy with her teaching, and took it upon themselves to wander over to the inclusion centre instead of attending her lessons. After, apparently, encouragement from Tony himself.

A week later, Kevin swore at Alice for the first time. She’d asked him to switch seats with someone and he’d told her to: “F... off, love." He refused to move and she called for SLT. Tony arrived and Kevin immediately walked out with him. A few hours later, he turned up to apologise with a member of the support team. She accepted it, asked what sanction had been applied, and was told: “He’s reflected on his behaviour."

Similar situations continued to occur, and Alice’s stress levels continued to rise.

A few weeks later, Kevin swore at Alice again and threw his school books across the room. Rather than going through the usual channels, Alice tried to reason with Kevin and made a subconscious decision that she was going to accept this behaviour to some degree or another.

She still logged it on the behaviour system, she still went through the motions of telling him it was uncalled for, and she still told her colleagues about it. But she accepted that nothing, beyond a repetitive slap on the wrist, would happen as a result. She appeased Kevin, and was as nice to him as possible to reduce the aggro. She worked harder than ever to give him different materials to learn from, despite the fact that he had no recognised additional learning need.

Alice found it tough to identify exactly when it was that Kevin realised he could get away with more and more. He would walk past Alice in the corridor and stare at her as though she were nothing, as though he hated her.

Alice found this strange, and questioned: did he actually hate her? Or hate the fact that she, perhaps like many others in his life, was failing to hold down any meaningful boundaries for him?

Meanwhile, Kevin's behaviour had a trickle-down effect on the rest the Year 9s. Seeing Kevin’s "victory", the pupils started to chip away at Alice’s already-fragile hold over the behaviour of the class.

When Mark challenged her on what the point of a particular homework task was, there was a ripple of laughter. Sarah, Kevin's girlfriend, chewed gum all the time and didn't respond when asked a simple question.

By the time the Christmas holidays rolled around, Alice, utterly exhausted, broke down in front of her unsuspecting boyfriend.

Completely lost to what had happened, he asked: "All your observations grades up to now have been amazing – what’s going on?”.

In truth, Alice knew her own teaching had taken a hit. She’d become less adventurous, less confident. She’d started to spend too long thinking about how she was going to deal with the behaviour of students, rather than what she was actually going to teach them.

Six months later, Alice was signed off with stress. The school believed it to be workload – so did she – but was it?

Or was it that the school had facilitated the gradual decline in her confidence, which had led to the gradual decline of her teaching?

Either way, and for the time being, she was out of the classroom. 

*All names have been changed. 

Thomas Rogers is a teacher who runs and tweets @RogersHistory

For more columns by Tom, view his back catalogue

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