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'Teachers want to quit. What can we do about it?'

Research suggests that there are ways to make stressed-out, overworked teachers' lives more bearable, says Emma Kell

Following a few simple rules could help teachers to get a better work-life balance, writes Emma Kell

Research suggests that there are ways to make stressed-out, overworked teachers' lives more bearable, says Emma Kell

This is the second in a series of pieces. Once a month, I am discussing a 2017-18 project in which I followed a group of teachers through the academic year, asking them to report on the highs and the lows and to reflect on changes in their levels of optimism, energy and determination in their professional roles. All names have been changed and identifying features removed or adjusted.

Looking back on my reflections from this time last year, this made me smile wryly:

"I must admit that I’ve found this half-term particularly exhausting. Twenty years in, and I still haven’t learned my lesson about pacing myself. The issue is that loving the job can mean you put far too much ‘self’ in and forget to hold something back for family and friends. Like many participants, I have managed to prioritise the most crucial things (my own children), but have neglected other areas and there are great friends who I haven’t seen for far too long."

It's the fact that I sound remotely surprised by this discovery that makes me smile! Plus ça change… I ended this half-term with a house like a post-nuclear disaster zone and the fridge full of inedible relics.

That said, there have been a few shifts, thanks to a regular chance to reflect on both my own and others’ experiences. I’ve definitely spent more evenings cuddled on the sofa with family with my phone safely on the other side of the room. I’ve gone ever-so-slightly part-time, so I get to take the kids to school occasionally. And I’ve got a new hairdresser who’s a dab hand at keeping the growing grey patches at bay.

So, where did other teachers find themselves this time last year?

There is quite a lot of positivity around.

  • 71 per cent said they were happy in their work.
  • 84 per cent said they were good at their jobs.
  • 73 per cent had a good working relationship with their line manager.
  • 89 per cent enjoyed classroom teaching.
  • 92 per cent were proud of the job they did.
  • 86 per cent said they felt "optimism" at the very least "sometimes". By the same measure, 85 per cent felt confident and 86 per cent hopeful. All well and good, on one level. But hang on, that’s basically one in 10 teachers feeling these things only "occasionally" or "never". In an average secondary school, that’s nine or 10 teachers. Which is rather a lot when you consider the impact on students in the classroom.
  • When we look at changes since the previous month, alarm bells do start to sound: 67 per cent reported decreased energy levels and 37 per cent a decrease in optimism. Some 59 per cent reported a decrease in their ability to balance work and commitments outside work.
     

There are a few more worrying stats, which are similar to the findings of this year’s Education Support Teacher Wellbeing index:

  • 67 per cent disagreed that they were getting enough sleep.
  • 22 per cent relied on alcohol to help wind down.
  • 44 per cent felt that their efforts were sometimes, often or always unappreciated.
  • 48 per cent often or always felt guilty about neglecting relationships and duties outside work.
  • 60 per cent experienced anxiety related to the job "sometimes", "often" or "always".
     

What about staff retention?

  • 43 per cent reported that they had considered leaving their current institution within the next 12 months.
  • 29 per cent had considered leaving the profession within next 12 months.
  • Just 75 per cent could see themselves remaining in the profession for the next two years.
  • Only 52 per cent could see themselves remaining in the profession for another decade.
     

This picture has actually got worse in the past 12 months: there’s not an awful lot to celebrate here.

If we dig a bit deeper, we can start to see what factors are making the difference and consider some ways forward.

Pay attention to your job description

Teachers’ biggest frustrations, I have found, tend to be less around external factors than around a perception of others not doing their jobs properly. Trying to do too much, to step outside roles can be tempting, but, actually, it makes everyone’s life easier if we focus on the job description.

Middle leader Ruth highlights how disruptive stepping out of our roles can be:

“Staff in the team not communicating effectively and taking on responsibilities that aren’t theirs. But in the process neglecting their actual roles. This has meant I have had to cover their other roles as well as my own to ensure the children in our unit are getting everything they need emotionally, physically and academically. This has put extra stress on me and the relationships I have with my colleagues.”

The most interesting part of the survey, in my opinion, is around lessons learned. Participants were asked to identify one thing they had learned about themselves in the past month.

Adapting your teacher persona

To pick up on a topical theme (without mentioning corridors!), several teachers write of becoming "stricter" than they feel comes naturally – knowing that, if you need to, you can ask students to work in pin-drop silence is actually very empowering.

On the other hand, some teachers write of allowing their character to enter the classroom. This response made me smile:

“[I have learned] that the students value my personality as it makes me more approachable. I have redecorated my classroom to include elements of my personality and students have welcomed the change and are approaching me more. I’ve even had some home-made gifts and drawings to add to my classroom collection!”

Ruthless compartmentalisation

Another lesson that I seem to have to "relearn" every year is about compartmentalisation. This can be particularly tough for parents of young children and babies, as explained by one participant:

“I am a full-time teacher with an almost two-year-old son who doesn’t sleep very well at the moment. I often feel like I’m not as effective at either job (teaching and being a Mum) as I’d like to be. I seem to be burning the candle at both ends to try and be with [my child] when we get home and then to get my planning, etc, done once he’s in bed. If someone told me I could afford to go part-time, I wouldn’t hesitate to do so.”

Focus on the students

Participants were asked to identify their most positive moment or highlight of the month. Unsurprisingly, 86 per cent of these involved students and only 3 per cent admin or paperwork. Many participants expressed their excitement and joy about students making excellent progress, about lightbulb moments in the classroom and about the importance of positive relationships.

The small things

Colleagues’ support is also key. One participant cited a hug from a colleague as a highlight of the month and another really appreciated the positive encouragement she got from her colleagues:

“Other colleagues passing on positive comments they’ve had from students I teach. The sense of lack of competition – of praising and supporting each other – is a really positive aspect of teaching and teachers.” 

It’s the small things again. The things that cost nothing that make all the difference.

Life happens!

Challenging circumstances in life outside school were cited by a number of participants – these can’t be planned for but are extremely likely to have an impact on our professional roles. Two participants had serious accidents outside school that affected their ability to carry out their roles. Three other participants cited events that affected them:

“Should have moved house in late August. Sale fell through but has been resurrected. Home is just rooms of boxes, packed and ready to go. I have thrown myself into work to forget about the move until it happens.”

“Been a bit off this month as daughter’s been diagnosed with ADHD and I’ve had lots of appointments to go to, which are still going on. Means I’m having to set more cover and losing frees and working more in evenings. Actually behind for the first time ever."

Dr Emma Kell is a secondary teacher in north-east London and author of How to Survive in Teaching

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