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'Teaching is driving too many teachers to mental health problems'

...And it's time we asked why, writes one experienced headteacher

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...And it's time we asked why, writes one experienced headteacher

“The system has become totally inhuman.”

This week, out of the blue, I got a message from a friend who is a very respected and experienced mental health practitioner:

"I just wanted to let you know I can’t believe the number of teachers who need to access our services looking for psychological help for work stress. It’s really noticeable in my NHS work and private practice. The system has become totally inhuman."

I found no surprises in these words. But it was the next part of our conversation that resonated uncomfortably with me: "They say that there is always a general focus on what they are doing wrong, never on what they are doing right."

And: "There is a message that they can never do enough."

My friend spoke about how conscientious these teachers are, how much "high standards" mean to them and, therefore, how being in that environment was so very toxic.

So why did my friend's message sit so uneasily with me?

Because it is school leaders – not Ofsted, not the DfE, not Twitter gurus, nor policy wranglers – who can make the difference right now. School leaders have the power to make the difference on a day-to-day level and we need to be doing it yesterday.

Systems and teachers

On Friday, I was teaching – ahem, facilitating an enrichment activity using strategy board games – when one of my teachers called me out of the lesson. They had been inputting pupil data into spreadsheets and getting frustrated. This was my system, but faced with the realities of it, I could see how pointless it was for them. I guiltily said: “All I want to know is: who is a concern regarding progress and what are you putting in place to tackle this?” Another teacher looked at me and said: “I have been putting these numbers into this sheet and trying to work out the mean since Wednesday – I haven’t even thought about my interventions!”

These spreadsheets had nothing to do with government or Ofsted directives, although they may have grown from the accountability of them. This was about my systems and my teachers. One of them trumps the other every time. School leaders have to start putting teachers first.

After all, we have all read the numerous articles about workload worries and listened to our colleagues in the staffroom, over drinks and via late night WhatsApp rants. There is clearly something in the education waters right now and it is impacting upon the wellbeing of teachers across the sector.

These recent weeks have revealed figures that even the doctors of spin – or silence – at the DfE aren’t glossing over. We have to get teaching back where it belongs: as an aspirational career full of hope and promise, rather than anxiety-fuelled monologues on a psychologist's couch.

Wellbeing is important

I love my job more than ever. So shouldn’t I be thanking the DFE and the policymakers? Shouldn’t I be scribing, in my best cursive, "Ofsted" at the top of my Christmas card list? But if I and so many teachers still love our jobs so much, where is the "real" problem in schools originating from?

To find the answer, we need to be listening to our teachers and school staff.

I asked a scary question in this month’s anonymous staff survey. I believe every school should be asking it. "Do you think your wellbeing is important at our school?"

We have come a long way since I first posed this question to our staff a few years ago, and I was pleased with the outcomes. But I know that I have to think more about the systems we have that I create and how it relates to our core purpose. I know that this is now one of our key duties: it is becoming one of the most important tasks a headteacher can do.

Brian Walton is headteacher of Brookside Academy in Somerset. He tweets as @Oldprimaryhead1

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