A stress storm brewing in the profession

16th July 2010 at 01:00

Ah, summer. The scent of roses and pad-pad of tennis balls. The marking load is lighter and there is even time to make daisy chains.

OK, but what if all that seems to be happening to other people, while you are stressed and miserable? Stress feels different in the summer. Winter stress brings solidarity around the biscuit tin. Summer can worsen feelings of isolation in a stressed teacher, because it is the season labelled "happy". Everyone else is wafting about making holiday plans - what's the matter with you?

The "easy summer term" is a myth. The NASUWT teaching union recently published research into teacher stress by Compass, the centre for mental health research and policy. The report, Teachers' Mental Health, recommends how to reduce stress and mental illness among teachers. One teacher mentions this term, saying that in the past it "was always the `easy' summer term because you had time to get stuff ready for next year . That has gone. So it's relentless throughout the year now."

Teachers' Mental Health should be on every education minister's reading list this summer. It cites the top five sources of teacher stress and mental ill health: workload, conflicting demands, bad pupil behaviour, increased class size and lack of support from management.

"Part of your professionalism is taken away, because so many decisions are made for you," comments one teacher. An inspector "like black thunder" leaves another teacher "just dragging myself through every minute of every day . Now it's just a job and it was never just a job . It was . my joy, I suppose. Now . there isn't any passion."

Heartbreaking case studies like these are balanced by uplifting ones where a school succeeds in helping a sick teacher return to work. One says: "The headteacher said `I want you to come in for half-an-hour, for a cup of tea and sit with me.' He knew that I was scared of coming back to the school."

The issue of a phased return to work is timely. In April, the rules changed concerning sick notes. Instead of just signing you off sick, your GP now has the option to write a "fit note" that tells your employer what you can do. This takes fine judgment: do too much and you will get ill again; do too little and you miss out on the social interaction that is a crucial part of recovery.

Peter Harvey, the teacher recently cleared of attempting to murder a pupil, had asked for a "phased return" before the incident. He has since warned: "There are lots of teachers who are ticking time bombs. I know teachers who, because of stress, can't hold a cup of coffee or are too frightened to cross the road."

What makes the Compass study required reading for policymakers is the clarity with which it sets out reforms to the whole system. We need schools that make stress and mental illness less likely in the first place. Governments must face facts - or wake up and smell the recruitment crisis.

The full report is at: www.nasuwt.org.ukMentalHealthReport

Catherine Paver is a writer and part-time English teacher.

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