Afraid to say no

27th January 2006 at 00:00
Teachers often feel under pressure to take on more and more work and find it impossible to relax. Some suffer in silence, but when the stress gets so bad that you're losing yourself to the job, it's time to get help. Wendy Wallace reports. Illustration by Sue Clarke

New year, new you. Right? No work at weekends, bring a salad to school, engage brain before opening mouth. But resolutions tend to get swept away by the first few days of term as teachers everywhere find themselves responding to demands rather than making measured decisions about work-life balance.

Workforce reforms were meant to put an end to teacher stress. No more putting up displays or taking lunch money. Guaranteed non-contact hours for planning, preparation and assessment. These measures, where they have worked best, have been welcomed, although they may have made things worse for some heads (see box). But the broader political context - of pressure to achieve exam results, Ofsted judgments and continuing policy reversals from on high - means stress has continued to rise, seemingly at all levels of the profession. Posters on the TES website are clear about the most effective stress busters. Sex, chocolate, swimming and alcohol. "Get yourself a glass of wine and a bar of chocolate and sit by the fire and think 'sod it'."

But many suffer in silence, until a bar of chocolate is not enough. They can then find themselves on antidepressants and sick leave. The Teacher Support Line says that the number of callers citing work-related stress rose fourfold between the academic years 2003-04 and 2004-05 to more than 1,000 a year. Perhaps the most pragmatic resolution is to recognise the early warning signs of stress and act on them before it is too late.

Caroline, a 24-year-old science teacher, was put on the fast-track entry path into the profession. After a challenging NQT year, she moved last autumn to a comprehensive in the south of England, where she was assigned mainly Year 9 bottom sets. Unable to control her classes, she was threatened with scissors and had desks overturned. Equally stressful was her inability to get across to students her love of her subject. "I didn't come into teaching expecting short hours and long holidays," she says. "But I'd be thinking, 'I spent three hours preparing this lesson. And all you're doing is throwing chairs at each other'."

Soon, she was retreating to the staff loo to cry in the daytimes, and crying some more when she got home. "I felt everything was completely out of my control," she says, "as if I was on a conveyor belt. If some little thing went wrong while I was teaching, I would think it was the worst lesson in the world." Normally a bundle of energy, she stopped returning calls from friends and at weekends stayed in bed all day. Last October, a few weeks into her new job, Caroline woke up one morning unable to force herself to go in to school. "I felt I didn't care any more. I wanted to run away, to just get in my car and drive."

While her boyfriend phoned in sick for her, she went to the GP's surgery and was signed off immediately with stress and depression. By the end of last term, after a few weeks' respite, and a course of antidepressants - plus exchanges with fellow sufferers on the message boards - Caroline was slowly improving, getting out of the house at least once a day to go to the shops or post office, and planning a return to teaching this term in a different school. "I want to get back to how I used to feel about young people, which was very positive. I want to get back my passion for teaching."

Teacher stress is not new. Annette, 54, "cracked up", as she calls it, 18 years ago. Then head of year and head of biology at a leafy secondary, her life was hectic, with some particularly difficult children in the year group. Annette was getting pains at the back of her neck and had developed stress eczema around her nose. But the trigger for her crisis was a supply teacher's coat; stolen, then found stuffed into a lavatory cistern one Monday, with Annette chief investigator. After her third interview with suspected culprits, she stood up feeling violently sick and unable to move.

She called in a colleague who was walking past her door, and was driven home. The GP diagnosed physical and mental exhaustion, and signed her off for 12 weeks, prescribing antidepressants.

While off sick, Annette caught sight of herself in a shop window. "I looked bloody awful," she says. "Grey. Haggard." As well as the pills, she took up swimming - "the water kind of washes things away" - went to the hairdresser's, bought new clothes. Once back at work, she learned to say, "I'm sorry. I can't do that". She dropped out of her union role for a while, and asked for help from colleagues when she needed it.

Looking back, there had been other warning signs, she believes. She had begun to have memory lapses, forgetting routes she knew well and allowing her car to run out of petrol. Now, she respects those who decline extra work when necessary. "People are afraid of saying no in case it counts against them career-wise. But I prefer junior colleagues who know their limitations." Annette believes young teachers may be more prone to stress because of the way education is now. She cites subject area staffrooms, which can mean nobody switches off during break, and constant government pressure. "Student teachers only know Sats and testing; having that as a philosophy is stressful. I'm here to educate children, and having that underlying belief to hold on to protects me from stress." Back in 2001, in their audit of teachers' workload, PricewaterhouseCoopers reported that teachers' sense of a lack of control over their own work was a major factor in stress; despite fine words from the Government, this area has not been addressed.

Colleagues are not necessarily sympathetic to the stressed. Rose was teaching a language she was not qualified to teach, when Ofsted arrived and heavily criticised her department. Rose was devastated and subsequently had nine months off school, diagnosed with stress and depression and under the care of her local psychiatric hospital. When she finally returned to work, colleagues shunned her. "I used to be in the popular gang," she says. "I slowly withdrew when I was getting ill. Now I'm a social outcast. It's as if I have a sign on my head saying, 'I'm a nutter. Stay away'. The only person who's said anything is a chap whose wife is having a nervous breakdown. He popped his head around the door and said 'I understand now'."

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