Beat it!;Mind and body

2nd April 1999 at 01:00
How to see off the sickness that infects so many teachers

OFSTED on the way? What's the big deal? This teacher says he'd rather play bridge and live a full life outside school than worry himself sick about an inspection he knows he deserves to pass. And that's what makes him immune to Ofsteditis. In part two of our series, Elaine Williams seeks a cure tothe stress thattroubles our schools

Robert Parks says he couldn't wait for the OFSTED inspectors to come through the doors. He wanted to "show the buggers what I could do".

He puts his bullishness down to the fact that he's never lost sight of teaching as the only job he has ever wanted to do. At 49, he still thinks it's tremendous and is determined that nothing is going to get in the way of that commitment.

Yes, he had his schemes of work in place. No, he hadn't been working especially long hours and certainly hadn't lost any sleep. He believed he did the job effectively and welcomed the opportunity to show it.

He accepts his "immunity" to Ofsteditis is untypical. For many teachers there's nothing that causes stress like an inspection. Eastgate Assistance, a medical and counselling service which runs stress helplines for some of the teaching unions, says that a large part of its work is taken up with problems related to OFSTED.

Educational coun-selling and be-havioural consultants say teachers can take steps to cope with inspection and avoid ending up feeling scarred and deflated. John Bazalgette, a director of the Grubb Institute of Behaviour Studies, says teachers should keep reminding themselves, as did Robert Parks, what they came into the profession for. What motivates them? What difference have they made to children's lives? That way they are taking the inspectors on board with a sense of professional pride.

A clear sense of purpose, says Bazalgette, will help a headteacher accommodate inspectors within the school, and also help the teacher cope with their entry into the classroom, Their arrival should be managed, "just as you would manage a horde of lads coming in through the school gates".

Bazalgette continues: "If you believe you have a culture, that you have principles, then the inspectors come in on your terms. You're not jumping to what you think they want."

Robert Parks, a history teacher and year co-ordinator at Beauchamp College, a 14-18 technology school in Leicester, was helped by having a bullish headteacher. Maureen Cruickshank relished the prospect of a second inspection and was proactive from the start.

Believing the school had "something really good" to show, she "fought hard" to get inspectors with the credentials she wanted and encouraged her staff every step of the way - even providing special lunches during inspection week and a champagne party at the end.

Anne Littlewood, head of Beckwithshaw primary school near Harrogate, felt confident the school was well prepared for inspectors and sought to keep the event in perspective. She encouraged one of her teachers "to take themselves off for a massage" in the week before inspection, and the night before the big day she went for a long walk by the river with her husband.

Parks believes the fact that he has a vibrant life outside school is another major factor which helped him through the OFSTED process. "When I'm in school I give it 100 per cent, but I have the ability to compartmentalise. I also give 100 per cent to time away from school. I walk, play bridge, I have a family, I cook and I keep those things going, no matter what."

Keeping a balance between private life and work is essential, says Professor Cary Cooper of the department of organisational psychology at UMIST. Cooper, author of the NASUWT publication Teachers Under Pressure, says: "You must cultivate a life outside so that you are resilient when you go into work." Working long hours and "making a Dunkirk out of it" is pointless, he says. If teachers have a headteacher over-imbued with that Dunkirk spirit, they should "get together to approach him or her".

OFSTED says teachers should not view inspection as a hurdle but as an aid to identifying what they are good at. It remains frustrated that schools throw themselves into what it regards as unnecessary preparation. A lot of the pressure, it believes, is self-inflicted: "We have never denied that inspection stressful, but we have done everything we can to encourage people to take a sensible, measured approach," a spokesman says.

Dr Chris Kyriacou, reader in educational psychology at York University and an international expert on teacher stress, says that if some teachers gain security from over-preparation "there's probably no point in telling them not to go over the top".

But he agrees that putting inspection into perspective by maintaining enjoyable activities, such as hobbies, helps teachers to relax and perform to their best on the day. He says: "If you are a member of, say, a singing group don't stop going because of OFSTED." He also suggests teachers encourage colleagues and other outsiders into their classroom in the run-up to inspection to help them become "desensitised" to having other adults about.

Guy Claxton, visiting professor of psychology and education at Bristol University, recommends relaxation through breathing exercises. "Remember to let go of each bit after it has happened by sitting down, closing your eyes and taking three deep breaths. The difficult thing is remembering to do it."

Other "random acts of relaxation" can help with post-OFSTED lethargy - the two to three months after inspection when teacher ill-health and despondency is at its height. Claxton advises a social bash at the end of inspection week, good wine shared with friends, plenty of hot baths, listening to music and pleasurable exercise.

Claxton admits it is easier in some schools than others. In some staffrooms, he says, teachers make a pretence of coping. And when people are stressed by thinking they are not as competent as they ought to be "they become ashamed and withdraw from telling people how they feel". Having someone with whom you can chat or cry about the whole process is crucial.

All in all, then, the cure for Osteditis is a good friend to talk to, as much self-belief as you can muster, a life outside school ... and a large dose of perspective.


Eastgate Assistance says it often tells teachers stressed by inspection "the best advice we can give to you is the advice you give to pupils when they are preparing for exams":

* be organised and prepare in good time * see it for what it is * you can only do your best on the day * if you are confident you have done your best with the resources available then nobody can ask more of you * if you fail, the world won't stop * talk to colleagues - they probably feel the same. Talking helps "normalise" feelings.

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