Coping with life's little wobbles
Rather than helping teachers to manage stress, training colleges and senior managers should be showing them how to develop the resilience necessary to avoid it in the first place.
That is the conclusion of a group of academics at the University of Nottingham, whose research assesses the best ways for teachers to build resilience in order to manage the pressures of daily school life.
Psychological ill health is thought to cost British employers #163;1,000 per employee every year. In a school with 50 members of staff, this translates to #163;50,000 a year.
It is estimated that in 2009-10, 133,000 people working in education suffered from an illness caused or made worse by their job. In the case of teachers, this was often a psychological illness, such as stress, anxiety or depression.
"Teaching is emotionally demanding work, and levels of work-related stress, anxiety and depression are higher within education than within many other occupational groups," the researchers say.
However, they add, rather than asking how to treat mental ill health and stress, teacher trainers and heads should be fostering resilience.
The term "resilience" has its origins in child-development research, where it refers to a capacity to recover from adverse events. Within education, resilience is increasingly recognised as "an important factor in... teacher effectiveness over time," the academics say.
"Like young children, teachers' resilience lies in the contexts and the relationships in which they develop as professionals, and not simply in their personal attributes."
The researchers explored different methods of cultivating resilience. This should start as soon as student-teachers begin their training courses, they say. Importantly, would-be teachers should realise that teaching is a complex profession, with unpredictable challenges.
Therefore, trainees should be taught to "appreciate the personal, emotional, pedagogical and professional challenges of learning to teach," the academics say. They should also learn to establish respectful relationships that will support them and allow them autonomy but also challenge them. And they should learn to critique their own practice, working with others to improve it.
Once teachers have qualified, the responsibility for promoting resilience shifts to the senior management team of each school. The best way of doing this is to continue to allow teachers significant autonomy, the researchers say, insisting that this is not about delegating leadership roles to junior staff members but about creating an environment where all teaching and non-teaching staff take on leadership responsibilities.
"In aiming to foster resilience in colleagues, it pays to empower them with responsibility," the researchers say. "Genuinely enabling them to take action and make a difference in the life of the school... can lead to increased self-efficacy, rather than a sense of a... debilitating workload."
But external support is also necessary at times. A particularly troublesome child or group of children may challenge teachers' sense of their own competence. The academics interviewed one teacher who felt isolated in her efforts to work with a boy who had behavioural difficulties.
"The rest of the staff would blame Darren for anything," the teacher says. "Any kind of misdemeanour on Darren's part was just jumped on. You can feel quite isolated in a school."
The academics therefore highlight the importance of external support being available. Working with an educational psychologist, this teacher says, allowed her to feel "that I was worthy and... that I was doing the right thing".
Similarly, mental health specialists, such as the Teacher Support Network, can offer teachers advice on how to develop strategies to deal with conflict with colleagues or with pupils.
Coping with school life can be physically exhausting, as well as emotionally draining, the researchers say. So teachers would also benefit from specialist advice about the importance of regular exercise and a healthy diet.
"Resilience, health, well-being and work effectiveness all inter-relate," the academics say. "A person who may be perceived as lacking resilience... can gain by being able to share a concern with someone else, learn how to process their emotions differently and gain the knowledge and confidence to manage their health and well-being."
Day, C., Edwards, A., Griffiths, A. et al (2011) Beyond Survival: teachers and resilience (University of Nottingham).
Centre for Research in Schools and Communities, University of Nottingham.
Teacher Support Network.
THE IMPORTANCE OF AUTONOMY
Autonomy and responsibility are key factors in developing teacher resilience, academics say.
Researchers from the University of Nottingham cite the case of a Midlands head who was appointed to run a large, successful secondary school. During his first week, he discovered that his new school was significantly overstaffed and that he would have to make 22 teachers redundant.
The head decided to split the management of the school with his deputy. While the deputy looked after the everyday running of the school, he focused on resolving the staffing situation with as little acrimony as possible.
Explaining how he had managed to deal with the problem while causing relatively little distress to himself or his staff, the head was adamant that he was not influenced by national or local government policy.
"The changes which had taken place... were the result of his decision-making, not as a result of a response to government directives," the researchers say. "This is a particularly powerful example of the link... between the perceived autonomy of a participant and their resilience to the pressures and strains... within the role."
The researchers add that fostering autonomy among school leaders may lead to greater job satisfaction and, as a result, an increased number of teachers keen to take on headship.