Do you twitch a lot? Fat or frigid? Smoke or drink too much?

6th June 1997 at 01:00
Perhaps it's time you gave up teaching. Or time your school started treating stress seriously, argues Rosemary Litawski

Like every other school ours has undergone tremendous changes in recent years. A new headteacher three years ago - me - has meant much upheaval and a new government heralds even more change.

So when two long-serving, well-respected and experienced teachers, plus my bursar, were on sick leave, suffering from stress, inevitably questions needed to be asked about just how much pressure we were putting on staff. How much change can staff cope with? It is a question that must be asked by headteachers, senior staff and governors everywhere.

We need to ask this question for humane, compassionate and caring reasons. On a pragmatic level, we must appreciate that the long-term illness of any teacher results in more work and more stress on those who left holding the fort. It also has serious implications for the school budget, because of long-term supply cover. And it has an immeasurable impact on the youngsters deprived of their regular teacher, maybe just weeks before an examination.

Pressure groups have drawn attention to teachers being bullied. The present competitive, market-place philosophy not only makes schools more accountable, but, in turn, can make headteachers and senior staff more demanding.

It is frightening to stand back and consider whether we still have the same values that we used to hold and what they are. Have the budget, the examination league tables, the competition for increased numbers, stopped us caring about people? Have we become management bullies? Are we destroying colleagues' careers, colleagues' health - even someone's life - by the continual push for school improvement?

But, then, are we not ourselves, the people in senior management, under stress? Is there a need to be pro-active, to take control of our anxieties?

In my more rational moments, I know that the source of stress lies with the individual, though problems may originate at an organisational or even national level. It is too simplistic to attach blame to school managers, politicians, society or to say youngsters seem so different from those in the past.

It was reassuring to hear a similar message reiterated at our staff training day by Steve Thorp, the co-ordinator of the Northampton Positive Stress at Work Project. Many other approaches - other than recognising that stress starts with you, the individual and the pressure you put yourself under - can leave you feeling helpless, and even more stressed than when you started, he told us.

The management of stress must be a priority topic for every schools' programme of staff development. I feel guilty that I only contacted the Northampton project after our members of staff went ill, but, at the same time, our staff training day will not be a one-off event. We examined the more general nature of stress and how to turn it into something positive, as well as individual strategies for coping with it. It allowed us to analyse ourselves and to consider how to take control of the situation.

Then we undertook the more challenging exercise of examining our school and devising strategies for alleviating stress there. This was followed by an individual confidential questionnaire to help the project conduct an institutional audit and organisational analysis.

The results have still to be fed back to the senior management team for further action. But, in the meantime, we will continue to hold more after-school sessions on stress management. The art faculty has volunteered to run staff-relaxation painting and pottery classes during lunchtime and after school. The squash courts will be made available to staff.

Our weekly after-school in-service programme continues, not just because staff find the range of topics instructive, but because the tea, sandwiches and cakes and the opportunity to unwind is therapeutic. It is this mutual support that the rational line-managment accountability model from the Office for Standards in Education isjeopardising.

Staff development has a key role in the management of stress. It is the responsibility of senior managers to sustain a climate within the school that actively reduces rather than increases stress. We need actively to promote mutual support. Blaming others or moaning that life shouldn't be like this will not help us cope.

One very successful activity we undertook was to work in small groups, to draw a picture of a teacher under stress. Our pictures depicted grey-haired, overweight, chain-smoking, heavy-drinking, sexually inactive, twitchy individuals. It also provoked a great deal of laughter - the best remedy for stress - and the most effective staff development.

* Rosemary Litawski is headteacher of Mereway Upper School, Northampton

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