Feeling the strain? Hang out with poets

16th May 2008 at 01:00
Last Friday, high above 300 children assembled in our school hall, three of my teachers hung upside down from the gymnastic ropes and ladders, reciting poetry
Last Friday, high above 300 children assembled in our school hall, three of my teachers hung upside down from the gymnastic ropes and ladders, reciting poetry. Why do I mention this? Because I want to talk about stress. What has hanging upside down entertaining children got to do with stress? Bear with me ...

A short while ago, a journalist rang me and asked if she could talk to me about teachers and stress. What percentage of teachers did I think suffered from it? What caused it, and what could be done about it? And did I know that the Government was thinking of requiring schools to complete a staff stress audit? For a moment, I thought it was an April Fool. But no - as well as being required to undertake audits of our finances, targets, standards, gifted and talented, health and safety procedures - to name but a few - it seems we might have to add stress to our lists.

Now, I don't want to make light of the issue. Surveys show that teachers are under stress as never before, and I'm pleased that the Government is showing some concern. But why are they under so much stress? Because the Government makes so many demands on them in the first place - many of them related to the constantly higher targets that schools are asked to achieve - and then batters them with dubious inspection procedures.

Sadly, many heads these days have become mere executives. Few do any teaching or spend enough time with the children. There are constant forms to be filled in, standards to drive up, meetings to attend. Most primaries (not mine) also have deputy heads who do not teach, and some have assistant heads as well.

These senior people do not come into contact with children very often either; indeed, some actively avoid them because they spend most of their time either observing and assessing other teachers, or rigorously checking and marking lesson plans before the lessons are taught. Then they check the summaries of the lessons afterwards.

I haven't a clue why all this is necessary. I am constantly astonished at the depth of planning some teachers are asked to do, and the manner in which they are not allowed to stray, even minutely, from their plans. Presumably, today's education consultants would tell you that rigorous planning down to the finest detail is essential for a successful lesson, but children are human beings with interesting views, and such rigidity gives no opportunity for the lesson to include alternative directions as it goes along.

Personally, I think the harder you lean on teachers, and the more prescriptive you make their work, the more resentful and stressed they become. I appoint teaching staff with great care, and then I place enormous trust in them. I don't look at their planning, I don't monitor them, I don't put them under constant observation, and I don't place demands on how long they stay after school. I then find I'm richly rewarded. They're never absent from school, they work exceptionally hard, and the children love school because our curriculum still retains a huge element of fun.

Which is why the three teachers were hanging upside-down on the last day of our annual poetry week. They thought it would amuse the children, while having a thoroughly good time themselves. Good job the health and safety officer wasn't doing an audit that day, although he'd have been the only adult in the building suffering from stress.

Mike Kent, Headteacher of Comber Grove Primary in Camberwell, south London.

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