It's the season to snap

15th November 2002 at 00:00
With Christmas on the way, Julie McGuinness finds out how to stop yourself going crackers

From feeling stuck at home alone with the marking for another evening, to wanting to take an axe to the photocopier, signs of emotional wear and tear become increasingly common as the term goes on. The autumn term is particularly demanding, partly because of its sheer length but also because it's the season of the big academic push.

The Teacher Support Line reports a steady increase in the number of calls it receives throughout the term; it averages more than 1,000 calls a month, one in four of them about stress. And this may just be the visible tip of the problem. The National Union of Teachers cites stress as a factor in more than 50 per cent of health-related retirements.

While a certain level of pressure can bring out the best in us, an overload sends us spiralling downwards. But amid the relentless pace, it's all too easy to miss the point where you cross the line from creative pressure to debilitating stress. So how can you make sure you stay on the right side until Christmas?

Increasing overall tiredness can be an early warning that you're approaching the danger zone. The effects can be emotional, mental or physical, and manifest themselves as altered behaviour. The particular cocktail of stress reactions varies between individuals, so cultivating self-awareness is essential to spot your personal stress markers.

Jenny Burton, a Year 6 teacher at Yeading junior school in the London borough of Hillingdon, knows she is doing too much when she develops mouth ulcers. She also notices an increased susceptibility to colds and flu.

Mal Ashman, special needs co-ordinator at Kingsway high school in Chester, becomes uncharacteristically intolerant. "When personal anger starts clouding my responses, it's a bad sign," he says.

Keeping stress in check means pinpointing its source before it can engulf everything. Identifying the times when your heart sinks - at the classroom door before a lesson with Year 10; sitting down to mark a pile of coursework; or even a particular time of day - can help you target your coping strategies.

As a former engineer, Mark Quick, a design and technology teacher at an independent school in Devon, is used to deadlines. "The difference with teaching is that they are continuous," he says. "You finish one set of assessments and the next job pops up straight away."

Excessive workload is a major cause, but pressure can come from many other directions, from large classes and disruptive pupils to poor management and looming inspections. Change is also popularly seen as stressful, but Steve Thorp, director of education for services at the Teacher Support Network, says change itself is not the problem. "It's imposed change and its knock-on effect in dictating workload. Lack of control is the real issue."

Mr Thorp says the key to keeping stress at bay lies in regaining control and recognising our choices. "We all have some, even if it's opting to leave the job."

But a few lifestyle adjustments can stop you going under. Start with a few early nights - tiredness leads to mistakes at work that only compound the stress. For Mal Ashman, handling the pressure means keeping detached when dealing with challenging pupils. "Whatever happens, it's not personal. You need to stay calm and let it go through you somehow. But that takes self-control."

Being rigorous about time out is vital. It's a lesson ex-teacher Liz Babbs learned the hard way. As a young teacher, she suffered stress that led to her contracting ME at 29. Now recovered, she has become a writer and in her book The Thing about Stress advises against working flat out. "Regular breaks fuel productivity and creativity," she says.

Jenny Burton preserves time out by designating set work times at weekends, and not bringing work home during the week. "It means being in school by 7.30 each morning, but it's worth it," she says.

Relaxing can be difficult in a profession dogged by perfectionism and a sense of being undervalued. "Teachers can have high expectations of themselves," says Mr Thorp. "They work hard, but feel guilty about what they've not done. And if they take time off, the guilt's still there as they feel they're letting colleagues down." Calling a halt to extra commitments can help rebalance the workload. He advises saying no responsibly. "Ask yourself, 'If I take this on, what can I drop?'" Colleague support is also a valuable resource. Mark Quick says: "New teachers may be so submerged under marking that they are strangers in the staffroom. They miss out on the camaraderie, support and laughter that helps keep things in perspective."

But sympathy and a yoga evening class may not always be enough. When stress originates at the organisational level, communication with management is needed. It may simply mean clarifying what can be delegated and who to approach for help with non-classroom tasks such as photocopying and record-keeping.

Though the issues may run deeper - managers may push work on to others to cope with their own pressures - workload problems can still often be sorted out within school. Union members can seek advice from school representatives on how to negotiate with heads; severe mismanagement unresolved by this route should be referred to the local education authority. Although unions can provide legal back-up at the end of the line, the NUT emphasises that it aims for "prevention rather than cure". The union encourages teachers to identify together what is causing them stress, and approach management corporately.

The Teacher Support Line can also offer help for teachers who want to offload concerns without raising the stakes by enlisting union action. So, although this is a tough term, you do not have to go under. Choose your strategies for survival and you may even be able to join your friends at the pub before the holidays.

The Thing about Stress by Liz Babbs, Lion Publishing, pound;3.99. Teacher Support Line: 08000 562 561

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