Stress is in the eye of the beholder

19th January 2007 at 00:00
We're stressed out. We're frazzled. We're cracking up. The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse are galloping about the corridors and we're cowering under our desks in the throes of a traumatic episode. We are, in short, teachers.

A recent survey of 400 secondary teaching staff found that 90 per cent of respondents described their jobs as varying from "quite" to "very"

stressful. More worryingly, half of those surveyed reported feelings of hopelessness or worry, and a third described symptoms of depression more usually found in the patients of mental hospitals.

It is depressing when you recognise the accuracy of some of this. We all know colleagues who have suffered the horrors of depression and stress-related illness over the years. Monday morning doesn't find too many of us bouncing out of bed at the prospect of another week of "Pedagogy is Fun". The problem of stress is real and it is taking its toll.

But does it do us any good to have ourselves represented as stress victims? Does it help to see ourselves as needing support, intervention and the paper hankies of a counsellor? Maybe it's just my generation, but I can't help but feel uncomfortable about some of the things I've been reading in the papers.

I always get nervous about studies that base their pronouncements on how people have filled in questionnaires. I'm not sure whether it's cynicism or naivety, but isn't it possible that what people say might not be entirely accurate? (Remember the "study" on sexual activity a number of years back, which asked teenage boys how many had had sex: the 90 per cent positive response was received by a representative teenage girl with the acute analysis of "aye right".) Nonetheless, we don't imagine the stress: it genuinely is there. But could it be more a product of how we perceive things, rather than the objective realities we have to face?

The key to the issue lies, I believe, in one word: perspective. It is so easy to lose it (in so many senses of that term) in teaching. We're under pressure from all quarters, and there's little sense that relief will come any time soon. But we need to remember that, however important the job is that we do, if we get it wrong, no one dies.

And we're not alone. We have colleagues who can help carry the blame, and a set of parents who have to own up to some responsibility, not forgetting the young people themselves. In fact, isn't it the young person who makes the choices - work or chat, homework or PlayStation, fun today or achievement tomorrow?

Maybe we need to accept that if we turn up and do the best we can, and our charges do the same, then that's all that anyone can ask? The stress isn't going to go away. But perhaps the next time someone looks at us with that quizzical expression which can only mean "what the hell do you think you're doing?", we should answer: "My best, actually."

Bob Cassells is depute head at Hermitage Academy, Helensburgh

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