Stress factor 451

10th January 2003 at 00:00
Worried that teaching might damage your mental health? Irene Dalton on the latest studies

Emotions of Teacher Stress. By Denise Carlyle and Peter Woods. Trentham Books pound;14.99

Work Stress. By David Wainwright and Michael Calnan, Open University Press pound;17.99

Breakdown: the facts about stress in teaching. By John Cosgrove. Routledge Falmer pound;11.99

The first title is not a book for the faint-hearted; some of the case studies are horrific. There is practical help for the newly qualified or the junior teacher in the last chapter, particularly if you can read the signs, or change your job in time. It is, however, principally a book to be read by those in power in education. Fundamentally, it exposes the current malaise in teaching - the split between the values of those who determine what teachers should do and the values of teachers themselves.

This book should encourage those who work in schools which have retained a "human" approach to managing education, continuing to place a high value on people, listening to what they feel as much as monitoring how they "perform" and centring on the needs of the child to hang in there.

Those who believe in "tough management" and "getting rid" of "failing" teachers, whether at Ofsted, government or school level, should read it but probably won't: they can't afford to unless they are prepared to change.

Carlyle and Woods examine teacher stress in the context of emotional involvement with students and colleagues.

In the earlier chapters, they use case studies of individual teachers to illustrate the substantial background of research into teacher stress, examining its origins - disempowerment; management pressures; lack of respect; climates of fear and the "emotional labour" involved in teaching.

They go on to describe the downward spiral towards the inability to cope professionally and personally and explain "bottoming out" as recognising the situation and seeking help.

Finally, they show how some reconstruct their identity, by finding emotional balance in their lives. Sadly, more than half of the people involved have done so outside teaching.

The implications for the management of the education system are obvious. People operate best, and perform to a higher level, in supportive, humane, work environments. What minister, in today's macho political climate is brave enough to acknowledge the importance of a "no-blame" culture, and the need to admit that "we all make mistakes", so central to this book? The underlying message is that unless things change, too close an emotional identification with the job - unless you are working in the right school - will damage your health.

David Wainwright and Michael Calnan's Work Stress is a more technical but accessible book about workplace stress in general, for those who want to read into the subject deeply. It combines personal accounts of stress with the research background to the phenomenon. It will be useful to those who have to deal with stressed colleagues, and who have an interest in prevention, in examining the extent to which the acceptance of stress forces people to endure it without expecting relief.

It explores the difficulty of maintaining one's self-identity while seeking help and the resistance many have to accepting the need for help. For those interested in the importance of having mental illness - at whatever level - accepted as treatable, in the way that physical ailments may be treatable, this is a thought-provoking work.

In Breakdown (published in 2001 and previously reviewed in Friday magazine), John Cosgrove, examines the reasons why stress has, over the past 15 years, become such a factor in teachers leaving the profession. He traces the cost of the acceleration of change over the past 20 years and points out the huge problems for the profession of not only being asked to deliver the impossible, but to manage more initiatives without anyone in government addressing the realism of these expectations and the fundamental need to think about the sum and effects of the current demands before applying extra pressure.

The book ends with a powerful chapter on what the Government must do if teaching is to be a successful profession. Yet another treatise arguing for a sensible approach before the system collapses. But who will listen?

Breakdown is worth reading, for those with many years in the profession and those starting out. It's a good antidote to the guilt we often feel when we can't manage all we are asked to do, when in our hearts we know we have already done our best.

Irene Dalton is head of Wombwell high school, Barnsley

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