World of the overworkers

10th May 1996 at 01:00
John Simms wonders what message stressed teachers give children about the adult world

In a recent TES column (March 29), Hilary Wilce wrote about teachers' unreasonable whingeing over the stress they suffer at work. It's a tough world, Ms Wilce claimed, and really teachers do themselves no favours by expecting special consideration. We all now live in the "Land of the Stressed".

Perhaps. But it seems to me she missed the point in a fairly significant and alarming way.

Everyone in the trade knows that teaching is a stressful occupation. Dealing with young, developing and diverse personalities day after day, directing the reluctant - it's a recipe for some discord. Teachers are not stupid, they know this, and accept it as part of the job.

This "stress" can even be part of the job's attraction. The prospect of teaching acquiescent children, who always agree with the teacher and treat each other with consideration, is too terrible for many of us to contemplate. Teachers want children to be alive, alert, challenging. We expect this, and respond.

But the kind of stress Ms Wilce writes about is a different animal. This is the stress that manifests itself in colleagues who are always exhausted. They have difficulty in sleeping, get things out of proportion and blow up over trivial incidents. They lose confidence in what they are doing and no matter how hard they work it's never enough. There is a constant sense that events are slipping out of control. Health and personal relationships suffer. Gradually the light of optimism is extinguished.

What drives anyone into this position is usually a combination of factors, but some of the causes are well known.

Teachers feel it is impossible to keep up with the rate of change and the number of "innovations" which have been cascading into schools thick and fast for almost a decade.

Other factors are: the constant public denigration of teachers' efforts; the pressure for better results, to make more with even less; the flood of rights given to parents without the corresponding share of responsibilities; a government which uses education as a whipping boy whenever it wants to deflect attention from itself; the creation of a marketplace mentality in schools, where parents and children are encouraged to think of teachers merely as providers of qualifications; the use of industrial production criteria in assessing success; the "threat" of inspection; job insecurity. The list goes on.

I've witnessed two colleagues crack up under the strain. That is, they totally lost the ability to face the classroom. I found one of them sobbing in the gents one morning. These are extreme cases. But for every one who reaches the point of no return, there are many others who quietly get more and more wound up with stress. Then their ability to do the job is impaired. The build-up to this condition can be so gradual that the teacher hardly recognises it is happening. In the end, it seems normal to wake in the morning feeling exhausted and demoralised.

Is there a school in the country where the daily absence list does not get longer as term wears on? Stress makes minor infections last longer and more difficult to overcome. There is grudging admiration for those who manage to "escape" into other, non-teaching, jobs.

It seems, according to Ms Wilce, "Most jobs worth doing are tough in their different ways, and getting tougher." Everyone, then, can expect to suffer stress, whatever work they do. If teachers think they should not expect this, they are not living in the real world.

But the question remains. How can teachers suffering from this kind of stress be the positive, motivating force in the classroom that the job requires? What long-term effects will stressed teachers have on the children they teach?

Children learn as much from how a teacher behaves as from what they are formally taught. They pick up nuances of social intercourse by observing how adults respond. If some of these adults are so stressed that they can barely operate as human beings at all, what message about the adult world is that conveying to children?

If we want chiildren to be influenced in a positive, balanced and creative way, it seems only common sense that schools should be places where the qualities of optimism, balance and creativity are employed.

I am not arguing for a return to a mythical stress-free golden age. Teachers, like all workers, should be accountable for the job they do. Innovation and development should be part of the way forward. But it is folly to think we can ignore the effects that such changes have on those required to implement them.

Do we really want our schools staffed by people who feel trapped in jobs they don't want to do, and who are looking for a way out? And will anyone, young and talented, observing all this, ever consider joining the profession?

John Simms lives in the West Midlands

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