Why is teacher wellbeing in such a dire state?

Teachers are exhausted, stressed and demoralised. What's going on? Emma Kell looks at the causes of the wellbeing crisis

Teacher wellbeing: Workload is one of the reasons why teachers are in the grip of a wellbeing crisis

It’s been a crazy fortnight, hence the radio silence. In recent days, I’ve met hundreds of educators in different parts of England

I’ve been inspired daily, challenged in my thinking, moved by the talent, commitment and energy in so many rooms across the country. But there are other moments in the past two weeks that have crept into the edges of my thoughts and lurked with worrying persistence. 

There was the distracted and clearly stressed head whose reaction to a discussion about teacher wellbeing was to suggest that every solution is a sticking plaster – the whole system is in need of upheaval. There was the union rep who said the only way forward is to go back to local authority control of schools. 

And then there was the still-young former teacher who said, “Isn’t it simply the case that the job isn’t doable any more?”

My response to each of these concerns wasn’t nearly as slick as I might have hoped. Because, of course, each has a point.

I fear that Ofsted has indeed misunderstood human nature fundamentally – if schools know they’re going to be inspected, they’ll bust a gut to make sure they’re seen in the best light. If the goalposts get moved (even if it’s in the right sort of direction) change will inevitably create extra work

Many may sympathise with the desire to go back to local authority control of schools. But, with the first fragmentation of the system, this became nigh-on impossible. And to pat that former teacher on the shoulder and tell her that it’s not all bad, when she clearly made the difficult decision not to pursue teaching, would be just plain patronising.

The teacher wellbeing crisis

It’s (almost) enough to make you want to pack up your highlighters and gluesticks and go and live in a cave somewhere.

Then somebody passes you the Education Support Teacher Wellbeing Index to read. With my research hat on, I’ll say it is the most thorough and rigorous report into teacher wellbeing I’ve ever seen, and this must be applauded. 

It moves the true issues facing so many of our teachers right into the unavoidable glare of press and policymakers. It takes these issues from all sorts of angles, looking at all sorts of education professionals. And it uses thorough and credible tools to look at the issue, making comparisons at every stage with the general population.

With my teacher hat on, it actually hurt to read it. I had to do so in small chunks, regularly walking away. It is, frankly, a devastating indictment of the state of our profession for so many who’ve made the decision to dedicate their careers to it. 

The stats have been explored at great length already, so I’ll leave you to mull over the vulnerability of school leaders, the rates of anxiety that are almost double the general population’s, the reluctance to voice any mental health problems at work, the presenteeism, the high rates of absence, excessive workload, the negative impact of culture on the individual…

So, what’s going on here? Based on my research and my contact over the past three years with thousands of education professionals, here are the four key factors I believe to be at play:

1. The infantilisation of teachers

We have deprived many of our teachers of the very autonomy and self-efficacy that is actually at the root of wellbeing at work – it is human nature to feel that we’re doing a good job.

To be regularly reprimanded and patronised erodes teachers' integrity, autonomy and sense of making a difference – the key reason why many teachers enter the profession.

But, in the name of consistency, much of teaching has been reduced to box-ticking and number-crunching. In the name of consistency, teachers are being told exactly which words to use and when with students, how to stand in a classroom, how to arrange their desks, exactly how many rewards they can and must give each lesson, how to style their hair, how to hide their tattoos… 

They are, essentially, being deprived of all capacity to make professional and informed and creative choices.

2. Presenteeism

This is referred to constantly through the report – the need to forge on, as your stomach revolts or your lungs collapse or your mental health leaves you barking senselessly, if not at your students, then at least at your family when you get home. 

But it’s more than this. It’s also the badge of honour of working a 70-hour week, receiving a thousand emails a day, sleeping for three hours a night.

I look back at my own darker days of teaching and want to kick myself for tacitly condoning it all by playing along (and effectively losing out on a year of my children’s lives).

3. Pointless workload

“Teachers aren’t lazy!” I cry from the front of every room I stand in these days. No teacher I know minds setting aside a few minutes of an evening to call a parent to say how proud they should be of their child for an act of kindness, or collecting interesting resources for their students during their summer holiday. 

It’s the “Look, I’m doing my job!” paperwork that, once again, erodes trust and autonomy. Take a photo of the autumn walk and annotate it for your next line-management meeting. Present the readily available data in a different format (consistency, you see). Spend an hour on a 60-page handbook nobody will ever read.

4. Target-driven culture and the performativity agenda

We are currently caught in a system where our very bread and butter – the bums on students’ seats – are reliant on grades provided by our inspectorate. 

For good grades, we need good exam results, and for exam results, we need interventions. And then, quickly, we are working our teachers from first thing in the morning until last thing at night, through weekends and into holidays. This Catch-22 will only drive more teachers away.
 

So, what’s to be done?

There are lots of us ready and willing to advise on the issues and ways forward. The hundreds of inspirational people who are running wonderful schools need to keep shouting as loudly as they can about how they can make it work without reducing their staff to shrivelled husks. 

And the rest of us? We need to be louder, too. Grumpier, if necessary. It would be lovely to live long enough to see our own grandchildren flourish in school. Sacrificing oneself at the altar of unreasonable and destructive expectations is simply not worth it. 

Put away the Sunday-afternoon marking. Go for a walk with the dog instead. Unsynch your emails from your home phone. Say, “no” – or “What would you like me to take off my to-do list to make room for this?” Insist on the support and mentoring you’re entitled to. 

Is it easy? Of course it’s not. But the alternative really doesn’t bear thinking about – for individual schools and teachers. And for our children, who deserve happy, healthy teachers.

Dr Emma Kell is a secondary teacher in north-east London and author of How to Survive in Teaching. She tweets at @thosethatcan

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