Apparently, poker players have tells. Tells are those small mannerisms, gestures or idiosyncratic tics which alert other players to their state of mind. The behaviour reflects the mind, whether conscious or not. And that is not only true of poker players. We all change in response to our circumstances. That’s one of the signs of life. Even a plant does as much.
Teachers have tells, too. Those tells show externally when the stress is building up inside. I am a non-smoker but, at certain times of the year, I notice the smoking area becomes busier than others. The fellowship of the fag seems to have a stronger draw when stress is high. In one work room, we always knew when one teacher was stressed because she’d snap at everyone who was unfortunate enough to be around her.
Another colleague I recall used to speak to herself without cease. It was easy to know what she was stressed about since she was telling us all the time.
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We all know that teaching can be a very odd job. In the staffrooms where I’ve worked, sometimes I’ve been part of conversations where people have compared their various symptoms of stress. Skin conditions flare up. Eyes start to twitch. A shocking number of teachers are on prescribed medication. Even before the pandemic hit, there was a five-fold increase in the number of teachers on antidepressants in this country. We, as a profession, are somewhat ravaged.
Obviously, we don’t have the stress that would be part of a soldier’s experience, or that of an emergency nurse, or a thousand other people in hundreds of other situations.
But in 2015, Sir Cary Cooper, of the University of Manchester, suggested that teaching is in the top three most stressful occupations, alongside healthcare and the uniformed services. The reasons for this are widely rehearsed – workload, student behaviour, over-scrutiny, pay and so on. What is more worryingly immediate is the actual physical and mental effects of stress that you see in the country’s staffrooms day in and day out.
What do we do about the teachers who have stress reactions? A focus on them as individuals can very quickly start to feel like it’s tipping over into a matter of capability; the problem is localised within them. But clearly this is not necessarily so. A systemic problem will always reveal itself in individual cases. There’s a famous quotation by Archbishop Desmond Tutu: “There comes a point where we need to stop just pulling people out of the river. We need to go upstream and find out why they're falling in.”
If we want to make teaching a profession that is attractive to enter and possible to sustain through a whole career, we need to address the root causes of stress.
At the end of 2018, the Health and Safety Executive published the talking toolkit, aimed at addressing work-related stress in schools. This was all well and good but all it fundamentally did was shift the focus from an individual level to an institution level. That is good as far as it goes – and an institution level approach is surely a positive development. But it is not as if the institutions themselves are free from outside stressors. It is no good checking that the walls are all sound if the weight of the roof is simply disproportionate.
I am not even sure that Ofsted could address the external issue, or the government, come to that. Because I think it might be an issue to do with our society as whole. Until there are changes in society in social attitudes towards the young, towards the family, towards the value of education, towards the respect due to all, then we are simply rearranging the furniture. If our economic system is piling stress on young people, if family breakdown is distracting them, if the press is attacking teachers, if politicians use education as a pawn, if teachers are being denigrated, then however good a manager is, however caring a college is, however light-touch Ofsted is, the pressure will remain.
I fear that education is something of a canary in the coal mine. What is happening in schools and colleges will soon enough ripple out through wider society, since this is the seedbed, the nursery, the starting line for the generation who, tomorrow, will be working and leading and having families of their own.
And that is why it is so important right now to deal with teacher stress. Dealing with it later will be too late, when later is being determined today.
Meanwhile, teachers will continue on the antidepressants, they will keep using the skin creams and lotions, they will stay awake through the sleeping hours, they will argue with their neglected spouses, until they leave the job in the droves that we are beginning to see. We teachers deserve better. Because our society deserves better.
David Murray is an English teacher at City of Stoke-on-Trent Sixth Form College