Finally it is being accepted widely – we are facing a huge mental health crisis in UK schools right now. However, what is yet to be fully understood is the scale to which teachers across the UK are scrambling to improve their own mental health against a backdrop of ever increasing demands and ever decreasing resources.
So why are teachers flocking to doctors and mental health professionals in ever increasing numbers? Are teachers soft? This seems to be the go-to argument for anyone wanting a simple answer to a problem that might be beyond their cognitive reach. The truth is the problem is multilayered and complicated but hope does exist for the teacher that can push away the feelings of guilt to grab at a bit of time and sanity.
To understand the problem we must look into the mentality of teachers. Teachers by definition are often perfectionist. They care about their work. They went into teaching to make a difference to young peoples lives and they are determined to do it. They work a job that has no end point, no finish line and no clear example of good practice. They work towards what they believe to be the priorities of the day only to find they goals have moved, everything has changed and they are out of touch. They desperately remember the acronyms that soon change into other acronyms yet mean exactly the same. They endure the teacher bashing from the politicians, then in the media, leading to the disrespect from parents and then often, increasingly students. They see their methods being standardised and narrowed and their professional judgement distrusted. They have a pervading sense of guilt with every piece of free time they snatch back to spend with friends and family, a guilt that says “you could be doing more”. They never really know when enough is enough. A poor observation to a teacher is an admission a child has been let down. It isn’t “that presentation could have been better” or “you should have completed that task quicker”, it is “Your performance has had a direct negative influence on a child’s development – you should have done more”.
In an industry that never assesses the workload of its staff and values new incentives and ways of working over staff wellbeing (until staff wellbeing becomes the newest incentive), work is added and added to teacher’s workloads without a risk assessment of its implications. This is not always the fault of management – the whim of politicians creates new work in a flash (British Values, changes to primary assessment). There is often an assumption when new work is given that teachers have capacity to take it on. As stated before, teacher’s see their own unused capacity as a stain on their character – they work to the bone.
Humans find motivation in seeing the results of their own work. As teachers we see this in the eyes of a student that finally “gets it”. It is a wonderful moment. But it is fleeting. A teacher thinks of the 29 pairs of eyes who have not shown this. As teachers we take full blame for the problems children face but none for the successes. We know little of the impact we make as those we make the impact upon are often unable to understand it or communicate it. The 6 hours contact time we have a day to change their life is against a backdrop of 18 hours where we do not, yet we take sole blame for their lack of progress. Teachers are inherently people who care, a skill vital for this kind of work but one that means most teachers never give up. The odds are stacked against them and they persevere.
The ever increasing role of schools
Schools have become an accept-all funnel for the problems families face and due to the caring nature of the staff within them, this trend continues. Where there are gaps in services, families turn to schools for support. Financial problems, medical problems, emotional and mental health, parenting classes, police matters – all these issues will be funnelled through the physical school setting to resolution. In today’s classroom, teachers find themselves in more and more roles. They act as counsellors to students who trust them enough to ask for support. They act as inspectors when taking statements about bad behaviour inside and outside of school. They provide guidance to parents on behaviour in the home. They act as a point of reference to many other services families may need. Sometimes teachers have to teach students skills that should have, but haven’t, been taught at home. Teachers act as free private tutors giving after school and lunchtime intervention to students needing extra support.
Which leads to the dilemma of a teacher’s own family. At some point in a teacher’s life they may wish to begin their own family. It is during this time the burnout approach to teaching becomes unsustainable and undesirable to someone who wants to prioritise their own family. In an industry that makes them feel unworthy and selfish for having their own time they push back and guilt creeps in.
An article today points out that half of all teachers have mental health difficulties. Wake up Government. Give teachers more time and they will stay. Give teachers more time and they will work harder doing what they love. Give teachers more time and they will pay it back many times over in results.