Many schools no longer appear to value teacher wellbeing.
A typical attitude today is reflected by the experience of one my Facebook Group members, who asked in a recent interview what the school did to promote teacher wellbeing ..
Management curtly replied “once a week, pastries are available in the staff room” .. and changed the subject.
(She decided not to pursue the opportunity!)
Many teachers today feel that their health and wellbeing is being ignored, while schools increase workload unrealistically .. obsessing over incremental data based 'improvements'.
In this post I want to share an accurate way for teachers to measure their own wellbeing, so you can protect your mental health in the face of unrealistic demands from your school employer.
Are Working Conditions for Teachers Getting Worse?
The short answer in many schools, is yes.
The ‘modern classroom’ is very different to the one I joined 20 years ago.
In the past, working days were shorter for most teachers and we had much more support in doing difficult jobs. Our working time was largely spent finding creative solutions to our classroom problems.
Fast-forward to today and the burden of data, targets, and documenting ‘proof’ of progress, dominate the job ..
.. with teachers being held accountable for many things that are effectively beyond our control.
The student experience is also very different, with a much greater emphasis on formal assessment, many fewer opportunities to develop creatively – and an unhealthy pressure for even very young children to ‘perform’.
Our classroom jobs have in many cases been broken ..
From the amount of marking we are expected to do, the number of assessment points we manage, significant enlargement of the curricula we teach – and the number of unrealistic targets which we have meet ..
.. the job effectively sets many teachers (and our students) up to fail.
Could Teaching Damage my Mental Health?
Many teaching jobs now require staff to carry a considerable personal burden to do even an acceptable job.
This has a very real cost for many teachers .. from the personal sacrifices necessary to manage impossible workloads, to health problems caused by trying to live up to unrealistic expectations.
It disappoints me greatly that the profession actively avoids talking about the damage many school jobs are doing to teachers’ health and wellbeing.
One example is educators suffering damage to their voice, due to teaching in school.
I had over 10 years of recurrent laryngitis in successive teaching jobs – and at no point did anyone from school try to help me .. even though my problems were plainly caused by my working environment.
Instead I was chastised for absence, enforced upon me by my doctor, who stated that I would permanently damage my voice if I just kept ‘pushing through’.
But at least when I was ill, it was obvious to my managers how bad it was.
Mental health issues are less obvious to an outside observer – and potentially much more damaging to those suffering from them.
What are the Early Symptoms of Mental Illness in Teaching Staff?
Typical early symptoms associated with developing a mental health problem include:
Anxiety, fear, stomach pain, frequent headaches, irritability, having a consistently negative attitude to problems, and difficulty sleeping.
All too often these early warning signs are ignored by teaching staff – too concerned with protecting their jobs by trying to meet heavy workload expectations.
School managers make things worse by creating a culture where the sharing of problems by teaching staff is actively discouraged.
In many schools, teachers job security is genuinely at risk if they speak up against management, or show 'weakness' in the face of their workload.
This leaves many teaching staff damaging themselves in silence.
It is this perfect storm of unrealistic expectations and soulless management, within which a teacher mental health crisis is unfolding in many schools.
If you are concerned that you are reaching burnout in your classroom job, use my online tool below to assess your symptoms - and learn how to avoid burning out in your job:
Is my Job at Risk if I Develop a Mental Health Problem in School?
Sadly in many schools denial is the go to 'solution' managers prescribe for teachers having mental health issues at work ..
.. and your job can be at risk, even if you are genuinely ill.
Many teachers are forced out of their classroom jobs by a heartless application of the staff sickness and absence procedure – with zero help or support available for work-related illnesses.
Instead of support from senior leaders – all too often teachers are met with an insistence that unrealistic workload expectations and accountability pressure, are ‘non-negotiable’.
Many teachers work unsustainable hours and neglect their own health as a direct result.
How sadly ironic is it that in a ‘caring profession’ – so little help is available for staff doing an incredibly challenging job?
The management of teaching staff in many schools is professionally negligent – and more schools and districts should be prosecuted for it.
If you find yourself with medical problems which you know need treatment, engage the help of your doctor and teaching union.
It is important that you are completely aware of the policies and procedures of your school or district - to protect your rights and job security, while you recover.
How Can I Measure my Own Mental Health at School?
Because many school employers don't appear to care about the health of their staff, it is important that teachers take responsibility for monitoring and managing our own health at work.
Failing to do so can have dire consequences – both personally and professionally.
If you are a teacher working in difficult conditions ..
How ‘damaged’ do you currently feel, working your classroom job?
It is a difficult question to answer.
One day we can fly through our day – busy as hell – but happy with the positive difference we are making. The next it can feel like everything is going wrong, and everybody is working against us.
One day we can work every hour we are awake trying to live up to the unrealistic expectations of those leading us .. the next it feels like even the simplest things are a struggle.
That was certainly the case for me as I worked in an impossible job a few years back.
As a result of management’s lack of care for my health and wellbeing, and the impossible expectations placed on me .. burnout and mental health issues crept up on me.
They resulted in me leaving my job with nowhere else to go – and no job to pay my bills.
If I had recognised my symptoms as I progressed towards an unsustainable situation – I could have prevented burnout, and planned a less disruptive exit from the classroom.
So how can teachers recognise the signs that they are pushing too hard?
The Mental Health Continuum
You can monitor your own mental health by regularly measuring how you feel.
A great tool for teachers to use to do this, is the Mental Health Continuum below:
The mental health continuum is a model which we can use to measure how we feel on a day-by-day or week-by-week basis.
Your position on the continuum on one day might be different to your position on another. But recognising the patterns in how you feel over time, is the best way to monitor your own mental health at work.
Using the continuum - ask yourself questions like ..
- How do you sleep?
- How is your mood on the average day?
- How positive are you?
- What are your energy levels like?
- How much of a life do you have alongside your job?
- How in control of your thoughts are you?
- Do you 'escape' with alcohol, drugs or gambling?
Regularly experiencing symptoms in the 'Injured' and 'Ill' categories of the continuum above, indicates a health problem which is unlikely to get better without attention.
What Could Happen if I Keep Working in School with a Mental Health Problem?
Most teachers know staff who have left because of an inability to manage the stress they feel, or the unrelenting pressure of the work we do.
But what does this actually mean for those affected?
On one level, absences from school become necessary as people develop anxieties about even the smallest parts of their working lives.
When symptoms get worse, doing even the simplest things at home become impossible.
An inability to look after yourself, the complete breakdown in your perception of reality, or an otherworldly psychotic episode - are not untypical symptoms suffered by those who leave symptoms untreated.
For a reality check of how these problems develop and how bad they can get, read this Observer article on the Guardian website - which follows the stories of 5 people affected by mental illness.
Suffering from a serious mental health problem will have a huge impact on both your professional and family life - and can affect you for years into the future.
It is far better to see issues coming and do something about them ahead of time.
How do I Prevent a Mental Health Problem Caused by my Teaching Job?
So what can teachers do to recover from a period of mental illness, or prevent their health getting worse?
If the reason you experience these symptoms is related to your classroom job ..
.. it is important that you try to change your working conditions before you develop a more serious problem.
These 9 suggestions will help teachers needing to treat a growing mental health issue ..
1. Talk to Someone About How you Feel
Mental health problems get worse when they are ignored.
It is important you find someone to talk to about the difficulties you are having - a partner, parent, friend, family member, medical professional - or your employer.
Talking to your line manager or administrator about how you feel, and suggesting ways to you would better manage your job, gives them the chance to understand.
I understand from being in this position myself, the difficulty of doing so without encouraging additional pressure from overzealous management.
It often seems easier to keep the difficulties we are having quiet.
But whether you talk to your employer or not, it is important to share how you feel with someone. Keeping things to yourself is likely to make things worse longer term.
2. Take Time Off Work
Taking a self administered 'mental health day' is a good idea occasionally - especially if you recognise that you are suffering due to the job you do.
In many cases modern teaching jobs are broken - don't let them break you as a result - plan 'rest days' if you feel you need them.
Be honest with yourself, recognise when you are struggling - and give yourself the space to recover - or preserve a healthy balance in your life.
The school sickness and absence policy states you are allowed occasional time off after all .. just be very aware of the points at which your absence becomes subject to disciplinary action.
3. Talk to a Medical Professional About your Symptoms
If you recognise that you are suffering from an ongoing problem, you should talk with a doctor or medical professional who will assess your symptoms and offer professional advice.
In the first instance time-off work will be recommended, and it is important for teachers to take this seriously.
Schools apply sickness and absence procedures rigorously for budgetary reasons, and many teachers feel under pressure to attend even when we don't feel able to.
Bear in mind that a few days off to get your head together is better than a longer absence because your symptoms have been ignored.
4. A Course of Prescribed Medication from your Doctor
A doctor might decide to prescribe anti-depressant medication to make dealing with symptoms more bearable.
It is important to realise that such medication often doesn't work straight away, and it might be some weeks before you feel different. It can also take several attempts to find a medication which is effective in reducing an individuals symptoms.
The purpose of medication like this is to give you relief from your symptoms so you can treat your underlying problems. Often counselling is the best way to do this - and availability / waiting times for treatment like this can be significant.
As a result, many teachers find themselves taking medication to mitigate the demands of their classroom jobs - with no long term solution to their underlying problems.
This can create a dependency on prescribed medication, on top of any issues teachers already have.
5. Counselling or Group Therapy
Counselling or group therapy is a good way to understand your situation and start to deal with the underlying reasons behind mental health problems.
There are often groups set up locally to help people with specific problems. It is worth doing a search of your area to find out if this kind of support is available to you.
Knowing you are not alone with your problems - while it doesn't change the situation you might be in - does help you feel better about facing it.
Understanding the reasons behind your problems, and developing coping strategies is an essential part of recovery.
6. Reducing Teaching Hours / Going Part Time
Many teachers find a reduction in their working hours creates a healthier balance in their working lives - and employers are supposed to take Part Time or flexible working applications more seriously nowadays.
I have found this to be a mixed bag however, with some school employers rigidly insisting that they couldn't possibly contemplate a job share.
Many teachers who have achieved a reduction in their hours say the expectation of their employer is often that they should still work on their 'day off' ..
.. and that the reduction in their timetable (and salary) is not reflected by a reduction in administrative tasks or the expectation to attend meetings or after school events.
Teachers working a reduced timetable will have to assertively protect their time, remind their employer of the reason for their reduced salary - and be very clear about when they are working and when they are not.
If you want advice about how to make an application for reduced hours .. this TES discussion is helpful reading.
7. Meditation and Mindfulness
I know many teachers who have developed their ability to cope better with the stress and pressure they work under - using mindfulness and meditation.
Before you dismiss this suggestion as mumbo jumbo - or something which you have briefly tried with no noticeable impact ..
.. it's important to realise much of the 'teaching' out there is flawed or incomplete.
Trying to be mindful without meditation often makes little to no impact - and understanding the relationship between the two practises is important to realise the benefits of a happier, healthier life.
Personally I am a better partner, father and friend as a result of regular meditation practise.
I owe my recovery to developing my understanding of how my mind works - and the mental space this created for me.
For teachers wanting to investigate this further I have written a beginners guide for educators, available here.
8. Connecting with Others to Feel Less Alone
If you find that counselling or group therapy is either not available to you - or inappropriate for you .. consider joining my Facebook Group of teachers supporting each other through difficult times.
The Leave Teaching .. and Smile group is an international group of educators whose honestly and empathy continues to surprise me.
Many members have benefited from reading posts from others in similar situations.
In our connected world there is no need to feel alone with your problems, even if all you do is lurk and read the posts of others.
You are welcome, whether you plan to leave the classroom - have left already .. or if you are simply having doubts about your ability to teach until retirement.
9. Leaving Your Teaching Job
Ultimately the best solution might be to change the job you do.
Considering what else to do professionally can seem overwhelming to teachers who have taught for years.
But it is important to realise the transferability of many of the skills you have refined in the course of your classroom career.
I have written a post to help you to identify the skills you have - and the options open to you if you are looking at alternatives to your classroom job ..
I sincerely hope - whatever your personal situation - that you can find a heathy balance between your work and personal life.
You should not need to work in a job where you feel trapped, or taken advantage of.
Using the strategies, resources and links I have included above, you should be able monitor and preserve your mental health.
Good luck finding your own healthy balance,
I think teaching is the only profession where you are slowly walked into the fire with a gun to your head!
From the outset you are given an increasing burden to carry and when the final straw is placed, you are blamed for not being resilient enough. If anyone put working animals through such conditions, they’d be given a prison sentence.
To anyone feeling the pressure, stop and get support immediately.
Hi Anna, Thank you for your comment – I completely agree.
Happily, not all schools are exam factories where teaching staff are put under ridiculous pressure to achieve unrealistic targets.
For anyone in the ‘injured’ or ‘ill’ categories on most days, it is important to get support before you need it.