Wednesday, February 21, 2007

Stress Week

On discovering that Teachers’ TV are running ‘Stress Week’ I didn’t know whether to squeeze a touchy-feely stress ball or run round the playground laughing manically. Instead as a piece of therapy I decided to write this article.

In a recent Teachers’ TV survey two thirds of the 823 teachers polled felt stressed by teaching, half of them during lesson – the biggest cause being disrespectful pupils.

· Three quarters felt inadequately supported by their head teacher or senior management
· Four out of ten blamed stress on poor resources in the classroom
· 44% said they were stressed due to large class sizes

‘I’m stressed out’ is used so often that it can cheapen or diminish the real meaning of the word. What is stress? Kornhauser (1965) defined it as,

“…everything that deprives the person of purpose and zest, that leaves him with negative feelings about himself, with anxieties, tensions, a sense of lostness, emptiness, and futility.”

Stress can be positive or negative, everyone needs a certain amount of stress in his or her job to improve or advance. Different individuals react in dissimilar ways to stress. A Type A personality may have excellent coping mechanisms and may be able to talk to other work mates (one of the best ways to diffuse stress). A Type B personality may bottle everything up and be unable to express their feelings.

Stress occurs at the point when the magnitude of the stress exceeds the individual’s capacity to resist. Crucially stress is a result of pressure, strain or anxiety over an extended period of time. The symptoms may include – job dissatisfaction, mental ill health, accidents, intentions to leave, absenteeism, excessive drinking and family problems.

Work is probably the most important part of our lives; in his book Working (1972) Studs Terkel commented that,

“It (work) is about a search, too, for daily meaning, as well as daily bread, for recognition as well as cash, for astonishment rather then torpor; in short, for a sort of life rather than a Monday through Friday sort of dying.”

In Britain one of the main causes of stress is the long hours culture a Labour Force Survey in 2005 found that Britons put in 36 million hours of free overtime each year with one in three refusing to take their full holiday entitlement, fearing a backlog of work when they returned. Other key findings were –

· Four million work more than 48 hours a week on average, 700,000 more than in 1992
· Full time employees in the UK work the longest hours in Europe. The average for full timers in the UK is 43.5. In France it’s 38.2 and in Germany 39.9, yet both are more productive than the UK
· Only senior managers did more unpaid overtime than teachers

In June 2005 the UK government led a minority of other countries to block moves to end the ‘opt-out’ from the European Working Time Directive’s 48 hour ceiling on the working week.

The economist Andrew Oswald has conducted research on job satisfaction in the public sector. He found that in the early 1990s there were far higher levels of job satisfaction compared to the private sector, by the end of the decade this gap had been virtually eroded. Oswald cited pressures to meet targets and the introduction of working practices from the private sector.

In response to teacher stress the phone service ‘Teacher Support Line’ was established in September 1999, in the first 18 months fifty suicidal and clinically-depressed teachers sought counselling and the phone hasn’t stopped ringing. In 2006, 6331 teachers called for advice; 36% complained about lack of support from management.

Different surveys have established that teaching is one of the most stressful jobs, in 1996 Travers and Cooper conducted one of the largest surveys into stress among teachers For graduates in general, the normative job satisfaction level was 74.6; for teachers it was only 59.6. A Health and Safety Executive report in 2001 claimed that 6.5 million days were lost every year due to stress. The most stressful job? Teaching.

The most extensive survey on morale was undertaken by the GTC in 2002 in which 70,011 teachers participated. One in three expected to leave teaching within five years in protest at the workload, government interference and poor pupil behaviour. More than half said their morale was lower than when they joined the profession and a third would not go into teaching if they had their time again.

Teachers don’t willingly admit to being under stress, in some schools it’s seen as a sign of weakness – ‘not being able to cope’ or of failure. Management stuck away in their bunkers are usually in denial about poor behaviour and NQTs often don’t receive the support and guidance they need or deserve.

The main danger with stress is that you can become emotionally detached from your job and excessive stress over extended periods of time can lead to burn-out and emotional exhaustion. The symptoms are high depersonalisation, low personal accomplishment and sickness or absenteeism.

Most LEAs have teams of officers that enforce teacher’s attendance they are very good at making anyone with a poor sickness record take early retirement. In one neighbouring school a teacher (who wasn’t a sick note) took time off after being assaulted by a pupil and faced disciplinary action on her return. It was the last straw for the staff and a threatened strike kept the LEA rottweilers at bay.

LEAs have had to take teacher stress much more seriously this came after a stunning legal victory when Alan Barber a former maths teacher from Somerset whose complaints about workload were dismissed by a, “brusque, autocratic and bullying” head was awarded £100,000 in March 2001. He had retired in 1997 on medical advice suffering from depression brought on by his “unremitting” workload of between 61 and 70 hours a week.

Lastly teachers lack of control over their job is another significant cause of stress, they have become deprofessionalised with no autonomy to think for themselves, the curriculum is prescribed by the DfES.

The Teachers’ TV Stress Week seems to be well meaning but ultimately patronising because whilst I can’t claim to have seen every programme there seemed to be a significant input from the ‘behavioural gurus’ (£500 a session nice work if you can get it). I’ve been on those courses and the not-so-subtle message is, ‘If only you weren’t such crap teachers you would be able to control your class’, this from people who have usually deserted the front line years ago.

There never seems to be any recognition that poor pupil behaviour is not the only cause of stress, there’s also the hours; workload; lack of management support; the denigration of the profession by government and media; low pay for a graduate trained career and lack of control over the curriculum. Also the very selective secondary school system doesn’t seem to be considered where we have grammar schools on one side (2% Free School Meals, 0% Special Education Needs) alongside Gasworks Comprehensive (70% FSM, 50% SEN).

I’ve e-mailed this article to Teachers’ TV and challenged them to put it on their web site, will they? Pigs might fly?


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