In July I was asked by the Guardian to contribute a piece on teacher stress from a psychological perspective. I think it was given to me at the last minute and the original deadline of two weeks was then reduced to five days, meaning that I was working to a tight deadline for the first time since writing for the Guardian Teacher Network blog. One thing I knew was that writing about stress in teaching requires a very thick skin as, for some reason, once you begin to offer advice or explanations you are immediately set upon for not understanding the situation and, indeed, the comments section soon became a mixture of positive support and aggressive defense. To be honest I think I got off very lightly, perhaps because I’m still a fully functioning teacher rather than an educational consultant or ‘former’ teacher as many other contributors to the topic have been. Without being too critical of the profession, I often find many teachers are more content with telling other people how stressful the job is than trying to rectify the situation themselves.
In the end the deadline was met but it took another week for the piece to reach the blog. Strangely, a blog post I referenced in my piece from a headteacher in York was (re)-published in the Guardian a week before my piece on stress. The link was then erased from my blog post which appeared the following week. I’ve become used to editorial slicing and dicing over the past year or so but for some reason this irked me more the usual. I think that is was probably a combination of factors that annoyed me, including the chopping and changing of deadlines, the delay in publishing a piece I had to find extra time to complete and the publication of material that I had originally linked to (and the deletion of the aforementioned link).
So, as a kind of antidote to my irrational annoyance I have included the original post below. The Guardian version can be found here.
The psychology of stress and how teachers can manage it
(First published on the Guardian Teacher Network blog, 8 July 2013)
Despite much discussion concerning the nature of workplace stress, our jobs are getting more and not less stressful. While stress certainly isn’t unique to the teaching profession, working in schools does throw up a number of situations that are unique to education while the current climate of uncertainty and criticism further undermines the professionalism and confidence of many hard working teachers. Ofsted inspections, changes to pay and conditions and new appraisal systems all add to the feeling that we are far from in control. Identifying those things that we can control and those that we cannot could help to prevent daily hassles from becoming major problems – but we can’t do it on our own.
Stress is a natural biological response and back in the day when wild animals roamed freely and early humans spent much of their time hunting and gathering the body’s response to stress was vital for our survival. Stress allows our biological system to prepare itself to do something – either attack (fight) or run away (flight). Acute stress represents that immediate panic which drives the fight or flight response but if this stress continues we begin to suffer from a more chronic condition, this can not only impact on us psychologically but can also lower our immune system, making us more vulnerable to physical illness.
Psychologically, the stress we feel is often based on our individual perception of a situation and this is why some people appear to suffer more than others. American psychologist Julian Rotter describes this as our ‘locus of control’ or the extent to which an individual feels that they have control over a situation. Locus of control can be internal, in that we believe we have control over our lives, or external, where we believe that the environment controls events. Realistically most of us fall between these two dimensions but we may favour a particular one. Unfortunately, our locus of control is very difficult to change because it probably developed through a combination of genetics and early socialisation.
Some things we can influence more than others and quite often the trick is in identifying which is which and concentrating our efforts on the things we can actually do something about. Constantly striving for the elusive work-life balance can often increase these levels of stress and for some it might be more appropriate to abandon the quest altogether.
Sadly, many of the stress management techniques on offer simply aren’t practical in a school setting. There is little to suggest that any organisation that runs after hours yoga classes or adventure training days is contributing anything to the reduction of stress in any real terms – the main issue faced by teachers is workload and the work will still be there even after the yoga. While cognitive techniques like reframing the problem work for some people, others find that a more practical response is required. Similarly, stress management tends to treat the symptoms of stress rather than identifying and tackling its causes. More practical perhaps are what are called ‘daily uplifts’, those little treats we give ourselves at points during the day – everything from a five minute sit-down with a cup of tea to a ten minute walk at lunchtime.
If workload is the main reason for our levels of stress and anxiety then our efforts are best directed towards finding ways of taking control of it and making it more manageable. Reducing workload is easier said than done but remember that asking for help isn’t a sign of weakness and there are many resources out there to lighten the load (for example, you can take the hassle out of lesson planning by using the 5-minute lesson plan). Getting involved with the growing number of teachers using Twitter for support and advice is also a simple and free way of discovering that you’re not alone.
The benefits (be they financial or in terms of academic achievement) of a healthy and happy school should be obvious to all and headteachers who are serious about long-term investment in their staff must play a major role in tackling stress through prevention rather than management. If a major cause for stress in the feeling that we are losing control, how can headteachers attempt to restore that sense of control? Involving staff in decisions that impact on them can help. Training and professional development is an area where teachers often feel they are wasting valuable time so consulting with staff about what they feel they need hands much of the control back. What about those meetings that appear to be scheduled for no good reason? If they are necessary, keep them brief; if they aren’t then find another way of getting the information to all relevant parties. Effective use of IT systems can ensure that banks of teaching resources are held centrally, reducing the possibility that staff are spending time producing resources that are already available. Small things are just as effective; individual praise for a job well done costs nothing but studies have found that the rewards are high. Those headteachers embarking on a school-wide wellbeing initiative could find a great deal of inspiration from this little gem written by John Tomsett, a headteacher from York.
Finally, remember that what we really need to understand in that successfully tackling stress isn’t just about individuals, it’s about the whole school – and this requires a serious combined initiative, not just another box to tick.