I sat down to write this and had to start over many times. I’m not sure how to go about explaining why I left teaching in a way that doesn’t come off as judgy, or blamey or a woe-is-me tale. I suppose many educators feel like this.
Teaching seems to be the one profession everyone feels qualified to have an opinion on, seeing as we all went through a school at some point. When I first started teaching, I had creative license and freedom to plan my days with my class. If a kid turned up with a story about how the cat had had kittens that weekend, we could embrace that teachable moment and spend 20 minutes talking about mammals and pets. If I had a few chapters left of the shared novel, we could shift something else and finish it off if we liked. As time went on, this freedom of professional judgement was eroded.
Classrooms now are full of swaps for different subjects, children leaving for extra curricular activities during the day, or specific times to access valuable resources (like computers, libraries or sports equipment.) I don’t want to seem ungrateful, because I love that children have new ways to learn and new environments to do it in; I just wish it hadn’t come at a cost to teacher’s time and our ability to use our judgement on what works for our children.
I worked in a school where we had a large space for co-operative teaching, where the syndicate swapped children around based on their levels. I can imagine some people’s eyes glazing over, so I will try to paint a picture instead.
Imagine a large hall-like space with three teachers in different areas, each reading with a small group of children. Scattered around are more groups of children, some on laptops, some on tablets, some with board and card games, some sitting in corners together working in their exercise books. You might imagine its harmonious, a buzz of children learning, both independently and supported by teachers. Unfortunately, for the majority, this is not the case.
The teachers with those groups have about 15 minutes to get through their reading, before swapping to another group in order to meet and assess them, meeting them all over a week period. Questioning, checking, hearing children read, explaining and clarifying, and all that intense learning that happens in a guided reading situation. But one of those kids forgot their book in the other class, so they have to run and get it. That’s 2 minutes gone. You can’t really start without them, or you’ll be repeating yourself. You look over and see the group that have an ipad activity to do are actually on maths games – you get up to intercept and move them back on task. Over in the library corner a group of children who are meant to be reading and working in their exercise books are clearly off task, but that first child has returned with their book- and now you’ve only got about 10 minutes left before you need to change the rotation, so you call out to one of the other teachers (also trying to get through the guided reading) to check on those off task students, well aware that you are cutting into their time too. You sit back down and go over the learning intentions and begin to get into it, when a group playing with the games has a disagreement and an incident breaks out – so again you are forced to stop, to sort that out.
Rinse and repeat.
I could go on, but the point I’m trying to make is that this is JUST reading. You have maths interchange next, and then topic interchange. And you are on duty at lunch, and then there’s a staff meeting after school… Some days I would arrive at school before 7am and not get home till after 6:30pm, and that’s with a box of marking to do.
Now add into this those children with high learning and/or behavioural needs that can’t organise themselves, can’t cope with having a different teacher, or can’t manage being a “self directed learner”. And those who had a bad morning (or weekend) at home and are wound so tight that they might explode at any time. And the child who isn’t coping with social things and is isolated, and the mean kid who’s been hassling the outsider. All that social stuff is still happening… But somehow you have to set up the classroom for the next lesson AND find a minute or two to cram something vaguely nutritious into your gob.
As an educator 10 years ago you had the time to actually teach. Eventually I felt more like a person whose job it was to keep things running – even if that running wasn’t beneficial to the learning of the majority of the children.
Before I left teaching I was stressed, anxious and feeling like a failure every day. I had been assaulted by a special needs child multiple times, and was managing two volatile children with aggressive and violent behaviours, all while maintaining this modern idea of what learning should “look like” and spending so much of my time making sure I was collecting all the data for the children and planning their next learning steps, too.
There was no fun or fulfillment anymore. It was like failing every day.
I saw children who just wanted to be with the teacher, who wanted to learn, but who were being swept along in this seemingly never ending rotation of ‘new ideas’ and ‘innovative learning strategies’. Everything was measured and monitored because we also had data to be collecting for assessment and reporting.
I’m not for teachers becoming the facilitators of busy work to serve some ideal that is the current flavour of the month. I spent three years studying education, children, reading, writing, maths and everything else only to find my days as a teacher filled with behaviour management and making sure children are in the right place at the right time. And that’s not to mention teachers who are struggling with learning new technology and navigating these spaces themselves, all while still doing their regular job!
My personal experience was one that made me physically and mentally sick.
I continued to give 100% of myself because, like most teachers in New Zealand, I am passionate about children getting the best education and reaching their potential. But the system as it is, that actually destroyed me. I burnt out. I would wake up crying in the night for no particular reason. I would dread going to work again as soon as I left. Thinking about the unending cycle of planning, implementing, and hoping I got through what needed to get through – and that the children held up their end and did the work, and that there were no breakdowns in behaviour that would derail the sessions and cause me to have to cut out something else to ‘catch up’.
I burnt out. I damaged myself to the point where I will live with that for the rest of my life.
Our teachers are a resource. You can’t replace our care, knowledge and ability to teach with fancy spaces and new technology. Piling these expectations on teachers and children isn’t improving our system- it’s creating another rod for our backs.
When I studied post grad with a group of young people in their 20s, I was amazed at how poorly they managed themselves, and I wonder why we expect school-aged children to be able to do it?
There are so many complexities to the things eroding our teachers’ spirits and well-being- this is just a tiny glimpse, and not even the full picture. I could talk about disenchanted staff, apathetic senior management, poor resourcing, the social issues in school communities, negative and punitive assessments, and an obese curriculum. And, of course, under-funding of our schools and support staff. But I won’t, because we all have other things to do today.
Teachers want to teach. That’s why we became teachers! We want to have meaningful relationships with your child to help them achieve their potential. The education system in this country has moved away from allowing us to do that and morphed into something very different.
For more on a teacher’s daily work life, read this great post by Melulater.
This is the first of a series of posts looking at the data from the full Health and Wellbeing Survey conducted earlier in 2016. Our earlier posts looked at the survey’s first 100 responses, but this series considers all 684 responses and looks at the written feedback teachers shared in the open comments sections.*
Teachers report high levels of stress, with over 80% of respondents saying they felt stressed or anxious at work half of the time or more. Over 35% said they felt this way most of the time, and a staggering 7% said they felt like this always.
Only three respondents said they never felt stressed, representing 0.44 of respondents.
Teachers were then asked what they judged to be the main causes of any stress, anxiety or depression they felt due to work. A comments box was included. There were 2028 box ticks and hundreds of comments from the 670 respondents to this question.
Clearly workload is a key contributor to teachers’ workplace stress with 79.4% of people identifying it as a main contributor. Pressure from Management was identified by just over half of the respondents, and Students’ needs and students’ behaviour were identified by 44.8% and 45% of respondents respectively.
Lack of support in school was identified as a contributor to stress by just over 31% of respondents; Changes in educational policies stressed over 28% of respondents, and ERO/audit almost 23%.
Interestingly, the comments were sometimes weighted quite differently.
Overwhelmingly, teachers identified workload as a key issue, with 532 respondents ticking that box and a 29 comments specifically mentioning it as a concern.Comments included:
“Not enough time in the day to complete everything that needs to be done. Increase[d] load of paperwork and assessment.”
“Too many meetings… 3 a week…”
“The requirements for tracking student progress; reporting to parents; and engaging family involvement in student learning (to name but a few)…”
“The paperwork (sometimes in duplicate) takes over.”
“Too many tasks to complete in an eight hour day.”
“I feel stressed that I cannot be both a good mum and a good teacher because of workload and being exhausted most of the time.”
“Paperwork, meetings, balance of work and family time”
“When a 55-60 hour week is the exception, not the norm”
Alongside these and other general comments on workload, some specific areas were mentioned:
Professional Development: Comments identified Professional Development as a specific source of pressure, either because of the volume of it (5 comments) or because it is done and then never implemented (3 comments) which staff said left them feeling that precious time was wasted.
“…so little time to create meaningful lessons because of professional development. Always navel gazing and not producing results…”
“we do what is asked of us then it kind of goes nowhere”
“…our school doing every initiative going…”
National Standards and Testing: Also mentioned were National Standards and the volume of testing (11 comments) and fast-changing education policies (3 comments).
“Seemingly back-to-back testing”
“having to assign a below OTJ [Overall Teacher Judgement] to children at 40 weeks, when I know that they will be totally fine by 80 or 120 weeks, they just need a little more time”
“too much assessment of 5 year olds”
A large number of respondents commented on the negative impact of colleagues, mentioning staff bullying (25 comments), poor leaders (16 comments), pressure from management, poor teamwork and disrespectful behaviour (7 comments) and overly negative colleagues (3 comments) as causes of stress and anxiety.
Comments on management:
“Not enough realistic support from management.”
“Principal blaming poor ERO report on teachers… Seeing colleagues depressed and talking of suicide”
“Unrealistic expectations from management that teachers say yes to because they are all scared to tell the truth.:
“We have a dysfunctional senior management…”
“Poor management … lack of communication, lack of follow up…”
“Bullying Principal who has systematically gotten rid of teachers who support the policies and work of the previous principal…”
“Bullied by Principal, DP and AP”
Comments on teams and colleagues:
“Leading a frustrating team…”
“Trying to work with adults who don’t want to change their practice.”
“Being made to feel inadequate by teaching colleagues”
“I am an experienced teacher… I have had derogatory comments… considered a ‘dinosaur'”
“Politics between staff.”
“… have an extremely difficult staff member in my team and am continually handling complaints from parents and other staff about [that person]”
Parents: Perhaps surprisingly, the factor most frequently mentioned in the comments as causing teacher stress was pressure from parents (35 comments), with only two mentions of the lack of parent support being an issue and 33 commenting on this. Comments included:
“unrealistic expectations from parents”
“pushy aggressive parents”
“…expectation from parents that teachers should be able to ‘fix’ students who are not meeting standards… that it’s not part of a parent’s role to assist students in their learning”
“Parents … not allowing their children to develop their key competencies”
“Parents not reading emails, paper newsletters or notice boards and then getting frustrated that they were not well informed.”
“Parent expectation/pressure/lack of support has also been a factor at times.”
Students: It is, perhaps, telling that student behaviour was very rarely identified in the comments as the cause of stress (3 respondents), with much more focus on concerns about meeting students’ educational, emotional and health needs adequately (over 20 respondents). Of these, eight specifically mentioned special educational needs, five mentioned lack of funding or resources to support students as being of concern, and three mentioned out-of-school factors such as poor housing and health concerns.
(This feedback should be considered alongside that relating to testing and National Standards (above), which also had at its heart concern regarding the impact on students.)
“It’s about the lack of adequate funding to resource the support systems we need.”
“We need a calm space in the school…that is manned by a counsellor for our students whose lives are just too challenging today.”
“5 students, 1 supported… others not diagnosed”
“…teachers are parenting, feeding, psychoanalysing children as well as getting the child to national standard”
“hugely diverse needs of my learners … never enough time to plan and deliver a fully differentiated programme…”
“No help for children who come from a terrible home life to school…”
“children with special needs or high learning needs taking ages to be diagnosed at CDC and even longer… before funding is available for extra assistance…”
“Social issues in families and the wider community”
“Having children with special needs who don’t get funding or a diagnosis quick enough to help support them.”
Clearly there are many and diverse, often overlapping, causes of teacher stress and anxiety, but certain themes are evident. Workload is the most glaring issue, closely followed by internal and external pressures on teachers who do not always feel adequately equipped to deal with those pressures or supported in doing so.
Management, you should be querying your own practice and asking where you can make changes to limit stress and also build collegiality. make sure your staff are properly supported and not overloaded, and ensure PD is targeted to actual needs.
Parents, you must work with teachers. They cannot solve all of society’s ills, and it isn’t reasonable to expect them to do so. Also, bear in mind that they are at the mercy of systems and processes usually outside of their control. It’s easy to become frustrated with the messenger, but it isn’t productive. Most importantly, talk to your children’s teachers – form relationships, be present where you can – truly that is a huge step towards helping your child achieve the best they can.
Teachers, please support each other. Teaching can be the most collegial job in the world, and teamwork can be what makes a difficult work situation otherwise bearable. So actively build those relationships. Where you do have concerns, you can call your union’s helpline, contact EAP (if your school is a member), or call one of the other available helplines.
Whatever you do, please reach out for support. You are worth it.
* Thank you to NZEI Wellington Council for providing financial support to allow us to access the full data set and undertake this analysis.
Image of woman with red folders courtesy of marcolm at FreeDigitalPhotos.net
Related Posts on this Survey:
In this invited Blog post – one of a series of three – I explore some of the global issues related to teachers’ well-being and present an analysis of the preliminary findings from a short, informal exploratory questionnaire from Save our Schools NZ about levels of stress, anxiety and depression reported by New Zealand teachers.
A recent report from a major UK teachers’ Union (NASUWT) illustrated the high levels of stress, anxiety and depression among the teaching profession.
Perhaps understandably, staff turnover is high, with many UK teachers leaving after the first year.
History shows the inevitability of audit cultures so prevalent in the UK and US influencing policy and practice in New Zealand, as indeed some already have in the form of National Standards and other initiatives . It’s the introduction of previously alien business models, including Key Performance Indicators (KPIs) within state provision services that creates challenges. So, do New Zealand teachers also suffer high levels of stress, anxiety and depression? And if their emotional health is being negatively impacted by their work, are the causes similar to those highlighted in the UK and elsewhere? To what extent does stress impact upon the individuals and the institution concerned and what could be learnt from the international research in this area?
In a very short survey, Save Our Schools NZ asked teachers: ‘In a typical week, how often do you feel stressed or anxious at work?’
Another question focused on some of the possible causes of this stress and anxiety. It presented a number of options based on the outcomes from other research data in this area and asked which of the terms best defined the main causes of the stress, anxiety and depression.
(The latter two causes were highlighted in the comments section as being as a result of teachers not feeling they had adequate support from their school for students with complex needs.)
Interestingly for me personally – because of my research interests – the lowest-ranking answer of all the choices provided was ‘Audit and inspection’ which often ranks very highly for teachers in the UK under pressure from accountability measures. In line with research by Prof Martin Thrupp, this potentially indicates a stark contrast between the negative impact of Ofsted on UK teachers’ lives and the more sensitive (if somewhat ambiguous) approach from New Zealand’s Education Review Office (ERO).
This question also had an ‘other’ comments box which revealed a series of other relevant issues: 10% commented that bullying – either from management or parents or both – was a major cause of their stress and anxiety. This links to commonly debated cultural issues of the New Zealand workplace, for instance the phenomenon of Tall Poppy Syndrome (something I’ve written briefly about elsewhere and will return to later.)
In conclusion, the outcomes from this initial survey indicates that stress is clearly having a significant, negative impact on New Zealand teachers, and perhaps warrants a closer and more in-depth investigation. For instance, how widespread is this problem and what are the lived experiences of New Zealand teachers?
– Dr Ursula Edgington
This is a 7 year old child. Here she is feeling the pressure to be great, to excel, to not get left behind, not be put in extra help. She has internalised the message that she is being graded – you have to get everything right. Her mother has told her it’s okay to leave the problem, but she won’t. Is this what education is about? Her mother thinks not, I think not, what about you?
This child’s mother writes:
This is my daughter … I want to take a moment to explain this image so as those who do not know me, can understand how this image came to be.
I am a photographer, a hobby farmer, a child advocate and a mother of 3 elementary-aged children. This is my middle child in the photo … she is 7 and is in 2nd grade. My kindergartner and my 4th grader were already finished with their homework and had left the table. I had brought my camera in to work on my white balance skills while shooting in low light as I had a session the next morning to prep for.
After checking her work, I had found 2 math problems were incorrect. I tried to help her understand where she went wrong through her process but I don’t understand it myself and was not much help.
I told her to forget about it and we’d try again tomorrow but she became very upset that she could not get the answer and kept trying and trying to fix it. She is hard on herself as she very much wants to excel in school and not be pulled for extra help all of the time. I was talking to her and clicking my camera as I changed settings … it’s something that is very common in our household … and that is when I caught this image.
Please know that 5 minutes later I had convinced her to leave the homework behind and go snuggle with her dad on the couch and watch some Olympics coverage. She is not neglected. She was not abused or left alone to cry. And this photo was not staged.
This is America with the Common Core. It will be here in New Zealand soon if we continue to focus only on standards and benchmarks for our primary school children.
Let them learn. Let them enjoy. Let them grow.