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.
In this third and final invited blog post about the outcomes from the SOSNZ survey on NZ teachers’ experiences of stress, anxiety and depression, I comment on another of the common themes from the results: bullying.
Teachers spend significant energy on preparing and delivering lessons, managing their classrooms and helping students who, for complex reasons, may have difficulties with learning activities, concentrating or getting along with others. For every teacher, continuous pressure from these situations increases risks of suffering from anxiety, emotional exhaustion, stress and depression. And each teacher and teaching context is different.
But what happens when the main cause of stress and anxiety isn’t within the classroom, but outside it? This may be more difficult to overcome because by definition stressful situations like being the victim of bullying are unpredictable and concealed from others.
Often research and policies surrounding bullying prevention in schools are focused on the students rather than the staff and management. But the culture of bullying in the workplace is known to be a significant problem in New Zealand and this is increasingly evidenced in media and employment law.
Allan Halse, Director of Culturesafe NZ – an organisation set-up to raise awareness of legislation and support victims of bullying – believes
“…this problem will increase until there is more accountability. For instance, there should be consequences for all employers who choose to ignore or maintain the behaviours of workplace bullies.”
A large proportion of CulturesafeNZ’s clients are employees within the education sector.
Perhaps unsurprisingly then, 10% of the initial 100 participants from our teacher survey commented that bullying – either from management or parents or both – was a major cause of their stress and anxiety.
In the initial 100 responses, additional anonymous comments highlighted teachers’ experiences of stress as a result of being bullied: “The pressure placed on teachers by management in planning and assessment and time management for teachers” or more specifically “A principal can make or break staff” and similarly: “The pressure from management and their unrealistic expectations of their staff”. I predict that when analysis is complete for all 700+ participants, the extent of the bullying problem in New Zealand schools will become more apparent.
Generally, the prevalence of workplace bullying 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). What is worrying (as highlighted in my previous post) is that teachers in this survey commented how they did not draw upon (or even know about) coping strategies or helpful free resources like the EAP. In view of the gap in academic literature on this subject, it appears the Ministry are sweeping this problem under the carpet. The NZCER run a survey which includes aspects of bullying, but there is a cost of subscribing. This skews the outcomes because understandably only those principals who see a value to publishing their own school’s results are likely to engage with it. Costs of participating in the NZCER survey are based on numbers of students in the school – which is unhelpful because an analysis of workplace culture would not necessarily be connected to its size – for students or staff.
In light of the new Health and Safety Act in New Zealand (which brings NZ more closely in line with other developed countries) some believe workplace bullies will be exposed and subsequently prosecuted. But WorksafeNZ do not (yet) seem to have fully grasped the well-established links between bullying and the emotional harm it causes; concentrating instead to focus their attention on the more obvious bodily harm, caused by physical workplace hazards.
However, teachers need help, support and protection from all sources of stress, anxiety and depression, and this includes bullying and harassment in the workplace. This is important, not only for the well-being of the staff themselves, but also for students because, let’s be clear, students learn best in a safe, caring and professional environment.
~ Dr Ursula Edgington
In this invited post – part two of a series of three – I summarise 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.
In my previous post, I highlighted the issues of stress and anxiety and some concern about the well-being of the New Zealand teachers. One of the most important support mechanisms provided by many schools is the Employee Assistance Programme (EAP).
EAP is a service supported by the New Zealand government to provide confidential counselling services and sources of information for staff from subscribing organisations. However, it is interesting to note that 77% of participants from this short exploratory survey did not know about the EAP, and some noted how even when present and known about, it was not effective as a source of support.
Most of us are aware how a certain level of ‘good’ stress is argued to be beneficial. But only when it is short-term and can be kept under control. The survey asked teachers what steps they usually took to reduce their levels of stress, anxiety and depression. Potential options included all the usual coping strategies promoted in popular self-help books, Apps, media and research.
87% of respondents said they “Try to carry on regardless”
Despite the high levels of stress and anxiety reported in these participants’ answers, the most common response (87%) was ‘Try to carry on regardless’. Other popular strategies were reported as ‘eating’, ‘exercising’ and ‘sleeping’ (42%, 40% & 44% respectively).
The responses from this short preliminary survey then are cause for concern: not only because so many teaching staff do not appear to have developed adequate coping strategies to deal with levels of stress and anxiety, but also because so many reported how they coped through ways that are likely to have an additional negative impact upon their health.
For instance, 23 of the 100 participants turned to alcohol for relief and 9 admitted to either smoking, self-medication or using drugs.
These preliminary results mirror not only the high rates of stress and anxiety evident in UK teachers, but also the coping strategies used in the UK, such as an over-reliance on alcohol.
When reporting how many days off taken as a result of stress, anxiety or depression over the past 12 months, the most common answer from participants was 0-3 days (81%). This may indicate the hidden nature of this problem in that staff are perhaps trying to ‘carry on regardless’ by coming into work when they could instead be focusing on their own health and well-being.
Asked how much time they had taken off work over the past 12 months as a direct result of the symptoms of stress, anxiety or depression:
When respondents were asked to rate their current school in terms of helpfulness towards supporting staff with stress, anxiety and depression, schools did not score highly, with only 14%described as ‘Very helpful’ and 5% described as ‘Very unhelpful’. This is of concern.
Is the long-term health of teachers in New Zealand is at risk? Perhaps it is when nearly half (47%) of these respondents reportedly had been medically diagnosed with stress, anxiety or depression and 55% had taken time off work as a result of these symptoms.
I would like to emphasise here again, the importance of just talking through our problems to a trained listener.
The questionnaire deliberately included appropriate links to helplines for those suffering from depression and needed support. A comprehensive list of information and helplines available can be found here.
~ Dr Ursula Edgington
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
In the UK, USA and New Zealand, good teachers are leaving the profession. Talent that our children need is walking away and saying no more. Why? The post below, from UK teacher Paul Jenkins, sums it up for many.
Why would I turn my back on a profession that can fill you with such simple, no holds barred nice-ness?
Well, it’s simple.
I am too tired.
I have been doing this now for eleven years. That’s 55 parents evenings, 11 open nights, 161 sets of monitoring data, 22 observations, countless referrals/phone calls home/detentions and most importantly – 2 breakdowns.
And number three was on its way when I finally threw in the towel and said last month that enough’s enough.
Read the rest of Paul’s words here. The specifics may differ from teacher to teacher, but in the end it amounts to the same – teachers are being run ragged and blamed for all society’s ills, with little to no respect from those in power.
Thank you to Dita De Boni for reminding Kiwis that teachers are working for the children. Almost all teachers are doing a good job. They work hard. They care.
Teachers work within a system that is broken in many ways, especially when it comes to children with special educational, medical or emotional needs, and yet they battle on, doing what they can.
Paul puts it best when he says:
My real reason for going can almost be boiled down to my experience of one child.
The pupil in question comes from an extremely difficult personal situation and has suffered from severe bouts of ill health during her primary years. She has missed cumulatively around four years of her early education and as a consequence is as close to illiteracy as you can get. The cat as they say in learning support is barely sitting on the mat.
Her target level, which is as low as can be for my subject of drama is still too high for her to attain as she will need to demonstrate a basic competency with a provided script.
We have been prompting, learning by rote and generally getting round things in best way that we possibly can. I have seen her develop in twelve weeks from a physically inward and mute young girl, into a nervous but committed young girl, who always gets on stage with her group, smiles her way through the lesson and has begun answering carefully structured questions that allow her to achieve without worrying about something as pesky as being able to read.
And her report from me? A letter and a number. She is a 2c. She is red. She is underachieving.
Her work, effort and progress have been encapsulated into a figure in a column. And I’m ashamed of that.
Her parents didn’t attend parents evening so I was unable to explain their daughters apparent ‘failure’ to them in person. I phoned them to explain but to be honest it felt hollow. That was when I knew I was in the wrong job and I went to see our head to tender my resignation.
I understand that you need standards, I understand that pupil progress needs to be measured and I know that in order to build a society that is founded on a strong sense of achievement you need to be rigorous in your approach. But I honestly believe that we’ve forgotten the the very essentials of what it is to be a teacher. It’s not to create hollow vessels that can hold a mountain of information ready for an examination. It’s much, much bigger than that.
Any system that reduces all children to mere data, ignoring all else that they are, is a broken system.
Parents, surely this is not what you want? Please speak up, because only your voices count with politicians, and it is they that push these broken systems and failed ideologies. Teachers, we have learned the hard way, count for nothing.
Finally, Paul, if you read this, you sound like a wonderful teacher and a very caring person. I wish you well. Kia kaha – stay strong.
Read also: https://saveourschoolsnz.com/2014/04/15/teacher-stress-depression-and-suicide/
It concerns me that so many teachers now talk of stress, depression, and the need to get out of the profession for their health. It is not light-hearted when teachers talk of being unhappy then add in “… thank goodness for the kids.” Sometimes the children are all that are keeping a teacher going.
Often the stress is blamed on the constant changes, not because of the changes themselves but because there is little faith the changes are well thought out or improve student achievement and so it feels like a lot of extra work for no good reason, often at the expense of time to do other work that the teacher feels is more valuable.
People will tolerate a lot when they can see value in it – conversely, they are weighed down by what feels valueless.
There is also a feeling that teachers have no say in the direction that education is taking, and little to no control of their own profession. When I asked a group of teachers whether they would send in submissions against the Education Amendment Bill (2), they asked what’s the point, citing that thousands of submissions against charter schools were simply ignored.
Teachers feel helpless – done to rather than part of.
Well that’s just it – I’m not sure that anyone is researching this. If there are any studies under way looking at stress and depression in relation to New Zealand teachers, please do let me know. You might wonder why we need to research the problem? And what we might want to ask?
What I think we need to ask is this:
– are teachers happy in their jobs?
– do teachers feel supported and well looked after?
– are they considering leaving the profession due to stress/ill health?
– has the rate and direction of education reforms in NZ over the past few years had an impact on teacher health?
– Do you feel there is more of a problem now than five or ten years ago?
Something that concerns me very much is that in the UK that teacher suicide rates are now around 40% higher than for ‘all occupations’. Is it the same here in Aotearoa? Despite being a very difficult subject, it is something we have to confront. NZ already has a serious problem with high depression and suicide rates, and no-one wants to see that get worse.
Another thing to be aware of is that there is anecdotal evidence that when a teacher in England is looking for critical illness insurance cover it is only available if mental conditions and stress-related illness are excluded. Do teachers in NZ have similar problems? I know of at least one teacher who is no longer covered for mental health since having time off due to stress – is that widespread?
It really is something we need to keep an eye on. The last thing we need is a depressed profession – just imagine the impact that would have on individual lives and on the quality of education. It would be a lose/lose situation that no-one would want to see happen
[Edit 15/4/16] SOSNZ have set up a small survey regarding NZ teachers’ emotional wellbeing and would welcome your input. The article and survey can be found here.
If you feel stressed, do not leave it until it gets worse. If you are on edge, not sleeping, feeling edgy or tearful, dreading work, and so on, then you owe it to yourself to get support and help immediately. Please do not feel you have to plod on alone – you don’t. Talk to people close to you, if you can, discuss the problems with a supportive manager, speak with your doctor, and make use of support services that are available (below).
If you recognise someone is stressed, please reach out to them and offer support and help. They may just need an ear. You could point them to the help listed below. Either way, they will welcome your kind support and it makes all the difference to know that people understand and care.
Employee Assistance Program (EAP):
Free counselling is available for most NZ teachers. The program gives staff access to three sessions of free confidential counselling and advice each year that is either face-to-face, via telephone, or online chat. EAP registered practitioners can help with relationship breakdowns, alcohol and drug issues, workplace bullying, family issues, depression, financial stress and personal trauma. Check whether your school is subscribed to the EAP as part of their Health and Safety strategy. You can book online.
Below is a list of other New Zealand services that offer support, information and help. All services are available 24 hours a day, seven days a week unless otherwise specified.
If you’re outside of New Zealand, you can find help near you through this international list of crisis centres.
Lastly, please look after yourself and others. It’s not the easiest time to be teaching, but you owe it to yourself to stay well.