‘People are broken’: The mental health crisis crushing British teachers


Kate* loves teaching. She loves going to her primary school every day, standing up in front of her class, watching the children learn. It’s the job she’s always dreamed about having. Despite all this, she says that choosing the career is one of her biggest regrets. The prospect of work has started giving her panic attacks. She has so much paperwork to do that, outside of school, she’s hardly left the house for weeks. And now she’s desperate to quit. Where did it all go wrong?

“Being in the class is absolutely perfect,” she says. “But it’s everything else that takes over teaching, everything else on top of it, that’s made me hate it.” Whether it’s the mountain of admin on her desk, the torrent of emails, or all the meetings and worries for children’s care, it’s become too much. Kate is not alone. Teaching has always been one of the most rewarding professions, but it’s also one of the toughest. And it’s getting worse. A November study by the mental health charity Education Support found that teacher wellbeing is at a five-year low, with stress, insomnia and burnout all rising. In 2017, 67 per cent of schoolteachers were reporting feelings of stress – by 2023, that figure had risen starkly to 78 per cent.

The figures get worse everywhere you turn. This year, a workforce survey of members of the NASUWT union found that some teachers had been driven to the point of suicide by the stress of the job. Among 12,000 teachers, 23 per cent reported drinking more alcohol, 12 per cent the use of or increased use of antidepressants, and 3 per cent said they had self-harmed as a result of their work. These findings prompted members to back a suicide prevention strategy for teachers at the union’s annual conference in March.

And teachers are – unsurprisingly – leaving the profession in record numbers, too. The latest workforce survey by the Department for Education found that 40,000 teachers resigned from state schools in 2021/22 – almost 9 per cent of the teaching workforce, and the highest number since it began publishing the data in 2011. If they’re not actually quitting, lots of them are considering it. There is a Facebook group called “Life After Teaching – Exit the Classroom and Thrive”, which currently has 159,000 members and is filled with despairing posts.

Sinéad Mc Brearty, the head of Education Support, is not surprised. Mc Brearty has seen schoolteachers in floods of tears over not being able to budget for the school’s heating bill after energy prices soared following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. She’s also spoken to numerous suicidal teachers and more than one who has admitted to fantasising about purposely crashing their car on the way to work, so they wouldn’t have to go in. “There are a lot of people who really are just broken by this career,” she says. “And it’s such a terribly sad thing. Because they go into this job with such a clear sense of purpose, and they really are wanting to make the world a better place. They’re full of vim and vigour, and they’re broken by the experience of working in schools and the demand that’s there. It’s a tragedy, really, that we can’t get that right.”

Last year’s teacher strikes were the biggest in a decade – and were eventually called off after members of four education unions voted to accept the government’s 6.5 per cent pay rise offer. It was a huge misconception, though, that the strikes were just about money. Yes, teacher pay is low for the work they do (salaries start at £30,000), but the strikes were also over workload, staff shortages and funding for basic resources like pencils and textbooks.

Mc Brearty says that one of the key drivers of poor mental health among teachers is work-life balance. The school day may end at about 3pm, but the working day doesn’t. Teachers still have reams of paperwork to do – including form-filling for safeguarding issues or students with special needs – on top of lesson planning and marking. “We have to get a grip on workload,” Mc Brearty says. “The World Health Organisation has been really clear that working more than 55 hours a week is seriously damaging to your health. But many teachers are doing that – that’s normal for them.” Kate is contracted to work 35 hours a week at her school, but estimates that she usually ends up clocking in as many as 60. She works every night after the school day finishes and all day on Sundays. Saturdays are her one sacred day off.

Kate has started having panic attacks about her workload and drinking more than usual to cope. “It’s when I’m trying to relax,” she says. “When I come home from school each night, at four or five o’clock, I will automatically go straight to get a glass of wine as soon as I walk in the door, and I will spend an hour having two or three. When I have Sunday anxiety, I will drink a full bottle while I’m doing work. It’s quite embarrassing.”

Behaviour and behaviour management are key contributors to mental health issues among teachers (Getty)

Michael*, who recently left teaching for a different role in education outside of the classroom, can relate to the loss of work-life balance. “I’m really glad I was a teacher – I learned so much and the students were remarkable,” he says. “But it just felt untenable, and I couldn’t do it anymore. I couldn’t really have a personal life.” The job took an emotional toll on him, too. “I found the mental load of it really difficult,” he says. “A massive factor was that I was taking my work home with me, and not even in a physical sense. Even when I didn’t have any marking to do, I’d be worrying about this student or that student, or how I was going to make something work the next day in relation to a lesson.”

It got to the stage where he would arrive at work, sit in his car and “just freeze”. “I understand now, through therapy, that it was a fight or flight sort of response that happens when you feel like you’re in danger.” One day, when he received some difficult personal news while at work, it all became too much. “I was in the middle of showing the students a film and I went up to the staff room and had a panic attack. I blacked out. I felt like I couldn’t breathe. I went to see a colleague and I had tears down my face, and she told me to go home and just deal with the situation. I never actually went back. That was my last day, and I ended up getting signed off by my GP.”

A lot of the tasks that teachers have to do outside of school hours are what Mc Brearty calls “empty work”. “Teachers never complain about time with the kids or doing the stuff that they are in the job to do,” she says. “The issue is the empty work – producing data for some things that seem pointless. And that problem sits at the door of government because there are government requests from schools that create workload. And it’s also linked to the accountability system. When people are afraid that an inspector is going to come in and look for the evidence that particular pieces of work have been done, they want everything documented. So there’s a very high compliance culture in a lot of schools.”

I started to panic a bit because I thought, I feel like I’m banging my head against a brick wall here

Michael

Ofsted inspections put schools and teachers under acute stress. Last year, headteacher Ruth Perry took her own life after she received news of a low Ofsted rating for her school in Reading. Her death led to an outcry against the punitive inspection process, with headteachers across the country saying they were considering refusing entry to Ofsted until the inspectorate committed to significant change. It was reported last month that single-phrase Ofsted judgments such as “inadequate” would be scrapped for more nuanced descriptors – but the Department for Education has denied this.

Michael, who taught at A-level, felt a huge pressure to ensure his students achieved good grades after the Covid pandemic. He had joined his school at a time when “Ofsted was breathing down their neck quite heavily”, and they had built the college back up from “inadequate” to “good”. But then, during the lockdowns, a system of teacher-assessed grades was introduced to replace the cancelled formal exams. In the later lockdowns, Michael found himself teaching A-level students whose GCSEs had also been disrupted, and he saw a sharp drop in their results compared to previous cohorts. “I started to panic a bit because I thought, I feel like I’m banging my head against a brick wall here. I’m not able, in the same way, to affect these people’s lives and steer them in a better direction.”

Attendance had also plummeted. “My college, due to financial issues, was more reluctant to kick students out,” says Michael. “The problem then becomes that, if someone’s just not attending, then it has a knock-on effect on the other learners. I started to see attendance as a whole dip, because the learners see others getting away with it.”

The Covid pandemic had a devastating impact on British schools. There have been accounts of young infants, whose early years were spent in lockdown, “reaching school age still in nappies, and unable to use a knife and fork, due to lockdown’s impact on early years development. Falling school attendance and deteriorating behaviour are issues for older students, thanks to the breakdown in the relationship and trust between schools and parents. Covid also contributed to rising levels of poverty in the UK, in large part due to a loss of earnings for many families. About 4.2 million children are in relative poverty in the country, while the number of young people in extreme poverty – meaning their families cannot afford to clothe them, clean them or keep them warm – has tripled over the past three years.

Some schools are offering teachers one day off a fortnight in a bid to improve wellbeing and attract new people to the profession (Getty/iStock)

“The impact of poverty in the classroom is not just the lack of material goods,” says Mc Brearty. “It’s everything that goes with that – so you have kids that aren’t sleeping, might not have a bed, aren’t eating.” Children living in these conditions become agitated, exhausted and unable to concentrate. “If you’ve gone into the teaching profession because you’re motivated by wanting to help children and young people learn, or be the best they can be, or fall head over heels in love with art, you can’t do any of that if kids are hungry and not safe and not well looked after. That’s what sits behind the poverty numbers.”

Another key issue taking teachers away from their main job – to educate – is the poor state of the country’s wider public services. “If you can’t safely refer a child to mental health services, if social care is not able to deal with a case that is serious, if you cannot get appropriate support for the special needs that exist in the cohort that you’re teaching – this is really, really problematic stuff,” says Mc Brearty. “If you’ve got a child who is disclosing suicidal ideation, you won’t necessarily get any mental health support for that. It’s a real emotional burden on people in the job, and is not what they signed up to do.”

Kate describes herself as more than just a teacher for her children, saying that, a lot of the time, she is effectively their “social worker, carer, and safeguarder”. “I also have a lot of children with special needs in my class, but lots of them are on the waiting list for a support plan. It can take up to a year and a half for the funding to come through, and in the meantime, the teacher’s dealing with this massive issue, without any support.”

Behaviour and behaviour management are also key contributors to mental health issues among teachers. “Last year, there was a little boy in my class who was very violent,” says Kate. “He was hitting me, biting me, punching the other children. He didn’t get excluded until it got severe, until somebody had a severely black eye, probably after about eight months of violent incidents, and that is simply because there’s no money. The school lost control over being able to manage that behaviour. They didn’t have behaviour teams coming in to manage it. And they didn’t have a pupil referral unit that the child could go straight into because they are absolutely overloaded. They are full.”

Issues such as behaviour tend to worsen when children are distracted, or have low attention spans. “The level of digital engagement by children and young people is changing attention spans and their ability to concentrate,” says Mc Brearty, who argues that children’s phone use and online activity also brings other issues into the classroom that make teachers’ jobs harder. “The amount of information – good and bad, true and false, reliable and not reliable – that the kids can access is off the charts,” she says. “I was sitting on the bus with my son’s friends the other day, 10-year-olds, and taking them to a party. One kid was on his phone, and he was just scrolling through horrible images of decomposing bodies. I was like, you’re 10. How are you looking at this? What kids have access to is gobsmacking, and that does bring into the classroom a whole array of often unexpected issues. At the charity, we’ve been asked, ‘How do I talk to kids about the Israel-Palestine conflict?’ So we run webinars for how to discuss difficult topics as safely as possible.”

So what are the solutions for how to improve teachers’ mental health? Some schools are offering teachers one day off a fortnight in a bid to improve wellbeing and attract new people to the profession. Many schools around the country are already prohibiting mobile phone use, with the government launching a crackdown in February. Education Support, meanwhile, provides a free counselling helpline for struggling teachers, and the charity Mental Health UK offers advice on coping with stress, getting a good night’s sleep, and maintaining a healthy work-life balance on its site.

But Mc Brearty says a lot of the necessary changes need to come from government. “They need to address the funding for wider services. Special educational needs funding is a car crash and needs to be resolved. We need a strategy around children in poverty that befits a country as wealthy as we are. Teacher pay has fallen in real terms since 2010 – pay matters, because it’s a statement of value, and at the moment, the message is that society doesn’t really value education. They have to rescope what they’re asking schools to do and ask them to do a lot less, or put a load more money in to allow them to resource the gazillion things they’ve asked them to do. That’s it. That’s the choice.

“And everything else, for me, is moving deck chairs around on the top of the Titanic.”

*Names have been changed in this article

If you are experiencing feelings of distress, or are struggling to cope, you can speak to the Samaritans, in confidence, on 116 123 (UK and ROI), email jo@samaritans.org, or visit the Samaritans website to find details of your nearest branch.

If you are based in the USA, and you or someone you know needs mental health assistance right now, call the National Suicide Prevention Helpline on 1-800-273-TALK (8255). This is a free, confidential crisis hotline that is available to everyone 24 hours a day, seven days a week.

If you are in another country, you can go to www.befrienders.org to find a helpline near you.



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