The Darkest Term: Teacher Stress and DepressionDecember 17, 2013
It’s been a bit of a tough term for me. Nothing new, pretty much the sort of thing I was writing about years ago (for instance here and here), although that in itself is a sign there has been no Govian revolution in schools. I’ve pretty much extracted myself from my difficulties now, but I noticed that some of the people I was discussing those difficulties with were in even worse situations and, where they were discussing them on Twitter, they were finding lots of people in similar situations. It seemed like many teachers I knew simply weren’t coping. This led to me make the following Tweet:
As you can see, it immediately got a large number of retweets, causing me to reflect some more on the extent to which people end up being made ill by teaching in the system as it currently is. I asked for people to share their experiences and here are some of the comments I got about people’s own experiences and what they’ve seen happen to colleagues. (Minor changes have been made in some cases in order to ensure anonymity and for clarity). You probably won’t want to read this if you are somebody who is contemplating becoming a teacher.
To sum up, I have been teaching for 10 years now in mainstream and BESD. Last year has been awful. Wanted to quit; couldn’t cope; cried all the time at home; worked ridiculous hours to keep up; didn’t sleep. Also, I’ve put on nearly 3 stone through poor diet, eating on the run and comfort eating and look about 50 (I’m 31). I went to the doctors because I was ill a lot and, once I’d explained symptoms, he medicated me for work-related anxiety.
Months passed and there was no change really so I went back. Now I take mild antidepressants too on top of anxiety meds. Generally it’s helped and I can cope better but I definitely had to get out of my current school as it is going to the dogs. So short-staffed it is silly; no PPA; always on duty; no time to get anything done. 13 hour days most days.
So I’m starting a new job after Xmas; hoping to get some balance back…
A colleague of mine was employed at my school last year as a head of department. They struggled quite a bit under the boot of SLT, and didn’t do too well in observations. They got 3s and 4s in all of them last year. Their results weren’t great either, so in an attempt to get shot of this teacher, SLT put more and more and more pressure on them until they collapsed in school with stress and were signed off for a month. They came back to find out that someone had been employed in their place while they were absent (only on a ‘temporary’ contract, of course) meaning that they were left with no lessons to teach and fewer responsibilities. SLT tried to cover it up by saying that it was so they didn’t have to work too much too soon, but they also told the this teacher that one of the reasons they didn’t want them to teach was because there had been parental complaints about them during their absence. This teacher suffers from manic depression and has only just mustered the courage to come back in, but now feels as if they are being pushed out the back door. Our school doesn’t have any union reps so this teacher feels pretty helpless. I’ve told them to get in touch with their union and they are considering doing so, but lacks confidence for obvious reasons
I’ve been on anti-depressants for just over a year. Initial prescription was for depression and anxiety. The school based factors have been:
- Working in a Category 4 school is a intensely pressured. There are more negative than positive conversations with leaders and managers which is always making me think: “What have I done wrong this time?”;
- Getting a grade 3 lesson observation in Ofsted and Performance Management observation in the same year. I eventually got a 2 but lesson observations now fill me with huge anxiety;
- Not being allowed onto the next point on the pay scale (despite my own yr 11 classes results being better than HoD and fulfilling all performance management targets and then some);
- Negative inter-departmental politics;
- Constant monitoring of work eg. book trawls, learning walks, planner reviews etc.;
- Bullying by a colleague;
- Verbal abuse from pupils becoming an everyday occurrence;
- A timetable and marking load I can’t actually manage;
- Pay freeze, making life more difficult financially.
- No work/life balance for entire time I’ve been teaching.
These are the ones I can think of off of the top of my head.
This involves colleagues and not me.
Within my department one member has relinquished their TLR after just 4 months due to stress, another member of staff has relinquished their pastoral role after nearly suffering a complete breakdown and our department has experienced record sickness this year.
These incidents involving stress have historic origins. There has been a relentless request to achieve an outstanding Ofsted. Over the past 2 years, in the build up to Ofsted, a number of senior members of staff were ‘eased out’ whilst a team of AST were brought in. This was done in a number of ways and not all were pleasant. In our department it was decided by SLT that we needed a new HoD despite years of continued improvement and leading the college in results. Three new members of staff were hired and within weeks were engaged in weekly meeting with SLT to feedback on the department and HoD. The HoD was placed on competency after a few weeks, and remained in this category for a further month until they were able to prove that the claims against them were spurious at best.
Shortly after this, an ‘Oftsed consultant’ was brought in and the entire school was rated a 4. They pointed to data and claimed that our department was a 3 and could only ever be a 3. My HoD was not permitted to see the data they were using. The consultant was brought in to review the department and rated the HoD a 3, no advice on how to improve was given. When Ofsted eventually arrived later in the year they selected our department as the best performing in the school and the reason why the school scored a 2 overall (our dept was a 1 according to data). By this time my HOD had agreed to leave. All new members of staff joining the department this year had been told in advance that we were a falling faculty (even after Ofsted had named us in their report as the best in the school and the reason for its success).
More than one member of the AST team left with no jobs lined up because of the stress of working in a college with very few systems and a culture of fear. This year the same culture of fear exists but this time the focus is on another department. The same consultant has been brought in to ‘help’ that department. Within the last two weeks the newly appointed HoD was found collapsed in their office on the day the ‘consultant’ was due in. Everyone in that department is well aware of what fate awaits the HoD, the previous HoD was eased out last year.
I would say the biggest cause of stress is pressure to chase results and a complete lack of systems from SLT. There is now the expectation that we should offer twilight intervention and eventually weekend intervention.
I have been a secondary teacher for 20 years. Normally I get along with work, teach my lessons pretty well in my usual manner of avuncular-yet-purposeful, but in 2013 the continual pressures and the dictats handed down by Gove (eroding my pay; adding more to my workload and making me pay more for my pension) plus the general day-to-day led me to have doubts about my performance.
In February 2013 I suffered a bout of flu – not manflu, the full-blown feel crappy stuff. While I was feeling run-down I made the foolish move of thinking about things – and then I imploded. I hated the thought of going back into the classroom, wanted to sit at home looking at four walls and didn’t interact much with anyone. I never went back to my school.
I was lucky that my local authority occupational health department and my headteacher were supportive and knew that I needed time to get my head straight and decide what my next move was. I was on antidepressants and sundry other medication for my blood pressure. I came mighty close to leaving the profession, thinking that anything that earned any kind of money, even being a milkman (then I realised there are very few of those left) was better than being in the classroom.
And so in September I was unemployed, living on £73 per week as opposed to £36k pa – this has not helped my financial situation, but I came to the realisation that that was not important. What was important was my happiness, me being able to face the world again. In late October I got a supply gig – to be honest I was dreading it but it was wonderful to be back in the classroom, and luckily felt as if I had never left. In a week’s time I will be unemployed again just before Christmas, but there are more important things in life than money.
I’ve been in teaching for nearly 10 years now. As a Maths teacher I’ve seen sweeping changes in curriculum, standards, accountability and scrutiny (i.e. increased forms of the latter two). Becoming a head of department should have been a proud step up, finally having chance to shape my department and make a real difference in the way the subject is taught in my school.
8 years ago, I was diagnosed with clinical depression, however one of the noticeable facets of my condition at the time that teaching was a release for me – I was good at it, I enjoyed it and I got great rewards from it. Basically, it held me together whilst the rest of my life was collapsing around me. It’s amazing that I look back at those times in my career with pride, because these days, all the love and life in my job has been sucked out.
I don’t shape my curriculum, it’s dictated by the government. I’m not allowed to be creative with my team or in lessons, because I have to deliver results – by teaching to the exam, in other words. I can’t continue with my policy of ‘happy people = great workers’ because one or two ‘requires improvement’ lessons from my staff are followed up by ‘support plans’ (informal capability) by SLT. My lessons – well planned, full of content and context – are destroyed because students demand entertainment rather than learning – a result of school policy that lessons should be ‘fun’. Oh and to top it off every other word spoken by SLT is OFSTED.
My integrity, authenticity and hope are questioned every day. It is no longer the world outside of my job that is the source of my depression, it IS my job that is the source. And after all of this, stress is a given. I’m fatter, balder and greyer than I’ve ever been.
There is a whole story behind my absence including, workplace bullying, disability discrimination, a line manager breaking union rules, unrealistic timescales and workloads and lack of autonomy that has triggered a change in my mental health condition.
I’ve worked with mental health issues all my life and the workplace can make or break it. This time it’s broken it. I’m trying to repair it, but I’ve been off for a significant amount of time with no end in sight.
I left the teaching profession in August 2011. I had been off sick with stress at first since the Easter holidays, which then very quickly became a crippling bout of depression. Ultimately, I decided not to go back in to teaching at all. The turn around in my mental health when I had eventually made the decision in August to never return to that particular school was remarkable. When I decided not to risk my health any further by not teaching at all, I made a full recovery within 3 months.
This all came about from a redundancy at a school that I loved in Aug 2010. I was head of department at a good school, delivering outstanding lessons and achieving 80% pass rates at KS4, and somehow the head had decided that it was to become a part time post. Mainly because everyone else in my department was a head of year and they couldn’t possibly do their jobs part time. I was devastated. And not even able to receive remuneration for it because I was offered the part time post. I was forced to find another full time job.
I interviewed for a post in the next local authority and got it. It wouldn’t have been my first choice and I knew the school wasn’t good (it was in my home town). The department was in disarray and all 5 teachers in it were judged to be delivering lessons of a grade 3 and 4. I knew I had my work cut out.
When I started in the September I was then told that I would have a consultant working ‘with me’. A man of considerable expertise who asked me to deliver on paperwork on a weekly basis to prove I was moving the department forward. Which is fine. But, I was also having to set up BTEC courses, train staff in delivery and set up the bureaucratic nightmare that is managing such a qualification. While also dealing with 6 timetabled groups for 3 teaching spaces; behaviour management difficulties of my staff – who seemed to have no idea of how to inspire children to learn and instead barked orders (a trait across the school that was largely ignored by SLT); assessing and improving T and L; and doing all the normal things that you expect as HoD – SEF, Action plans, monitoring data and working on strategies, implementing the new curriculum etc.
My work-life balance was non existent. I expected this though and was prepared to put in the man hours to get it right. But I wanted to take my team forward with me. I was directed by the head to tell 2 members of my staff that I thought they were incompetent. They weren’t, they just needed support. I was told by my consultant that he’d been asked by the head to get rid of deadwood from the department by grading them as a 4 in lesson observations. I approached the head and was told it was going to happen anyway. He then, 2 weeks later, announced a restructuring and that there would be redundancies in our department, as well as others. Whatever good will I had from my team quickly became every man for himself. But we carried on and did our best and managed to still congregate in the pub at 5 on a Friday for a while.
I was then told my line manager was changing because the previous VP had gone in the first wave of redundancies at Christmas. I wasn’t too dissatisfied as he was more of an old school visionary when it came to my subject. However, the first thing the new executive principal said to me in our first meeting was that she didn’t think that I knew what I was doing and didn’t like what I was doing. I asked her to explain. She didn’t. But told me to re-do my SEF and action plan over the weekend. I was extremely stressed by this particularly since my consultant hadn’t a problem with either. I, nevertheless. did it and emailed it over having barely slept or eaten all weekend. During our next meeting she said she hadn’t had time to read it but wanted to talk about levels at KS3. We had a discussion, I talked about progress being made or not made by certain groups with her being fully aware of standards of teaching or teaching space issues being a problem. I asked for guidance on this, what did she think would help to improve things faster than was happening now, as 3 of my staff were on support plans to improve their teaching. She told me I had to give up my free lessons to teach those groups and where possible, team teach (double up my groups). I said I didn’t think that would be manageable. I was instructed to do it. Another meeting came and went with more criticism, now of my own teaching which was now suffering as a result of the extra workload.
Easter arrived and I sat at home for the two weeks marking and verifying hundreds of BTEC folders (every child in KS4 did the course). For 4 days I went in to school to do revision sessions for the GCSE groups. And then did the usual planning. My soul very close to destroyed at this point. No energy and no enjoyment to be had. I had repeatedly had my professionalism questioned and in short, had been told I was useless. My job was no longer about standing in front of children and enjoying the experience of teaching and learning. And I was bloody good at it! I was outstanding! In two terms that had been annihilated.
The first day back came, I felt sick at the thought of going in. By this point I was barely sleeping at night and had become quite withdrawn around friends and family, but I didn’t notice it. As I checked my email, I had one from the head telling me he would be observing me second lesson that day. This was the final straw. The one that broke the camel’s back so to speak. It wasn’t that I thought that I couldn’t teach the group well. I just could not bare the thought of him telling me anything that would be any way critical afterwards. My fragile self-esteem just would not take it. I did what I never did usually. I burst in to tears. And I sobbed for an hour. I got myself together to teach and shakily made my way through the day. At 4pm, I loaded all of my personal belongings in to my car and walked away.
For months, I was a wreck. I cried. I slept odd hours. I drowned in self-pity. Desperate to try and figure out where it all went wrong. I doubted myself in every aspect of my life. I could no longer even face being around some of my closest friends. Because all I was in life, in my head, was a teacher. And I was no longer that, not one I could be proud of anyway. So I was nothing. And I had been made to feel like that by someone else.
It took some serious counselling and self-reflection to have the guts to walk away from it all. But it is undoubtedly the best decision I ever made. I have a life back, a great job and I’m back to being me.
It started with an assault. It was quite a bad one, bruising and feeling rather shaken. The pupil had a history of aggressive behaviour and the rest. I reported it, as well as to the police. That was the start. The whole SMT machinery turned on me. I was given a dressing down and from that point on it all started to go wrong. I had been teaching for over 7 years, I think. No NQT, I was an ex-serviceman, confident and assertive. From the day the SMT betrayed my trust all of that evaporated. I became withdrawn and apathetic. I removed all the personal touches in my room.
More assaults followed. Once pupils sense you have been “breached” they home in. A pupil grabbed my wrist to prevent me from closing down a PC in an IT lesson. I raised my voice and the response was instant: “You shouldn’t have touched me!” she screamed. I knew I would get no back up from SMT. I was right. I reported it and had to fight to get the pupil removed. The poor behaviour which was the usual in the school became utterly unmanageable. The Headteacher had stated in no uncertain terms that I should seek employment elsewhere. There was no backup, the ambitious year 11 Head of Year eager to avoid exclusions to feather his own nest. I fell further, becoming more and more stressed. More issues followed, culminating in a hostile observation which triggered my visit to the doctors (on the advice of an assistant head teacher). From the start of the new September year I felt like I was living in a glass box. I was unable to interact with my young children. I would just sit on the sofa, usually covered in a blanket. I was so cold. In the mornings I was sick, I used to cycle into school, or run. That stopped. I drove to work and as soon as I could I left. Ironically I still had an excellent attendance record. My results were still very high (over 90%). I was dead on the inside.
A few days after the hostile observation, after the headteacher personally giving me feedback but just before the follow up observation I arranged to clear my reputation, I went to doctors. I broke down and cried. I cried, I sobbed, I felt ashamed and weak. I felt defeated, used and betrayed. It felt like the end.
I wasn’t. The Local Authority went through the motions. Their occupational therapist found that I was not depressed; my doctor disagreed. I was diagnosed with workplace stress. I never returned to secondary teaching. Over a year on I am now retraining into a better career – the law. I feel much better, more relaxed, happier, freer.
I still harbour immense resentment for those that call themselves “SMT”. They ignored all the warning signs that were evident as to my condition. They chose to punish than support. I am sure I am not alone in finding this.
My advice to those thinking of teaching – don’t. It’s not worth your sanity. If you thought I was alone in the school I was not. I was the third staff member in less than 3 years to leave through stress. A head of department for one of the core subjects was even keeping a log of workload, instructions from SMT and such to cover themselves if they were “strung out”. Not a nice career, not nice people. I fear for my children’s future with such unfeeling careerist monsters in charge for schools.
If anyone reading this is experiencing stress and depression themselves, you should be aware of the Teacher Support Network which runs a hotline and offers practical advice. If it is your working conditions that are making you ill, or if you want help with ensuring that you are supported at work having being diagnosed with stress or depression, I would recommend contacting your union.