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'As teachers, our biggest challenge is to protect our students from our own stress'

Emma Kell

Our students have only one shot at education – as teachers, in addition to creating a good work-life balance, one of our biggest challenges is to not inflict our frustrations on pupils, writes one teacher.

I was lucky enough to be invited to present at the Haberdashers’ Aske’s School for Girls' Teaching and Learning Conference. On a Saturday. These things always seem like complete insanity, but I left feeling thoroughly rejuvenated after a morning with inspirational people. I spoke about challenge.

Challenging behaviour. A challenge to authority. Challenging circumstances. Appropriate levels of challenge. The importance of challenge for all. It’s a term that’s used so widely in education and it’s important to define what we mean.

I turned to my most reliable sources, my daughters. My eldest, at 10, said this:

"Challenge is coming out of your comfort zone and trying something new. It’s usually good. If you’re challenged every day you get smarter and smarter."

My younger daughter, aged 8, was quite disgruntled at being interrupted during a game of Minecraft. "What? Oh. OK. There’s class challenge, challenge plus and challenge plus plus. Challenge plus plus is the best."

As I explained to the audience of teachers yesterday, not only am I very much "one of them" – proudly a full-time teacher – but this is not a moan. I choose to see challenge through my daughters’ eyes. As an opportunity for fresh thinking, a chance to reassess and to move forward. Because, after all, it is our biggest challenges that make us what we are. I didn’t know what my educational values were until I found myself in an environment where they weren’t shared. Now I do, I hold them dear.

I had an argument with a senior leader during my fresh-faced early months in middle leadership. He argued that teachers are resistant to challenge. I argued that they weren’t – that most people thrive on it. As mentioned in a previous Tes article, teachers really don’t go into the profession for an easy life.

Big challenges for teachers

Here are a selection of my own "challenges":

  • To be in two (or more) places at once; if anyone has the potion that can solve this one, they could make millions;
  • To be a decent mother, wife, friend and a decent teacher; I choose the word "decent" advisedly in the spirit of "good enough" – perfectionism is not our friend;
  • To get through a lesson without tripping over a student’s bag;
  • To identify a brand of glue stick that doesn’t disappear within three working weeks;
  • To practise what I preach; to be the best teacher and I can be; to not ask others to do what I’m not prepared to do myself. 

The two biggest challenges we face as teachers, I believe, are these:

I then turned to my second most reliable source of information, Twitter, and asked teachers what challenges they face daily. These range from the heartening to the downright depressing to the practical.


On a day-to-day basis, these are some challenges teachers face:

  • "To get out of bed" wins hands-down;
  • "To keep the whole class on task at the same time";
  • "To find time for a wee" or, indeed, "to decide between lunch and a wee";
  • "To locate the board pen"
  • "To find a working photocopier"
  • "To mentally switch off"
  • "To keep all the plates spinning"
  • "To balance all of the demands made on me and not let everyone down". 

Some made me smile or cheer:

  • "To keep the students believing they can do it, despite the complexities of the exam and inequality in the world."
  • "Every day it is a challenge to remember why we are doing this: education gives us the knowledge and freedom to be who we can be and the skills and power to do it."
  • "Not laughing out loud when a child in your class accidentally breaks wind really loudly."
  • "Every day it is a challenge to maintain a serious face when five-year-olds write love notes on their whiteboards."
  • "‘To convince my pupils that they are as brilliant as I think they are."
  • "To explain to my husband why it’s worth the hours, effort, challenge, emotional energy and, sometimes, stress. I wouldn’t change a second of it."

And some made me rage or frown:

  • "To deal with educational hierarchies who lack imagination, inspiration or humanity."
  • "To feel the same love of the job I had 15 years ago. Too many changes – in the job, in children and in me."
  • "‘Every day is a challenge to be able to provide the support my colleagues deserve."
  • "To access adequate support for SEN children."
  • "Every day it is a challenge to remain positive and professional all the time when living with chronic pain."  

There were many more, but one thing I can say is that there was more smiling than raging. And when this is the case, there’s always hope.


I recently reread my book, How to Survive in Teaching. I found myself at times smiling wryly and at others snarking at this naive author who imagines that it’s possible to solve all these issues whilst finding clean socks for the kids every morning and trying (and failing) to keep everybody happy, before remembering I wrote it myself. A year since writing it, there have been some shifts.


It has been amazing, for example, to read of the inspirational Andria Zafirakou winning the Global Teacher Prize. Other developments have been less heartening. It is both a privilege and sobering to have become someone who teachers in crisis confide in. Unbelievably (I hesitated before deciding to include this as it seemed so outrageous), more than one teacher has been forced to undergo a miscarriage whilst working. And yes, compulsory pilates in schools is officially a thing.

In the end, in the words of my dearly missed former headteacher, Kevin, there is no choice but, as long as we have our stubborn optimism and a grasp of our integrity, to keep "fighting the good fight". And trying really, really hard to look after ourselves, because our students deserve to see us as humans and not as worn-out husks.


Next week, I will consider in more depth the challenges and the responses explored in How to Survive in Teaching.


Use the hashtag #teacherchallenge to share your own daily challenges on Twitter.


Emma Kell is a secondary teacher in north-east London and author of How to Survive in Teaching

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