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Burned out: why are so many teachers quitting or off sick with stress?

James Tapper

The Guardian

13th May, 2018

Overwork and lack of support are driving teachers across England out of the profession much faster than they can be replaced. But schools facing cuts and rising costs can see no way of improving matters for their staff.

It was a toxic routine: plan lessons until 1am, wake up at 5am in a sweat, vomit, go to work, teach. “I lost a stone and a half in two months,” Dan Lintell said. “I was having heart palpitations and panic attacks. My body was totally exhausted. I couldn’t go on.” He had barely completed his first half-term as a newly qualified teacher.

The start of the school year in September had been filled with optimism. After a successful 20-year career as a design engineer, Lintell decided he wanted to become a teacher. This made him what the government called a “high-calibre career changer”, who would revitalise schools and bring experience from the “real world” into the classroom – in his case, teaching physics at a comprehensive in Leicestershire.

“The idea was to spend time with my daughter, who was turning four,” he said. “The irony is that I barely got to see my family. I was doing my job, coming home, having dinner, then starting work at 8.30pm and working through until 1am, every night.”

Lintell was overwhelmed by two things: pouring his soul into “choreographing the classroom” five times a day; and seeing any hope of recovery disappear under a mountain of preparation for the next day’s performances.

“You’re meant to spend no more than an hour preparing for each lesson, but if you’re going to do a half-decent job, you need two hours. If you have 25 hours of lessons a week, that’s already 50 hours. And then you’ve got marking and other things on top.”

Welcome to England’s classrooms in 2018. Every teacher knows someone who has left the profession, retired early, had a breakdown, or been signed off work with stress. Just under 40,000 teachers quit the profession in 2016 – the latest figures available – representing about 9% of the workforce, according to government figures. And not enough of them are being replaced – there is now a shortfall of 30,000 classroom teachers, particularly at secondary level, where 20% of teacher training vacancies are unfilled.

A lack of teachers means classes are getting bigger. Bigger classes are harder to control. Losing control stops teachers teaching. With less teaching time, students make less progress. And that can be catastrophic for teachers.

“One bad year can be career-ending,” said Valentine Mulholland, head of policy at the National Association of Head Teachers (NAHT). “In no other profession would you have that. You can have one year of pupils which is very different from previous years, which they have no control over. If you live with that sword of Damocles over your head, it’s difficult not to cascade that fear to the rest of your school.”

Some schools have tried radical solutions to this crisis of being unable to find or keep staff. In Daventry, Northamptonshire, Ashby Fields primary floated the idea of closing early on Fridays, sending children home at 1.15pm, with the possibility of an after-school club for children of working parents. The problem, the headteacher said in a letter to parents, was recruitment, retention and workload, which had a “direct, major impact on, not only our children’s education, but on their well-being and confidence. The huge workload ensures teachers work an average of 60 hours a week during term time and through their holidays to keep up. Many teachers, despite their love of frontline teaching, cannot manage this workload and maintain a healthy work/life balance, and subsequently resign.”

Parents arriving at the school – which is part of a shopping precinct bolted on to a 1990s housing estate where there are no street corners, only gentle curves and cul-de-sacs – were unimpressed.

“It’s hard enough to find a job that finishes within normal school hours,” Emma Lennox said. “How would I find a job that finishes at 1pm? It’s £8 for an afternoon session and I’ve got three kids. That means all my wages would be paying for their care.”

She and friend Kim Burns agreed that teacher turnover was high. “We’ve had nine teachers in one year for my daughter’s class,” Burns said.

“We had eight,” Lennox nodded. “They need more time to plan, but don’t they have six weeks’ holiday?”


But holidays, in teacher-speak, simply mean a break from the classroom. For Victoria Hewett, they meant time to catch up on work. As head of geography at a new academy in Kent, she was responsible for setting up the department and teaching about 240 children across the school.


“I could feel I was on the edge before Easter,” she said. A few days before the break, she broke down in class, but struggled back to finish the half-term. “I worked all Easter break to catch up. The minute I got into my classroom, I just walked out again. I couldn’t do it. The anxiety was crippling.”


Another teacher found her and asked if she was all right. “I just burst into tears and didn’t stop crying for two hours. I was sent home – I have no idea how I got there. My memory is just a blur. I went to bed and slept until Tuesday morning. I had barely had any sleep over the holidays.”


After taking advice from the Education Support Partnership (ESP), a charity that offers mental health support to anyone working in education in England and Wales, Hewett was signed off work for three weeks and prescribed antidepressants. ESP says that over the past 12 months it has seen the number of teachers calling its confidential helpline rise by 35%, to 8,668 cases.


“What we’re hearing is that people have lost a sense of agency,” said Julian Stanley, ESP’s chief executive. “There is constant change – new initiatives, new curriculum changes. A number of pressures tell us that it’s not a whinge; it’s a fact. Teachers feel they need to be trusted, and need support.”


Hewett felt in an impossible bind – she was expected to show constant improvements in her students’ assessments, but classroom time was frequently undermined by unruly behaviour. She felt there was no backup from her senior leadership team when she tried to deal with troublemakers. “You had these targets to meet, but you didn’t have the support to meet those targets.”


Research shows that people in a high-performance job can cope with stress if they have support and autonomy, a model known as “decision latitude”, said Dr Almuth McDowall, head of occupational psychology at Birkbeck, University of London. “It’s well established that you can cope with a very stressful job if you’ve got control and support,” she said. “If you take support out, things become much more difficult. If there is a lack of control and autonomy for a long period while you have high job demands, things start to go very wrong.”

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