This week heralds the arrival of National Stress Awareness day, always on the first Wednesday of November.  You may have heard of ‘stress’.  It’s talked about a lot these days.  You may be stressed.  You wouldn’t be alone.  Gone are the days when Atticus Finch’s (haven’t met that ethical superhero?  You should.) sister could stride through the daily torrent with head unbowed, because “when Aunt Alexandra went to school, self-doubt could not be found in any textbook, so she knew not its meaning.”

We do.  As part of the Health and Safety Executive’s national statistics, a Labour Force Survey found that 602,000 workers are suffering from work-related stress, depression or anxiety (new or longstanding) in 2018/19.  As for teachers, the National Foundation for Educational Research’s (NFER) first annual report on the teacher labour market in England highlights that “one in five teachers (20 per cent) feel tense about their job most or all of the time, compared to 13 per cent of similar professionals.”  We’re so stressed, that the NFER had to work out the statistics for us (one in five = 20%. Rest easy).

“one in five teachers (20 per cent) feel tense about their job most or all of the time, compared to 13 per cent of similar professionals.”

Not for me to list the effects of stress – the NHS, among others, does a fine job in this respect.  They are many and they are debilitating.  Mind and body warped.  Personally, two things stick out when I begin to feel stressed.  Firstly, it’s as if a clamp has been placed on my cranium, either side of my forehead and, vice-like, it tightens until I’m forced to go running to the one thing in this life I truly couldn’t do without: ibuprofen.  23 minutes from intake to relief.

Secondly, I wake up in the night or, if I’m very lucky… the morning, and the first thing that occurs to me is the fact that my mind is already travelling at the same high speed it was when I left.  No acclimatisation or gentle wakening.  No birdsong, fresh bread or sunlit caress.  Deadlines.  Parental meetings.  The awkward conversation with that colleague.  The 1001 things I haven’t done, let alone the 1002 I should.  It’s as if I left that building in body only.

Stress in Teachers

So, to precisely nobody’s surprise, the statistics suggest that stress riddles the profession.  On occasion friends of mine will point out that in being a teacher, I have the kind of holidays that they could only dream of.  When confronted with this, I don’t adopt the somewhat reactionary response I’ve heard elsewhere.  They’re right.  If I add up my half-terms and holiday breaks, they come to about 3 months a year or, if you like, the equivalent of a year off for every 3 I work.  That’s no joke, but of course it doesn’t tell the full story. 

For starters it takes me at least a week to decompress once a term ends.  It’s a process I struggle to speed up, and it’s very obvious to me once it begins to happen.  My mind, battered by the administrative and emotional onslaught of the term, continues to operate apace.  I need to get things done and if I don’t, I can get no satisfaction because I feel I have not put the free time I value so dearly to good use.  As the days pass though, there comes a loosening.  I find my mind suddenly open to long forgotten or never considered ideas and perspectives.  I enjoy my breakfast.  I read.  The world is what it always was – beautiful and varied and vast – and I feel I have come back to a place I know and like.  All of this just in time to witness, coming over the horizon, the impending arrival of another term.  The psychological apparatus kicks back into gear, the hatches are battened once more, and there is only what lies behind and ahead.  Gone the wide world around.

So, 3 months off a year.  Physically?  Yes.  Psychologically?  Not possible.  Oh to be able to leave my work at work.  I actually believe I am quite good at this generally – it is something I have worked hard on in my career, but any teacher (hello!) will tell you that it is impossible to achieve completely.  Why is this?  One thing I often refer to when talking with those who fairly point out the extent of our holidays is the emotionally taxing nature of the profession. 

Feeling tired or low?  No hiding behind a computer for us.  30 children will walk through that door and when they walk out, another 30 walk in.  On any given day, a teacher will have thousands of personal interactions, many of which are touched by the kind of intellectual and emotional manoeuvring that typically characterises good teaching.  That’s taxing, and there’s nowhere to hide.  A common experience (I hope): that moment when you let something slide – a comment overheard, a task unfinished… – simply because you have not the will to pick that battle.  It can feel like a tacit defeat; the kind of embarrassing, inner white flag that mocks all we would like to believe about ourselves.  

And yet, who trumpets the many victories?  A dear friend of mine told me the other day that he thought teachers were some of the most together people there are.  His argument being that, in order to be and survive as a teacher, you had to be capable of managing a very intense psychological workload.  “Sometimes I give myself a pat on the back for my efforts.”  I’ve heard little more sensible than that in a long time.

‘In order to be and survive as a teacher, you had to be capable of managing a very intense psychological workload.’

So, with the arrival of National Stress Awareness day, I’m not about to finish with anything even remotely original or innovative.  I will simply say that this Wednesday, if you’re a teacher, then you too ought to take a moment and give yourself that pat on the back.  Because there’s little that’s more important than what you do.  Because you have striven and fought and endured and survived and triumphed and failed and suffered and moved and inspired.  All in a day’s work. 

Part of ‘The Good Fight’ by Tom Brooker for Consortium Education.

Find out more about Tom here.