How many times have you heard: 'what have teachers got to be stressed about? They only work from 9am til 3:30pm AND they get six weeks off every summer! Not to mention Christmas, Easter and half terms. How can they be stressed?' You may have even asked some of these questions yourself.
The truth is, though, teachers are stressed. Last year, Channel 4 reported that there had been an 80% increase in teachers committing suicide. The increase meant that suicide figures for teachers are now 30 to 40% higher than the national average.
The Scotsman reported that 7,000 teaching days were lost in Scotland in the last year due to stress or similar mental health conditions, while a six-figure settlement was paid out to a teacher after an employer refused to respond to a teacher's concerns over workload. A survey by the Welsh Conservatives revealed that stress leave taken by staff in Wales had increased by 14% in 2009-10. It was also reported that teachers in Suffolk took almost 10,000 days off sick as a result of stress.
Between 2010 and 2011, 19,000 users, made up of current, former and retired staff in education, recorded 45,633 incidents (calls or emails) to the Teacher Support Network Group - the only UK charity providing practical and emotional support specifically for teachers.
Money was one of the biggest issues, with the charity group handling 7,334 incidents related to personal finances during the two-year period. Health and wellbeing accounted for 16,602 during the period, with 4,589 of those specifically relating to anxiety. A further 3,002 incidents concerned problems with family relationships, while 2,180 were logged by people losing sleep over their worries.
Interestingly, none of these issues mentioned above are school related. Teachers are not just concerned about professional issues, like managing classroom behaviour or workload, but are increasingly asking for support in their day-to-day lives too.
As a result, Teacher Support Network is both improving its existing support services and launching new ones that focus on teachers' personal concerns, as well as their professional worries.
Yet, why do teachers need specific support? Why are teachers so different to the general workforce?
The difference is that in most professions if someone has a bad day because of outside pressures, maybe it will affect three or four colleagues at the office; if a teacher has the same bad time, it could affect hundreds of pupils and their futures.
One of the problems is that teachers cannot always ask for help or are criticised for saying they are stressed, precisely because of the amount of holiday time they are perceived to take. Ofsted Chief Sir Michael Wilshaw suggested earlier this year that teachers and headteachers "too often make excuses for poor performance - it's just too hard, the children are too difficult, the families are too unsupportive, this job is far too stressful".
In reality, teachers are not whingeing; they are expressing genuine concern and they should not be made to feel fearful or at risk of being singled out as poor teachers simply because they express vulnerability. Asking for support is a sign of strength and investing in and supporting the workforce is a principle of effective management.
At Teacher Support Network, we know that the next few weeks and months will be a stressful time both in and out of the classroom. November, for example, is traditionally one of the busiest months for our Support Lines. As the new academic year begins, the question we really should be asking is: do teachers know that they can ask for help and get appropriate support for their personal as well as professional lives?
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