Teacher wellbeing

The Teacher’s lot is not a happy one

Graeme McDonald

For many teachers, the school holidays mean joining the queues in waiting rooms of GP’s offices. The request for antibiotics to help their immune systems fight back is something many educators need to do when the pressure finally releases and the colds they have been holding back, suddenly turn into full blown bouts of flu.

Why does this scenario repeat itself like clockwork each term? And why is the health and wellbeing of the teaching profession such a concern? To get some insight into this phenomenon, let us take a look inside the staffroom and behind the classroom door.

Every morning we see teachers trooping in to school. After making the requisite cup of coffee, they head off to their homeroom group with laptop in hand. 25 x 45-minute classes each week bring many challenges, notably, knowing 125 students not just by name but by ability, preferred learning style, learning difficulties and home situation. Teachers are also expected to have good behaviour management and the ability to keep all students on task. In addition to providing counselling to students who have challenges outside the classroom, they also are expected to have strong subject knowledge and high-level communication skills to create real understanding of challenging concepts.

These teachers are important role models in the lives of the hundreds of young people entrusted to their care. To assist with this, each teacher has roughly 5 periods a week assigned to help prepare lesson plans, complete marking and reports and then from time to time they will be called on to take on a relief role to cover the class of a sick colleague.

Oh yes and then there are those extra duties like yard duty and bus duty and attendance at other functions sometimes euphemistically referred to as ‘agreed duties’ such as Parent Teacher Evenings, Open Days, Staff and Department meetings and Speech Nights. On top of this for many staff comes their participation in co-curricular activities which often involves training sessions after school and weekend competitions.

The current pre-service teaching programmes do give some real insights into the expectations of a teacher in this noble profession, but in a sense, they barely touch the surface of preparing a debutant to cope with the demands of the daily grind.

Many in the community are of the opinion that teachers’ working days go from roughly 8:30 a.m. to 3:00 p.m. and they also speak with incredulity about the length of teachers’ holidays. These people assert that such working conditions are unknown in any other profession. The truth is that for most teachers early starts and late finishes on every working day are the ‘norm’ and while doctors, lawyers and engineers may have a longer day they normally see one client at a time whilst a teacher attempts to cater for 25 students simultaneously.

Another factor that besets teachers is the increasing level of expectation placed on them to produce results. Parents want each teacher to know their child individually and ideally to differentiate curriculum delivery in such a way that their son or daughter’s learning is personalised. The enormity of this task in terms of lesson planning should not be understated. Even if a modified programme of differentiation is developed for say 3 groups in a class, the complexity of lesson planning becomes roughly three times as difficult.

Administrators want staff to ensure that they are heavily involved in professional development programmes, meet all reporting deadlines, maintain good discipline in all classes and ensure that the occurrence of bullying is not only minimised but when it occurs that accurate records of actions taken are maintained to name just a few.

Next, of course there is the media monitoring events in schools and publishing leagues tables of NAPLAN and OP results, soon to be replaced by ATAR scores. In years where a school has not produced a stellar performance, teachers inevitably have to respond to the jibes about why their school did not fare better. Explanations of the sort that the abilities of student cohorts vary from year to year usually fall on deaf ears.

Community expectations also seem to be increasing exponentially. We regularly hear calls for more programmes in schools to ensure that students will develop high quality digital literacy skills and will therefore refrain from unethical use of technology. Then there are calls for financial literacy programmes, civics education, driver safety and drug education to name just a few and all this without in any way compromising core literacy and numeracy programmes.

It is therefore perhaps not surprising that ‘Teachers report the highest level of occupational stress in Australia, the U.K. and America’ (Bailey 2013). Moreover, in the Work Cover Report of 2014, it was noted that ‘Teachers make more mental stress claims than any other industry’.

It is rare for us in Australia to note the early warning signs of a potential crisis. Many experienced teachers will soon be leaving the industry. As Professor Riley commented recently in an article entitled ‘Why do teachers Leave?’, retiring teachers feel utterly spent. They miss the kids and teaching them, but the demands of the job simply become too much (Stroud, 2017). Currently, more than one in four Australian teachers suffer from emotional exhaustion after starting their careers and are expected to leave the profession within their first five years of teaching (Marshal Milburn, 2011).

If the future of education lies in the hands of the younger practitioners then making these educators feel recognised and valued for what they do is a good starting point. If the approaching loss of intellectual expertise among seasoned campaigners is a concern then perhaps trying to delay or stagger these departures would be worth considering. John Dewey once observed that ‘a problem well put is half solved’. Our challenge then is to identify what factors have the most significant impact on the health and wellbeing of teachers and to address those issues as a matter of urgency.

Author: Graeme McDonald M.Ed, B.A

Graeme has held an impassioned career for over 20 years as Principal of Independent schools across Australia. His involvement in education has been extensive both in and outside school walls. Graeme has held pivotal roles in AHISA, IBSC, GPS and is a long-serving member for ACE and ACEL. The academic, cultural and sporting successes his students have shared in, is a testament to his distinguished career as an educator.