I am very nervous about this post. I would almost go as far as saying that I’m feeling rather stressed about it – but considering what I’m going to say, you could then accuse me of being, at the very least, contradictory or, at worst, an insensitive and flippant madman. I feel like I should add a multitude of disclaimers in order to protect myself from what I imagine could be an onslaught of upset and hate-fuelled replies and, as it’s the holidays, I’d like my inbox to be free from those sorts of emails, for the next six weeks at least. I have been toying with the concept of this post for a long time now but have always shied away from it for fear of being misunderstood or accused of not understanding, but after reading the latest ‘Secret Teacher’ article in the Guardian, I figured – ah sod it, put it out there.
Right, enough of this flirting – let’s get down to business. No more teasing, I’ll just come right out and say it. Ok. Here goes.
Look, before I say it, I just want to want to make it absolutely abundantly clear that I have a lot of empathy in me, right? And that I’m not one of those mental illness deniers. For example, I don’t think the solution to depression is to ‘just cheer up’.
Ok, deep breath. (Don’t judge me/hate me/unfollow me – especially not the last one.)
Now, stop it, stop it. I can see your fingers twitching; I can already read the reply you are composing in your head: ‘Well, well, well, another Head who doesn’t understand. Another Head who has no idea of the pressures we’re under and who thinks that stress is made up and who thinks that everyone is a slacker unless they’ve developed a sleep pattern akin to that of Margaret Thatcher. Well, I pity his staff. Quick, ring the unions and tribunal him to within an inch of his SEF! See how he likes it.’
Firstly, I do know the pressures we’re all under and of course I want everyone at my school to have a work/life balance. Secondly, I don’t think stress is made up.
However, I think the word ‘stress’ can be, at times, misused and it is this that I have a problem with.
In its purest form, stress is a debilitating condition that requires recognition and support, and in that I am unwavering. If you are stressed because there is something going on that is external or additional to the daily pressures of your job then I would agree that you are suffering from stress. Whether I, or anyone else, would feel the same level of stress is neither here nor there: ‘it’ is stressing you out and this is impacting heavily on your life, meaning that you cannot do your job. I would definitely count this as the type of ‘stress’ that warrants as much support as we can throw at it. Whether it be through an occupational health referral, time off work, a carefully thought out return to work plan, coaching, therapy, reduced hours, diminished responsibilities…whatever. Whatever you need in order to get through ‘it’ so that when you break through the other side you are fit and well and can carry on – it will be worth it. We all have our own burdens that at times get on top of us and we all, at times, need a bit of extra help.
What do I mean by ‘something going on that is external or additional to the daily pressures of your job’? Well, it could be personal – a death, a divorce, an illness, an attack, whatever else you can think of/have experienced; or it could still be work related, especially if your conditions have changed drastically over a very short time frame or if something has happened at school that is resulting in you getting a lot of extra ‘heat’. All of this comes under the banner ‘I didn’t sign up for this; obviously I’m trying my best but I need help or else it may be the end of me’. And in my book all these warrant support and deserve the term: stress.
So, why am I writing this post? Well I’m worried mainly because I think the word ‘stress’ has become hijacked and the culprits are giving stress a bad name – or, to be more accurate, they’ve replaced other words with the word ‘stress’. Which words do I consider have been synonymised? Well let’s start with: confused, naïve, unhappy, incapable and, in extreme cases, incompetent.
Stop it! I knew that last sentence would get you worked up again. Remember: if you have suffered (and I mean really suffered) from stress, I’m not talking about you – I’m on your side.
I’m talking about those people that cannot seem to be able to cope with doing their job. I don’t intend for that to sound cruel; I mean it in a matter of fact way. The academic timetable is a tough one to adhere to and there are multiple check points along the way that are designed to gently test your accountability – in addition to that there are many extra-curricular activities that you are also expected to partake in. I would argue that what we do, day in and day out, hasn’t really changed over the years, but that the ways in which we are held accountable have. The kicker here is that if you can do your job well and can stick to the academic timetable these accountability measures shouldn’t be a problem. If they are a problem (and as long as your SLT aren’t insane megalomaniacs, hell bent on running you and the rest of the school into the ground) then it may be a case of being a teacher just ain’t for you.
Again, I’m not trying to belittle you like some horrendous Gordon Ramsay – branding you weak and pathetic whilst chucking lumps of chalk at you from across the classroom; I’m just saying maybe you shouldn’t be a teacher. Take this week’s Guardian’s Secret Teacher. At one point they say: “I have periods where I love it (usually the last day of term) and periods where I hate it (usually that first Monday back in January).” If going back to work to do your job fills you with dread every Monday or start of term – you’re not unduly stressed, you just either really don’t enjoy your job or you can’t do it. No shame in that but, well, try leaving.
I find it particularly odd when teachers seem to think that because they find the pressures of the job exactly that – a pressure – that they immediately remove themselves from any responsibility. Are you surprised that teaching is difficult? Was it a shock that we work after 3pm and that at times we dream about school? If you are shocked that teaching is a tough racket then you have two options: refine your perspective and start doing the job as outlined in the job description/teaching standards or find a job that matches your expectations.
Written down in black and white I know this seems extraordinarily cold. But look at it from my point of view. If you are struggling, I will help. Of course I will; it is in my interest for you to be a great teacher who can finish each term having done all that was required to a good standard in order for you to enjoy your holiday and come back next term ready to roll. I will do whatever it takes to help you. But, if we find that you just can’t do it, then the pressure your underperformance puts on others also begins to become a problem. Now I’m not saying that to stress you out, but, do you ever stop and wonder how the other teachers manage it? Because most do. They do their job and they’re happy. And my expectations of them are the same as they are of you. So what is their secret and why haven’t you asked them? If your default reaction to stress is that because you don’t like it, it should be taken away from you and that no-one could possibly do the things expected of you then I would argue that you are either working at the wrong school under the wrong school leaders or that you are worryingly and disproportionally out of touch with the realities of teaching, stubbornly refusing to look inside yourself for an answer.
Therein lies my biggest worry over the use of the word stress: it stops people from reflecting. It stops them from thinking: can I do this? Then, logically, their thoughts become distorted and they begin to unrealistically believe that they shouldn’t have to do all the work, that it’s not fair and that the stress they are feeling through ‘not coping’ means that the job should change rather than them, but sadly that isn’t going to happen. Sorry.
So there we are. Am I the worst Head ever? No. (Thought I’d answer that one for you.) Do I get stressed? Absolutely. But I know why: the job is tough. But I can change and adapt and reflect and prioritise and ask for appropriate help and therefore I get the job done. Part of my job is also making sure my staff get the job done too, and I take that very seriously. If you’re stressed, if you can’t sleep because you’re worried about school, come and tell me and I’ll do what I can. All I ask is that you are honest about the job you have to do and your abilities to do it. If you can do that then maybe you’ll be able to sleep at night.