Teaching is a stressful occupation. Any occupation that requires one to not only talk to people but to educate them, is stressful. Imagine having to do this every week day in front of over twenty people who do not want to be there. During your lunch break, instead of putting your feet up and reading the paper, you may be required to patrol the inside of a wire fence wearing a fluorescent vest followed by children sucking up or making fun of you. On days off, you still have scribbled essays to mark or neatly written essays to vet against Wikipedia all the time. During holidays you travel hours to a remote caravan park on the bend of a river and there will still be a school child who recognises you and keeps saying “Hello, Sir”.
Such can be the life of a teacher but teaching is conducted at a workplace and health at work is a legislated obligation and expectation. On 23 June 2010, the Tasmanian Government felt the need to clarify some media reports concerning the stress levels of its teachers. The Education Minister, Lin Thorp, said in a media release that
“… a total of 57 Department of Education employees, including teaching and non-teaching staff, had taken stress leave in the year ending March 2010. This figure is the same as for the previous year.
“Of these, 27 were already back at work, and a further six were back at work on a rehabilitation program,” Ms Thorp said. “While one teacher or employee away from work on stress leave is too many, considering that there are over 9560 Department of Education employees, it is a very small number of staff affected.””
The tone of the media release is that teacher stress has been reduced “as far as is reasonably practicable”, that there is some consolation that the situation is not worsening. Nor is the situation improving and a major principle of OHS is for continuous improvement. In many ways a flat performance in OHS is a failure.
Interestingly, non-teaching staff were included in the statistics. Surely a differentiation should have been made in these statistics as the work environment in an office or, at least, not daily in front of children, should be less stressful. Or perhaps there is an oblique reference to public service management styles and workload.
Managing and reducing workplace stress in education is a difficult challenge. Many readers will remember seeing teachers to whom teaching appeared effortless. Many will also remember teachers who seemed “unsuited” to the profession. It would be easy to simplify the issue of stress and, more generally, mental health or psychosocial issues by “blaming” the worker. This is a common perspective on stress and one that supports the, seemingly, increasing trend to focus on “resilience”, on a person’s ability to cope. This is an absurd perspective and one whose absurdity was clearly established in the blue-collar industries in the 1970’s and 1980s. That it is now in the professional classes does not make the perspective any less absurd.
A 2002 paper by Sue Howard and Bruce Johnson entitled “Resilient Teachers: Resisting Stress and Burnout” discusses the issue briefly. The usefulness of a 2002 paper is that it is not part of recent management approaches to stress. The report’s abstract states:
“Across Australia, the incidence of teacher stress and burn-out causes serious concern. Many studies of teacher stress have focused on the dysfunctional strategies of individual teachers – in other words they have adopted a deficit approach to the problem with the focus firmly fixed on ‘what’s going wrong’. From this perspective, failure of some teachers to cope has generally been defined as a personal rather than an institutional weakness and the solutions that have been promoted have been largely palliative or therapeutic.
The study being reported in this paper adopted a different approach to the question of teacher stress and burn-out. Instead of asking ‘what’s going wrong’ we asked why are some teachers able to cope successfully with the same kinds of stressors that appear to defeat others – in other words, we looked at ‘what’s going right’.
We interviewed 10 primary school teachers in hard-to-staff schools in disadvantaged areas. Using a screening device we had developed, principals identified teachers who were ‘at risk of stress and burnout’ but were ‘persistently and successfully coping with stress’ (i.e. ‘resilient’). Our findings indicate that these teachers’ sources of coping with stress are many, varied and largely (but not exclusively) located outside the individual.”
After identifying some protective factors, Howard & Johnston made these suggestions:
- “The strategy of de-personalising stressful incidents is a simple one that senior staff and colleagues in any school can teach new teachers and that students can be taught in their teacher education courses.
- With School Choice options, principals of hard-to-staff schools can ensure that new staff actually want the challenge of a difficult school – that they have what we’ve called a moral purpose in their choice of work setting.
- All schools can organize strong and reliable whole-school behaviour management strategies that will support teachers both in everyday and emergency situations.
- Leadership teams in all schools can make support of staff in both professional and personal issues a priority.
- All schools can be organized in such a way as to promote strong peer group support (e.g. work-teams, social activities, supportive rather than competitive school culture). Students in training can be alerted to the importance of developing strong peer support both within school and outside.
- Staff achievements should be celebrated and they should be valued through promotions etc.
- The critical importance of competence in the key areas of behaviour management, program organization, lesson preparation and the effective management of resources can be taught both in teacher education programs and on the job.”
There are many positives from this small study and there are sure to be others that are more authoritative and recent. What would be fascinating would be a re-survey of the same schools and those that put some controls in place to determine which worked and which lasted.
Employee Assistance Programs
What these positive factors indicate is that the hopeful element of the Education Minister’s media statement seems very limited and reactive. The existence of Employee Assistance Programs (EAP) are good but they almost always become involved or invoked after the damage has occurred. Most EAPs are not preventative and are often aligned more to a return-to-work program than to a preventative OHS program.
The media release would have been more effective, in an OHS sense, if some of the “protective factors” mentioned above had been mentioned.
It may also have been the case that if the Tasmanian Education Department had introduced such measures years ago, the number of stress cases may never have reached 57.