Teachers just faced the most stressful conditions they have experienced, with the very swift transition from school based to on-line learning only to return to an environment that at any time could prove life threatening for them, their colleagues and students. In this Newsletter I will examine the real mechanics of stress, the abdication of the employer’s responsibility and the need to completely modify the current industrialised approach to providing public education.
Throughout these essays the underpinning message has been for the struggling students to succeed and we need to achieve two things:
- Develop a sense of self that allows them to approach their learning with confidence
- Provide an environment that does not attack the child’s sense of security and provides them the opportunity to succeed to their ability.
Although both conditions are required for teachers the responsibility to achieve them is not shared. In fact, it is the quality of the environment that determines the level of stress teachers have to deal with.
I just looked up workplace stress on Goggle I got 217,000,000 results (0.63 seconds), that is 217 million bits of advice. I have had a look a few of these and as I already understood they all had advice for you on how to deal with that stress. They were about looking after:
- Your Health – diet, smoking, exercise, etc
- Support Structures – reaching out to others, finding someone you can share your problems, etc.
- Self-Management – take control, say ‘no’, manage your time, etc.
I read one list that advised you ‘become lord of your destiny’!
I remember a few years ago when the Department provided a substantial sum of money to ‘cure’ principals from their stress. All that happened was a consultant made a lot of money and we principals were really left with the understanding that, if we couldn’t cope it was our fault! But, that’s like telling someone who is about to be assaulted that if that was about to stress you it was your fault – no one would do that so why do they blame the teachers for their stress?
No one would argue that teaching is not a difficult job and no one gets through many days without being put into situations that generate stress. That stress comes from dealing with developing children. We soon learn that in most cases these are problems to deal with. Occasionally you would get a few kids that were really difficult and had to be dealt with. In recent years the numbers and the extreme expression of the dysfunctional behaviour has become more significant. For some schools the Government’s support for private schools has allowed concerned parents to take their students away from the public sector and their attempts to stem this drift has developed selective schools. The result has been the residualisation of the comprehensive school. On top of the kid’s behaviour you have to deal with their other kids’ diverse talents and disabilities not to mention their parents! Remember the presence these stressors are out of your control!
You can add to this increasing external environmental difficulty is the demands on you from the Department. In my almost fifty years in schools I witnessed the exponential growth in a teacher’s administrative responsibilities. Today there is a recognition of the excessive burden placed on the teacher and the increasing onus on teachers to provide evidence that they comply with these demands.
The diagram below is an attempt to illustrate the problem:
The amount of stress a teacher accumulates is a balance between the external demands placed on them by their employer and their ability to handle these demands! When the teacher’s resilience is equal to or greater than the external stressors the teacher will be able to function effectively. However, when these external stressors are greater than the teacher’s resilience then the teacher is suffering a type of abuse and will be required to use their cognitive energy to survive thus rendering them less effective!
Where does the responsibility lie to solve this problem? As I pointed out at the beginning of this essay, look for any advice and almost exclusively it will place the obligation on the individual. Even the small support the Department provides is directed at helping teachers increase their resilience. A popular phrase used was to increase your capacity. This implies that if the teacher can not provide enough resilience to deal with the external demands then they are the problem, they failed because they were just not good enough!
This is faulty logic that suits the status quo, the same argument that is applied to meritocracy. It delivers equal demands to all workers and when some succeed, then not to do so means you are a failure; ‘if you have a go you will get a go’!
A significant result is that because few of us want to fail and even more admit to that failure we go back to school day after day using most of our cognitive energy just surviving, this is what I’m calling toxic resilience we appear to be coping when in reality we are not only suffering continual intellectual abuse we are not being able to teach to the best of our ability!
The Department consistently praises the teachers for their efforts but never ever take any responsibility for their side of the equation! In their WHS Policy they assert:
The department is committed to:
1.11 – providing everyone in its workplaces with a safe and healthy working and learning environment.
They are not complying to their own legislation.
For the first time since retirement I am pleased not to be at a school, I am sure I suffered from toxic resilience through many phases of my career and at my farewell I made the comment the job is now undoable. Today with the continued growth in demands and now being ordered to teach in a pandemic without the physical ability to provide the recommended conditions even the most resilient teacher would be lying if they claimed to have it all under control!
I have no advice that’s better than you can get readily on the internet but I think my approach to boundaries (see Newsletter Teaching Practical Boundaries - 31st July 2017) is as good as any. What needs to happen is the external demands are reduced to a level where all teachers can meet their directives and have the energy to then teach their students. Maybe its time to become ‘lord of our destiny’ and demand change. I can’t see how the Department is not breaking its own law and perhaps that’s where this problem will be solved!