Real victims of education politics

September 2012

 

Facebook       Tweet

Teaching can be a stressful occupation, made more stressful by intense political scrutiny and change. JUDE BARBACK looks at the causes, consequences, and coping strategies of teacher stress.

Teaching could be considered a naturally stressful profession. With roughly 25 children (more with student-teacher ratios climbing) requiring tuition, leadership, guidance, motivation, discipline and support, five days a week, four terms a year – teaching is no mean feat.

In fact, two years ago, the results of a New Zealand Education Institute (NZEI) survey showed that 86 per cent of teachers experience stress at work. Nearly a quarter of respondents said stress levels were ‘of concern’ or ‘intolerable’.

In addition to dealing with huge workloads, students’ learning and behaviour disorders, family issues and individual quirks, teachers need to contend with issues such as performance pay, National Standards, class sizes and funding.

Some believe the politics of education is a key contributor to teacher stress. Among them is Shirley Hardcastle, principal of Devonport School, a decile 10 school on Auckland’s North Shore. Hardcastle says staff can become stressed as a result of the “conflicting advice and sometimes deliberate misinformation” from various educational bodies, such as teacher unions, principal groups and the Ministry of Education, who are at pains to get their viewpoint across.

“It would be helpful if each group took a more constructive and professional approach instead of making teachers the meat in the sandwich,” says Hardcastle. “As it is, these debates distract and tire staff who need to be focusing on their students and delivering a quality educational programme.”

It is the sheer number of hours involved with ‘delivering a quality educational programme’ that is a key trigger of stress for many. The NZEI survey found some teachers said the planning involved in implementing National Standards was a cause of stress. Nearly 80 per cent of respondents said they made it through the school year by holding out for holidays and just over half said they reduced stress by getting away for the weekend.

Bill Rogers, an international educational ‘guru’, has devoted a lot of time to the subject of teacher stress and has consequently written several books on the topic. Rogers recommends teacher mentoring as an effective way to deal with stress, particularly associated with challenging classes. The mentor-colleague teaches alongside their ‘mentee’ colleague to both observe, and model, the sort of behaviour leadership they will discuss later. He believes this enables the sort of collegial trust that can utilise non-judgemental professional self-reflection.

“Building a supportive, collegial culture means we have to listen to our shared, our common, needs at the local school level. Senior staff who enable the genuine sharing of espoused needs (rather than assumed needs) also have a more responsive, connected and engaged staff,” says Rogers.

The New Zealand Teachers Council places importance on the role of the mentor. As part of the council’s newly launched Induction and Mentoring Programme for provisionally registered teachers (PRTs), it outlines the many ways a mentor can help a new teacher deal with potential sources of stress in their job. The council also supplies a raft of professional development courses for those who wish to develop their skills further to become effective mentor teachers.

Also aimed at newly qualified teachers, the NZEI clearly outlines in some of its documentation, steps that can be taken in dealing with sources of stress, such as seeking help, describing actions taken to resolve the problem and putting suggested ideas to work with further discussion.

Of course stress isn’t limited to newly qualified teachers. While it is good there is a large staple of official guidance and procedures for helping this group, there appears to be a dearth of material aimed at more experienced teachers, who may still encounter stress.

Beyond mentoring for PRTs, Teachers Council does not have anything in place for supporting teachers who are dealing with stress and suggests the responsibility lies more with the employer, who should have human resource policies, such as an employee assistance programme, in place, to deal with teacher stress should it arise. Teachers Council also suggests teacher stress lies more in the domain of teacher unions, like the NZEI and PPTA.

Principals and senior staff are not immune from stress either. Mark Wager, leadership coach and managing director of Elite LD says leaders are the ones most at risk of falling victim to stress without anyone noticing.

Wager blames our laid-back Kiwi culture as a reason we often do not recognise mounting pressure. He says it is increasingly common for people to place too much emphasis on their job, allowing it to define them, so when something goes wrong at work, their reaction is out of proportion.

Wager suggests the key to avoid work taking over our lives is to make a conscious effort to maintain a work-life balance. This is in keeping with the NZEI survey, which found that a number of teachers successfully deal with stress by pursuing active hobbies and sports outside of their teaching role.

Wager also has some sage advice for managers – or in the context of teaching, principals, senior staff and heads of departments – in helping them become more aware of how well team members are coping. He suggests that good managers don’t just sit in their office with their door open and think they’re making themselves available to staff; they are more likely to see how well people are coping by visiting them. Wager says it is a practical investment for leaders to spend around 10 per cent of their time casually talking to team members.

The mental well-being of teachers is critically important. Not only does it affect the teacher, but it also affects the teacher’s students, as Dr Fiona Pienaar, a researcher at the University of Auckland’s School of Population Health, aptly demonstrates in her article, italThe mental wellbeing of teachers, in the recent ‘Leadership & Professional Development’ issue of ital Education Review.

Much research has been done on how to deal with stress and increase happiness, however new findings emerging from Victoria University of Wellington show that it might be our approach to the day-to-day events that can improve our mental well-being. PhD researcher Dr Erica Chadwick spent three years examining ‘savouring strategies’ – the thoughts and behaviours people use to create, maintain or enhance positive experiences – to ascertain what strategies were most effective for overall wellbeing and happiness.

While past research has focused on how people savour major but fleeting events, such as a holiday, Chadwick investigated the impact of the minor, positive, everyday events that make up life.

By analysing the actions and thoughts of 400 young New Zealanders and 1500 adults, she was able to form four categories: physical actions, such as jumping up and down and giving a ‘high five’; subtle actions like savouring a meal; self-focused actions such as considering yourself a fortunate person; dampening or ‘keeping things low key’.

While the first three were helpful in aiding happiness, the last category had a negative effect on mental well-being. 

Chadwick says that for everyone, regardless of age, research clearly shows that meaningful social connections with family and friends remains the most valuable tool for feeling happy and mentally well.

Chadwick’s tips to feeling happier and improving mental well-being

1. Activate your mind:  savouring is a conscious process so look for opportunities to make more of an experience or event, but don’t over think it.

2. Share positive news with other people, especially with those who’ll be happy for you too.

3. Acknowledge your achievements: although this might be anathema to New Zealanders, the research showed taking a moment to congratulate yourself, even silently, greatly improves your wellbeing.

4. Slow down to more mindfully appreciate day to day activities. Be in the moment.