In this blog, Lisa Stroud – Lead Business Development Executive at Sparx – talks about some of the struggles that teachers are facing, the impact on their mental health and how we all have the power to make a difference.


As you are likely to be aware, Mental Health Awareness Week fell earlier this month, the start of which was marked with radio messages from the Duke of Cambridge, Stephen Fry, Katy Perry and other celebrities. Central to their message, they emphasised how ‘listening cannot be underestimated’ and that ‘each and every one of us has the power to make a difference’.


Time to Talk Day (February), Mental Health Awareness Week (May), and World Mental Health Day (October), alongside a number of other such dates in the calendar, have increased the profile of mental health over the last few years. Many celebrities have been opening up about their own experiences, which can only be positive. According to a national survey conducted by Time to Change – an organisation that works to end discrimination against those with mental health issues – between 2008 and 2016, attitudes towards those with mental health challenges improved in almost 10% of people, with an increase of 11% in people willing to ‘live with, work with and continue a relationship with someone with mental health problems’.  


Interestingly, within the list of 35 categories of personal stories on the Time for Change website, ‘teacher’ is the only profession specifically mentioned, and when you take a closer look at the teaching profession, this comes as no surprise. In April 2019, the National Education Union published results of its poll of over 8,500 teachers, school leaders and support staff: 56% felt that their work-life balance had worsened over the preceding 12 months, with those in positions of management being most affected (66%).


It is rare for an education forum of any kind not to make reference to the increasing workload that teachers have to deal with. Often it is the key focus, as was the case at a recent TeachMeet I attended at Poole High School, which specifically focused on Workload and Wellbeing. Similarly, the subject of the first ever Talking Teachers podcast was workload. At the TeachMeet, presenters described how teaching was ‘more than a job’ and how, because of this, teachers often struggle on under stress for longer than many others might do. With stress being a precursor to mental health issues, this is worthy of special attention.  


At another TeachMeet, this time at Stanchester Academy in Somerset, Sarah Todd introduced the session with a YouTube video entitled Motivation for Teachers, tapping into the reason that most teachers enter the profession – because they care. In fact, the Association of Teachers and Lecturers reports that 75% became teachers due to a desire to make a difference. Additionally, 93% remain in the profession due to this desire to make a difference, but in a survey conducted by the National Education Union this year, 40% of teachers anticipate that they will have left teaching within the next five years.


Clearly in a venn diagram of those in the teaching profession, around one third sit within the intersection of remaining due to their desire to make a difference but also wanting to leave; there is a large number of teachers torn between wanting to serve their students and make a positive impact upon their lives, but also wanting to leave the profession. I empathise completely. When I taught, I cared about the students that I was teaching, not just their progress and attainment in the subject I taught, but their wellbeing and prospects in life.  Over time, however, I felt that no matter how much energy I ploughed into teaching, it was outstripped by the demands of the profession and, for my own mental health, I made the difficult decision to leave.


The work that teachers (alongside nurses, doctors, police officers, firefighters and paramedics) take home with them not only involves practical activities to complete, it involves concern and sometimes worry for those under their stewardship and care. Dealing with this requires resilience, but resilience is tested in conditions of stress.


So what are the main reasons for teachers leaving the profession? And, why is this number now outstripping the number of those entering teaching?


In poll after poll, teachers describe excessive workload as the main reason for considering a different career, bemoaning the impact this has on their work-life balance.

[Source: Association of Teachers and Lecturers]

Compounding these reasons, teachers also refer to what has become known as ‘teacher-bashing’; in 2014, the OECD released a report showing that two thirds of teachers felt undervalued. This is something I experienced myself when teaching, and which I often hear spoken about by teachers. There seems to be a general belief that because the population at large has been through schooling themselves and because a big proportion have children in education, they have a level of expertise regarding the education sector and are in an informed position to critique the work of teachers. If work pressure for teachers is mentioned in general conversation, it often accompanies a derisory tone and reference to the length of holidays that teachers have, without acknowledging the amount of work that teachers carry through to this period of annual leave and the volume carried through into evenings and weekends across the course of the academic year.


There is much information available now to assist us all in managing our mental health. We are encouraged to exercise, eat healthily, get plenty of sleep and to practice mindfulness as well as to seek out peer support if we feel we are struggling. And, while it is important for us to take heed of this advice, the fact remains that this places the onus on the individuals under stress or experiencing mental health challenges. I would argue that an important ingredient for preventing increased stress in the first place is for society to listen and show more compassion. For some reason, over the last few months, when scrolling through my Facebook feed, I have often been presented with adverts for various t-shirts bearing the message ‘In a world where you can be anything, be kind’.  With this salutary advice now being emblazoned across people’s chests, let’s make sure that we don’t simply endorse it but also put it into action.  


We should also be searching out ways of aiding schools to support their teachers and students. Education technology (Edtech), for example, can cut administrative workload and support both classroom and homework provision. Edtech not only allows teachers to teach but provides the space for them to enjoy it once more.  With Edtech also benefiting students, increasing motivation and confidence, teachers can also be relieved of some of the worry they have for those under their supervision.


To quote the World Health Organisation (2018):

‘Mental health is fundamental to our collective and individual ability as humans to think, emote, interact with each other, earn a living and enjoy life. On this basis, the promotion, protection and restoration of mental health can be regarded as a vital concern of individuals, communities and societies throughout the world’.


Recognising the pressure that teachers are under, the Education Support Partnership (among other organisations) provides assistance to support their wellbeing – but we must not leave this to such organisations or technology. Those in the teaching profession care about others, often under difficult circumstances, and it is important that we care about them in return. ‘Teacher-bashing’ should have no place in our society.


We share the stewardship of our future generations with teachers; the part education professionals have to play in building the knowledge and resilience of these future generations is vital. As public awareness of mental health is on the up, I believe that now would also be a good time to take heed of the t-shirt message. With kindness and respect, we can support teachers: playing our part in enabling them to do their best for our children and preparing them for what is becoming an ever more complicated world. As the Duke of Cambridge and others expressed in their Mental Health Awareness Week message, each and every one of us does indeed have the power to make a difference.