Burned out: why are so many teachers quitting or off sick with stress? | Education
It was a toxic routine: plan lessons until 1am, wake up at 5am in a sweat, vomit, go to work, teach. “I lost a stone and a half in two months,” Dan Lintell said. “I was having heart palpitations and panic attacks. My body was totally exhausted. I couldn’t go on.” He had barely completed his first half-term as a newly qualified teacher.
The start of the school year in September had been filled with optimism. After a successful 20-year career as a design engineer, Lintell decided he wanted to become a teacher. This made him what the government called a “high-calibre career changer”, who would revitalise schools and bring experience from the “real world” into the classroom – in his case, teaching physics at a comprehensive in Leicestershire.
“The idea was to spend time with my daughter, who was turning four,” he said. “The irony is that I barely got to see my family. I was doing my job, coming home, having dinner, then starting work at 8.30pm and working through until 1am, every night.”
Lintell was overwhelmed by two things: pouring his soul into “choreographing the classroom” five times a day; and seeing any hope of recovery disappear under a mountain of preparation for the next day’s performances.
“You’re meant to spend no more than an hour preparing for each lesson, but if you’re going to do a half-decent job, you need two hours. If you have 25 hours of lessons a week, that’s already 50 hours. And then you’ve got marking and other things on top.”
Welcome to England’s classrooms in 2018. Every teacher knows someone who has left the profession, retired early, had a breakdown, or been signed off work with stress. Just under 40,000 teachers quit the profession in 2016 – the latest figures available – representing about 9% of the workforce, according to government figures. And not enough of them are being replaced – there is now a shortfall of 30,000 classroom teachers, particularly at secondary level, where 20% of teacher training vacancies are unfilled.
A lack of teachers means classes are getting bigger. Bigger classes are harder to control. Losing control stops teachers teaching. With less teaching time, students make less progress. And that can be catastrophic for teachers.
“One bad year can be career-ending,” said Valentine Mulholland, head of policy at the National Association of Head Teachers (NAHT). “In no other profession would you have that. You can have one year of pupils which is very different from previous years, which they have no control over. If you live with that sword of Damocles over your head, it’s difficult not to cascade that fear to the rest of your school.”
Some schools have tried radical solutions to this crisis of being unable to find or keep staff. In Daventry, Northamptonshire, Ashby Fields primary floated the idea of closing early on Fridays, sending children home at 1.15pm, with the possibility of an after-school club for children of working parents. The problem, the headteacher said in a letter to parents, was recruitment, retention and workload, which had a “direct, major impact on, not only our children’s education, but on their well-being and confidence. The huge workload ensures teachers work an average of 60 hours a week during term time and through their holidays to keep up. Many teachers, despite their love of frontline teaching, cannot manage this workload and maintain a healthy work/life balance, and subsequently resign.”
Parents arriving at the school – which is part of a shopping precinct bolted on to a 1990s housing estate where there are no street corners, only gentle curves and cul-de-sacs – were unimpressed.
“It’s hard enough to find a job that finishes within normal school hours,” Emma Lennox said. “How would I find a job that finishes at 1pm? It’s £8 for an afternoon session and I’ve got three kids. That means all my wages would be paying for their care.”
She and friend Kim Burns agreed that teacher turnover was high. “We’ve had nine teachers in one year for my daughter’s class,” Burns said.
“We had eight,” Lennox nodded. “They need more time to plan, but don’t they have six weeks’ holiday?”
But holidays, in teacher-speak, simply mean a break from the classroom. For Victoria Hewett, they meant time to catch up on work. As head of geography at a new academy in Kent, she was responsible for setting up the department and teaching about 240 children across the school.
“I could feel I was on the edge before Easter,” she said. A few days before the break, she broke down in class, but struggled back to finish the half-term. “I worked all Easter break to catch up. The minute I got into my classroom, I just walked out again. I couldn’t do it. The anxiety was crippling.”
Another teacher found her and asked if she was all right. “I just burst into tears and didn’t stop crying for two hours. I was sent home – I have no idea how I got there. My memory is just a blur. I went to bed and slept until Tuesday morning. I had barely had any sleep over the holidays.”
After taking advice from the Education Support Partnership (ESP), a charity that offers mental health support to anyone working in education in England and Wales, Hewett was signed off work for three weeks and prescribed antidepressants. ESP says that over the past 12 months it has seen the number of teachers calling its confidential helpline rise by 35%, to 8,668 cases.
“What we’re hearing is that people have lost a sense of agency,” said Julian Stanley, ESP’s chief executive. “There is constant change – new initiatives, new curriculum changes. A number of pressures tell us that it’s not a whinge; it’s a fact. Teachers feel they need to be trusted, and need support.”
Hewett felt in an impossible bind – she was expected to show constant improvements in her students’ assessments, but classroom time was frequently undermined by unruly behaviour. She felt there was no backup from her senior leadership team when she tried to deal with troublemakers. “You had these targets to meet, but you didn’t have the support to meet those targets.”
Research shows that people in a high-performance job can cope with stress if they have support and autonomy, a model known as “decision latitude”, said Dr Almuth McDowall, head of occupational psychology at Birkbeck, University of London. “It’s well established that you can cope with a very stressful job if you’ve got control and support,” she said. “If you take support out, things become much more difficult. If there is a lack of control and autonomy for a long period while you have high job demands, things start to go very wrong.”
So if more support is the solution, where will it come from? Since not enough teachers are being trained, schools are turning to supply staff: 71% of headteachers say they are spending more on temporary staff.
Becoming a supply teacher is seen by some as an attractive career option: they can avoid the paperwork and marking of a full-time post and simply do the job they love. But that could be harming children’s education, according to a study by Asma Benhenda of the Paris School of Economics. Her analysis of 100,000 teachers and 3 million students shows that “teacher absence has a statistically negative impact on student test scores”. The disruption to the flow of learning caused by using substitutes – however good they are – is equivalent to using teachers who are in the bottom 15% of the profession, Benhenda says.
Even if enough people were going into teacher training, heads believe they wouldn’t have the money to hire them anyway. Although schools have seen a rise in funding, the NAHT says they’ve been hit by various new costs, including an increase in employers’ national insurance contributions and new rules on pensions.
“That adds up to a real-terms cut of about 8%, even after the government found £1.3bn down the back of a settee last July,” Mulholland said. “We’ve still got an issue that is becoming chronic – 80% of our members say they have no idea how they’ll make their budgets balance in two years.”
One primary head, speaking anonymously, said they were at the stage where any more cuts would affect children’s learning. “Secondary schools are able to cut subjects and make those teachers redundant,” the head said. “We’re asking ourselves, is there a hidden talent of parents who can come in and do some things for free, so we can make people redundant and still get the work done? And can parents contribute more financially than we’ve realised and, if so, how much?”
Cake sales and other fundraisers now pay for vital equipment such as whiteboards – and some schools ask parents to set up direct debits. The Harris Westminster Sixth Form academy in central London is advertising for a “major gifts fundraiser” to work part time and “lead a programme to take on annual donations from £500,000 to £1m”.
For those without dedicated fundraisers, early closing on Fridays is a more attractive option. This is already in place at all four schools run by the South Essex Academy Trust in the Basildon area, as well as at Bordesley Green Primary in Birmingham, the City of London Academy, and King’s Hedges and Westwood primary schools in Cambridgeshire.
At Westwood, early closure is designed to help teaching assistants become teachers. Headteacher Gill Thomas says: “In these days of recruitment and retention being a real issue, I have teaching assistants with the capacity to get their degree. We felt that, as we are upskilling our teaching assistants, involving our TAs in planning, preparation and assessment would help that.”
Yet the funding shortfall means many schools are losing teaching assistants too, the NAHT says. Cuts to services such as Child and Adolescent Mental Health Services, educational psychologists, and speech and language therapists mean that many children are not getting help, which leads to more behavioural problems.
“We can attribute the rise in exclusion to children not getting the right support early enough,” Mulholland said. Children excluded at age 12 are four times as likely to be jailed as adults, according to research by the University of Edinburgh.
Lintell still has an appetite for teaching, despite the scars. “I’ve gone back into design and it’s nice to feel truly competent again. But in time, if the environment were to change, perhaps I would go back into teaching.”
There are some signs that the environment may be changing. Damian Hinds, the education secretary, said last month that his priorities were to reduce teachers’ workload and the fear caused by the “spectre of our accountability system”.
Lintell will be watching closely. “My instinct is to fix things – I’m a design engineer,” he said. “I don’t know what the solution is. It’s not just money. But the constant increasing of class numbers because they can’t afford enough teachers and support staff is not helping. I have seen very caring, very capable teachers who, for self-preservation reasons, say, ‘I just can’t take any more of this’.”
Victoria Hewett, head of geography at a Kent grammar school
This is my sixth year in teaching. I became head of department at a free school – it was a brand new school and I set up the department mainly single-handedly.
The aim was to become an outstanding school.
I was doing 60- to 70-hour weeks. I would start work at 7.30am and wouldn’t stop until 6pm, then I would work for several hours in the evening, to about 9.30pm. At weekends, I would work all day Sunday, planning my lessons for the following week. I became really insular and lost a lot of friends because I didn’t have the time to spend with them. There were days when I left the morning briefing and burst into tears before I got to the classroom because we had been told there was even more work to do by the end of the day.
Extra work included things like observations. Because we were a new school I had about eight observations in a year, when someone from the school or the DfE would come into the classroom. But you don’t know which of the five lessons in the day they’ll observe, so that meant spending more time on lesson plans, data collection on student progress, extra copies of teaching resources. That would add about seven hours extra to my day. There were data drops for every year group where you give them a grade. They weren’t staggered so I had to do all of it in one week for 12 classes.
The irony is that I was asked to develop a well-being programme in the school – but I had no time to do it.
Now [after time off and a course of antidepressants] I am at a different school. Being relaxed helps because you become more approachable. Now, because I’m not stressing about behaviour, I find I can give feedback during lessons. I do a lot more group work, and the students make more progress.
Dan Lintell, who worked for three months as a newly qualified teacher at a secondary school in Leicestershire
I spent nearly 20 years as a design engineer and had got a little disillusioned with the commercial world. I had always wondered about teaching. I enjoy helping people understand complex things.
I did well in my PGCE and looked forward to becoming a science teacher. A school I had done a placement with couldn’t offer me a science position, but asked if I fancied teaching maths and science.
When I started in September, I hit the ground running but soon found I couldn’t keep up. I was up until 1am every night. By the end, I was having palpitations and panic attacks. I was totally exhausted: waking up at 5am and throwing up, every day. I lost a stone and a half in weight. I got to Christmas and knew I couldn’t go on.
You can have the lesson plans and get some resources from other people, but, ultimately, teaching a class is choreography, an art form. It’s knowing when to pick your battles and how to pick them. It’s happening every second: you’re reading situations and reading body language. You can only get that experience in the classroom.
What really makes it hard is the differentiation [giving each child individual attention according to their ability]. Doing that for every child for every lesson is unrealistic. I think my lack of experience showed – more experienced teachers might take the view that, if they manage differentiation for 80%, that’s OK. But attempting to do it for every child takes so much preparation time.
You’re meant to spend no more than an hour preparing for each lesson. But if you’re going to do a half-decent job, it’s two hours. If you’ve got 25 hours of lessons a week, that’s already 50 hours, and then you’ve got marking and other things on top. I was doing my job, coming home and starting after dinner at 8.30 and working through until 1am, every night.