Dealing with the pressure to be outstanding

SET member Tina Bullen is a teacher-trainer delivering PGCE and Cert Ed qualifications at a mixed-economy college. She has recently completed a PGCHEP qualification, during which she completed a research project on graded observations and their effects on trainee teachers. Tina explains why she was inspired to set up a blog to support the physical and mental health of teachers.

There came a time when I was not feeling too healthy, and when I looked for advice on the internet, I found few results to help me. Blogs had been started and abandoned, presumably due to a lack of time with which to maintain them. Naturally, maintaining my own blog, The Healthy Teacher, has been a challenge, but as a result of my journey, I have come to the conclusion that being a ‘Healthy Teacher’ in the current climate is almost impossible, and that it might be better to focus on being a ‘Healthy Enough Teacher’.


Why our health matters

How I have managed to select two such high-stress roles for myself I find difficult to fathom, although having worked in both further education (FE) and higher education (HE) sectors, I can honestly say that both are as stressful as each other, but in different ways.

Beside blogs, most research, news articles and initiatives I found around health in education seem to focus on the health of the student and not the teacher. For those within education, this will not come as a surprise. Of course, the health of students is incredibly important, but so is that of teachers; this is not an ‘either/or’ situation. Let's take away the labels; we are all people and our health matters.

Surveys on teacher retention are often carried out, and workload stress and long hours are quoted when discussing why teachers are leaving the profession in their droves. Stress levels, and more disturbingly, suicide risks, amongst teachers are considerably higher in comparison to the rest of the working population.

There is an expectation that long hours simply come with the territory, and that time outside of official working hours will be given voluntarily. I believe this is unfair and unsustainable in the long-term and kills off passion, energy and the chance of having any kind of life outside of work because teachers are just too exhausted.


Plans to help tackle teacher workload

Although the teacher shortage and reasons behind it seem to have finally reached the ears of the Government (see Damian Hind’s recent pledge to tackle the burden of bureaucracy placed on teachers), it is not clear exactly how this is going to be achieved in a practical sense.

A pay rise, as suggested by the opposition, would be welcomed, but it would still not address the key problems facing teachers: a culture of unreasonable expectations, jobs on top of jobs, pressure and perfectionism, and a general lack of respect for people’s basic human needs.

So how can we help ourselves to stay mentally healthy enough to stay in the profession we trained so long and hard to get into? Maybe Hind’s pledge will eventually help, but in the meanwhile, as ever, we need to look after ourselves, and instead of trying to tick all the boxes all the time, we can aim to be good enough most of the time, stunning some days and forgive ourselves and seek help when we have a bad day.


Dealing with the pressures to be ‘outstanding’

The culture of pressure and perfectionism is undoubtedly something that is tangible, and imposed on us from all angles, so we can only control the way we respond to it. It is because of this that I believe one of the main triggers of mental health illness in teaching is the pressure to be ‘outstanding’.

This word stalks and haunts us nearly everywhere in the educational sector, but observations are pinch-points. ‘Outstanding’ means exceptional and out of the ordinary; aiming to be this is all very well but trying to make it the new normal is simply not feasible.

Two friends of mine take very different approaches to how they prepare for observations. One gets so afraid she over-plans, over-thinks (and over-drinks!), whilst the other hardly cares and does very little preparation. Both are highly experienced and skilled practitioners and normally both come out at the end with the same outcomes – good feedback and learners who have learned – but one is also left with higher stress levels than the other.

My more blasé friend now applies the same attitude to other aspects of his job, meaning that he ignores some of the more “silly bureaucracy” to see what happens if it does not get done. Often he finds that beyond the initial panic, things get forgotten about and deadlines get negotiated. Obviously we don’t believe all bureaucracy is silly – much of it exists for reasons of legality and quality – but perhaps by not responding so perfectly every time is a good way to sniff out the nonsense and protect ourselves from unnecessary stress.

Read an extract of Tina's research paper: Graded Observations on Trainee Teachers: Beneficial or Harmful?