Pre-pandemic, every time stress in teaching came up in the press, the same claims about causes were fired off:

  • Workload – rigorous marking policies, the relentless need to document all decisions, differentiating for all learners in planning as well as endless data entry
  • Correspondingly long working hours, much of which is unpaid
  • Greatly increased top-down pressure to ‘perform’ (i.e. achieve strong sets of results) with pay increases often at stake

Those are all undeniably stress-inducing, and, of course, have been significantly exacerbated by the challenges created by COVID-19. But even today – even given the transformative effects of multiple lockdowns to the education sector – the list has a major omission:

  • Having to manage challenging behaviour from students, whether onsite or online, with little support from other teachers or senior staff

Behaviour often fails to make it high up or even on the list at all. Speak to many a teacher and the challenging behaviour of a student (and at times parents) is one of the main reasons teachers and supply teachers are beset by stress, often leading to depression, anxiety and other mental health issues. It seems clear that this is one of the reasons those in the teaching profession take time off work for stress and burnout. 

So let’s talk about behaviour.

Anyone who has had to teach a class of students with challenging behaviour – whether in the inner city, down by the coast, or in a virtual classroom setting – can attest to how awful the experience can be. Having to assert yourself in front of a group of children, often teenagers who have a much bigger physical presence than you do, and try to get them to do what you want – when they want to do anything but – can be daunting and dispiriting. 

That’s particularly the case if you’ve arrived into the profession with great aspirations to, well, teach. To suddenly realise that managing tricky behaviour is the bulk of what you must do is more than a little crushing. As Tom Bennett, the nation’s behaviour management guru, puts it, there’s something “traumatic” about not being listened to, ignored, mocked, insulted, even sometimes physically attacked. They may be “just children”, but there’s usually a lot of them, they can seem a lot tougher than you, and – most notably, given the side effects of difficult home conditions during lockdown – they can be more cruel and unpredictable than any adult.

It is easy to see from that simple sketch how stress might come into the picture. The very experience of stress is a response to suspected sources of danger (these days, with a hefty side order of global pandemic), and an activation of your fight/flight response. It goes without saying that being immersed in such an environment will have anyone’s stress reflexes firing at all levels. Some in the sector may insist that this is just a teething problem for new teachers in new situations – that teachers will get better at managing behaviour in their own time, that students will get used to them, and that issue will settle down with the slow but steady march of continued professional development.

Well, that all depends.

Many teachers and supply teachers, new and old, are reluctant to confess to having difficulties with behaviour management, even within today’s strained working conditions. Admitting to not being able to control a class seems to many like pleading guilty to failing in your most basic duty as a teacher – to keep students safe and civil so they can learn. The feeling of shame must be all the greater if you’ve been teaching for a while and may feel that you really “ought to know better.” And yet, making such an admission to other teachers – senior or otherwise – is the first step towards getting the help and support needed.

So often the issue goes undiagnosed and unconfronted. I’ve known many teachers over the years whose first move when asked about a class they’re struggling with is to make excuses for the group, suggesting that they’re being loud and boisterous because of some specific instruction. 

The other background issue when it comes to confronting the problem is that senior teachers in schools, whether it’s the leadership team or middle management, often don’t experience such issues with behaviour management. Sometimes that’s because they’re skilled, seasoned hands who know exactly how to control a class. A lot of the time it’s for more arbitrary reasons – perhaps because they’ve been in school for much longer, students know them well, and they wander the corridors with the unabashed confidence of someone who’s right at home. But just as much of the time it’s the simple fact that they’re senior, with titles and other visible privileges. Young people are highly sensitive to hierarchy, and grasp quickly that those high up the food chain are the ones you need to check yourself around.

It’s easy when viewing things from this stance to see a huge gulf between how senior and junior staff experience behaviour in a school. Given that the former articulate a school’s issues and make the relevant decisions about what direction to move the school in, we can see how behaviour as a cause of stress might go unacknowledged – since those who speak for the profession often don’t realise the gravity of the issue.

If we want to understand how we can help our teachers with stress – and there are so many obvious reasons that school leaders should try to do so – we need to think seriously about behaviour management. How do we train early career teachers and how do we ensure continued support of them in this area once they’re in the classroom – remotely or otherwise? How do we help teachers further along the path re-think their practice and adjust to new systems of behaviour management – especially as new styles of practice evolve, and new pupil behaviours come to light, in response to the pressing global issues around us?

Just as urgent is the issue of how we think about and discuss behaviour in the school environment – we need to steer all teachers away from seeing themselves as failures for having tough class experiences, and move them towards a more dispassionate approach. All of this seems absolutely crucial to me in helping curb the continuing stress epidemic from completely taking over.