Breaking the Silence on Behaviour – The Real Reason for Teacher Stress

Every time stress in teaching comes up in the press, the same claims about causes are fired off:

  • Workload – rigorous marking policies, the relentless need to document all decisions, differentiate 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 like many teachers I’d be glad to see the back of them. But the list has a major omission:

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

I can never get over how that fails to make it on the list. It seems obvious to me that this is one of the main reasons teachers are beset by stress, often leading to depression, anxiety and other mental health issues. It seems equally obvious that its one of the reasons teachers take time off work for stress and burnout. Maybe its just my personal experience, coupled with the experience of many other teachers I know, but its not reflected in national trends? I suspect not, with many recent surveys attesting to that fact.

So let’s talk about behaviour.

Anyone whose had to teach a class of students with challenging behaviour – whether in the inner city, down by the coast, or wherever – can attest to how awful the experience can be. Having to stand up in front of a room of children, often teenagers who are much bigger than you, and try to get them to do what you want them to 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 this 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, sometimes physically attacked. They may be ‘just children’, but there’s usually a lot of them, they’re a lot bigger than you and they can be more cruel and unpredictable than any adult.

Its easy to see from that sketch how stress could come into the picture. The very experience of stress is a response to suspected sources of danger, an activation of your fight/flight response. It goes without saying that being immersed in such an environment would have your stress reflexes firing at all levels. Some may continue to insist that this is just a teething problem for new teachers – they get better at managing behaviour, students get used to them, the issue settles down with the slow march of professional development.

Well, that all depends.

I suspect many teachers, new and old, are highly reluctant to confess to having difficulties with behaviour management. 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 oftentimes the issue goes undiagnosed, 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. As in an abusive relationship, this is always a sure sign of some sort of trauma.

The other background issue for confronting the problem is that senior teachers in schools, whether they inhabit 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. But actually a lot of the time its for much more arbitrary reasons – often its because they’ve been in school a lot longer, students know them well and they wander the corridors with the unabashed confidence of someone whose right at home. 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.

Its easy from such a stance for there to be 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 would go unacknowledged – 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, 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? How do we help teachers further along the path re-think their practice and adjust to new systems of behaviour management? Just as urgent is the issue of how we think about and discuss behaviour in the classroom – we need to steer teachers away from seeing themselves as failures for having tough classes and move them towards a more dispassionate approach. All of this seems absolutely crucial to me in helping curb the stress epidemic from completely taking over.