There’s a familiar battery of daft arguments that plague debates about teacher stress. It seems absurd to give them any airtime, but having just surveyed the comments sections of recent articles on the stress epidemic I can see that they’re still in wide circulation. And, of course, even some prominent public figures still openly extoll them.
So for all teachers out there, here’s a few quick rejoinders to have to hand ready for anyone foolish enough to utter these absurdities.
“Teachers finish at 3:30 and then head home – what do they have to be stressed about?”
There was a time not long ago where teachers had to linger in school until all hours completing all the auxiliary work that goes into being great at the craft. But that age has thankfully past. Now, thanks to recent innovations in cybernetics and deep learning neural nets, all lessons are self-planning, books are self-marking, after-school clubs and detentions are self-running, staff meeting and CPD events are self-attending and everyone can happily leave at 3:30 on the dot, at home in time for Newsround.
Alas, that remains a fevered dream for real teachers. But it goes some way to showing how stupid the claim is. Teachers have a whole litany of things that keep them in school long after 3:30 – giving them some of the longest working hours in the country, and certainly the most unpaid overtime.
Actually the thing that annoys me most about this line of argumentation isn’t that its wrong. It’s the fact that it wouldn’t really matter if it were the case. Most teachers are in school from about 7:30 at least, if not earlier. If they were to leave at 3:30 it would put them within the normal range of working hours for jobbing professionals in the UK. So it would mean that they’re normal, not beneficiaries of a particularly easy life. The point is moot in any case given how mistaken the initial claim is, but worth reminding people about the early start to the day teachers have.
“Teachers get 12 weeks of paid holiday a year – explain to me how chilling out for 3 months a year is stressful?”
Teachers are beneficiaries of longer than average holidays. This is often claimed to be one of the main appealing aspects of the job and wielded as a trump card to dismiss any suggestion that the profession may be excessively stressful. Important caveats:
- Teachers’ holidays are rarely if ever work-free. Most schools are still open throughout the holidays and full of teachers coming in to catch up work from the preceding term or to prepare appropriately for the impending term. They may be dressed down in jeans or joggers, but they’re still very much at work with work on the mind. Hardly one’s typical definition of being on holiday.
- If its Christmas holidays onwards, there’s a good chance teachers will be required to mark hoards of mock exams, be in school for extra revision sessions or do other work to ensure their exam groups get a successful outcome later on in the year.
- Teachers work much more unpaid hours than the base average in the UK. If we were looking at a solution that ensured some equity for that state of affairs, we might recoup this time in the form of holiday. If we were to do this, taking the national base average of 28 days of paid annual leave for 52 working weeks (minus public holidays), we would come out with a figure that required teachers to have 12 extra days of holiday than average, given they work on average 1.9 more days a week than the average. So in any case teachers are entitled to significantly more holidays than other jobs given these unpaid hours.
- There’s a big trade-off in having fixed blocks of holiday throughout the year – it makes it super difficult to take time off at any other point. Unless you’re bereaved or bedridden, you’re pretty much stuck. Need time off to go to a wedding or your kid’s graduation? Forget about it. Want a Monday off so you can have a long weekend city break? Same goes.
“But seriously, what’s so tough about teaching anyway?”
Snore. The refrain that “Those who can’t, teach” has been around for years and can be dismissed with a scoff and roll of the eyes. But this bland pseudo-witticism does title a serious issue: among the professions – from engineering to accountancy – teaching is viewed as something of a lesser calling. The prevailing view is that it attracts lower-quality candidates to do a less fundamentally challenging job. Well, lets disabuse the deluded:
- There’s a lot of bluster about teaching not “attracting enough high-quality graduates”. It’s not clear what it means for a graduate to be ‘high-quality’ in this equation other than having a good academic record. And that’s true for most teachers coming into the profession these days – Teach First and nearly every university training provided I’m aware of require students to have a 2:1 degree and demonstrate robust interpersonal skills, strong subject knowledge and an ability to pursue practice reflectively. Its unclear to me at least how this is especially different from any of the other professions one may enter as a graduate.
- Teaching is more cognitively demanding than most professions. Basic cognitive neuroscience teaches us that the more stuff you have to pay attention to and the more decisions you need to make, the more metabolic strain your brain is placed under. A teacher’s day is full of having to attend to a dizzying number of stimuli – the wants and needs of at least 200 plus individuals along with the material you’re trying to communicate to them. Their days are also full of decisions, big and small, about those individuals in their charge. So teaching is a lot more demanding than is often appreciated.
- While its true that teachers don’t have exclusive charge of a student’s welfare, they do take a fairly large amount of that on. And this can often be for several hundred young people of very diverse, backgrounds and needs. That’s enough to put a strain on anyone who genuinely cares, which by and large, most teachers do.
- Its odious to repeat, but teachers are under a particularly high degree of top-down pressure to produce results. This is common across the world, but the UK is unique in this respect relative to a lot of other countries where pressure to generate data that demonstrates progress of students (a proxy for effectiveness of the current government) is particularly high. So teachers are under a lot of pressure, in a very complex working environment, to get results. What’s more teachers themselves are aware that, however arbitrary, these results have a real impact on those individuals who they are charged with. So there’s a lot of inevitable self-inflicted pressure there for good measure.
Its not possible or very interesting to produce an exhaustive list of reasons why teaching is a skilled and highly demanding job in this post – but hopefully the last section should go some way to highlighting the fact that teachers are worthy of more respect than their usual lot.
Discussions about teaching and whether it is truly stressful aren’t going anywhere, and with everyone appointing themselves an expert, its hopefully helpful to have some ripostes ready to go. Use wisely.