Mental health in the staffroom

depreRecently the government appointed “mental health champion” Natasha Devon was sacked.  I read a really interesting article about her in the Guardian at the weekend.  At first glance the article is a devastating critique of the governments real attitude to mental health in schools (I do happen to agree with many of the conclusions in the article).  Whilst researching this topic, I also read a really interesting blog post from the excellent Teaching Battleground blog by Andrew Old, which, whilst not rubbishing the idea of a mental health crisis, clearly calls into the question some of the statistics that are bandied around.  Andrew clearly hasn’t got a massive amount of time for Natasha but that is by the by.

Whilst I do believe (though have no statistical evidence to back this up – just anecdotal) mental health amongst our children is a poorer than it was a few years ago, I’m not overly convinced (certainly at primary and lower secondary levels) it is the testing regime that is to blame.  I think outside pressures (including from some parents), social media etc. have a massive impact on a young persons mental wellbeing.

However the point of my post isn’t so much to compare and contrast Ms Devon and Mr Old’s opinions.  I think another area, which doesn’t get as much publicity, is the mental wellbeing of teachers in the UK.  I did a google search to try and track down some articles, blog pieces etc about the mental wellbeing of teachers in the UK.  I was swamped with references to children’s mental health and teachers being trained to spot mental health issues with their pupils but very few actually looking in any depth at the mental health of those actually doing the teaching.

My hypothesis will be misconstrued by some that may read this as looking for excuses for under-performance in the teaching profession and excuses for bad teachers.  I will disagree vehemently with this however as I will use myself as a case study – a teacher with a proven track record of getting decent results, who plans lessons well and is a very reflective teacher, open to new ideas and is respected by colleagues and students alike (at least I think I am).  My hypothesis is that we potentially could have a mental health epidemic in our teaching staff.  It is a hypothesis because, as yet, I have no firm evidence to back this up and am on the lookout for evidence to either back up or show up my hypothesis.

I often look back to when I was at secondary school in the early 80s.  I remember many of the lessons I attended as a pupil and think now of the lessons my pupils sit through.  With notable exceptions the quality of teaching now is far superior than it was when I was at school.  Accountability and more openness to new ideas has been a massive driver with this.  Many of my teachers clearly didn’t plan detailed lessons nor marked regularly.  The accountability for exam performance just wasn’t there at that time.  (Or maybe I just had the rough end of the stick or my views on my own education certainly is not seen through rose-tinted spectacles) I would argue that accountability has gone way too far the other way now and this, potentially, could have a massive impact on the mental wellbeing of the current and future generation of teachers.

Whilst accepting that children only get one chance at education, to attract and keep dedicated professionals in our classrooms the high stakes culture driven by Westminster and their willing henchmen and women in OfSTED through to the SLT and on through classroom teachers and hence to pupils and their parents needs to be looked at and addressed.  Failure can be a driver to success if dealt with properly and indeed children, teachers and schools do sometimes need to fail to improve (by failure I DO NOT mean endemic failure or making the same mistakes again – that is unprofessional and totally unacceptable).  However our education culture is such now that failure is not tolerated at all (certainly in teachers and SLT) and this runs the risk of trying to hide it and lay blame elsewhere, rather than embracing it and learning from it (I really do recommend EVERYONE reads the outstanding book Black Box Thinking by Matthew Syed).  This extreme accountability is, in my opinion (my hypothesis) a key driver in developing an impending mental health crisis in our school teachers.

The bar for failure is getting higher, it seems by the week.  The sanctions for failure are becoming more extreme.  (It WILL be used to force schools to become academy’s against their will on the sly)  The budgets to try to deliver success under harsher conditions are shrinking.  As a teacher I don’t feel able to go to my line-manager and admit to creaking under the weight of the responsibilities I feel I have.  This is no sleight on my line-manager who is a wonderful person.  It is the knowledge that she can do absolutely nothing about it because if she could, all she would be able to do is lift a monkey off my back and place it firmly on someone elses (possibly hers) which will make me feel even worse.  Therefore I suck it up and keep ploughing on like a decrepit Shire Horse or leave the profession.

I’d be happy to hear other teachers views on this and especially any actual real and recent evidence that either backs up or rejects my hypothesis.  Until then it looks like a trip to the doctors later this week for the first time in two years (and I don’t mean to get a ‘sick-note’).

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Mr Chadburn

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