Teacher absence from the classroom is something no one wants. The impact is felt on children’s learning, behaviour and wellbeing.
For the teacher who is absent, there’s no settling down for a duvet day and binge-watching Netflix. Instead, the absent teacher will not only be dealing with ill health but also the dreaded “teacher-guilt”. Concern about the children, parents and colleagues that teachers feel they are letting down preys on their mind.
Furthermore, anyone who’s ever taught knows that a day’s leave for a teacher means more work when you go back into school as you try to unpick what’s been done (or not done) in your absence. Teachers don’t want to be absent from school.
Why then, is there a recruitment crisis in teaching and alarming statistics about teacher retention and absence? It’s estimated that 1.3 million stress-related days’ leave were taken by teachers in a four-year period between 2013-2017, something that the National Education Union described as an epidemic of stress. I can’t help thinking that this figure will be much higher now, with the additional pressures of teaching during a global pandemic.
Stress is a major player in teacher absence, particularly extended and repeated leave. But what makes teaching so stressful? There is the age-old perception that teaching is an easy-ride, a nice job, five days a week, 9am-3pm with brilliant holidays. What is the problem, exactly?
Well, it’s myriad things. Teachers work long hours, anywhere from 49-60 hours a week according to a 2018 study by University College London.
Planning, marking and responding to ever-changing education policy create hours of work. Add to this the anxiety and stress that can be created by accountability systems like inspection and external testing.
The responsibility teachers have for their pupils doesn’t end with good grades. Safeguarding matters, mental health, social and emotional difficulties all present added pressure on the teacher as they try to care for their children.
Top this off with the pressure that can come from parents, students’ behaviour and the strain of working in a school that may have weak leadership or perhaps not be in a good place, Ofsted-wise.
Coronavirus has only added to this tension with a sudden and steep learning curve involving mastering distance learning, operating in isolated bubbles and coping with new technology. All this can make for a very stressed teacher.
So, what can school leaders do to lessen the stress-load on their staff? These are the top five things my staff tell me have a meaningful impact on lowering their stress levels.
1 | Systems and Processes – simplicity and clarity
We all get a sense of security from knowing what we’re doing. Leaders can lessen unnecessary worry by ensuring staff know what’s expected of them.
Systems like annual calendars, with deadlines and simple, clear documents that lay out exactly you want, when and how are welcomed by staff. This year, I invested in a professionally written and printed booklet for staff which was well received.
2 | Marking
Minimal marking is nothing new but I see a lot of teachers that don’t practice what they preach. Fear of what external inspection or parents will think creeps in and teachers revert to old habits.
We do mark in my school, but we do the vast majority in the lesson with the children because it’s more efficient for learners and teachers. Instant feedback and instant improvement are better all round.
3 | Planning
I’m a big believer in thorough planning. There are too many moving parts in a classroom – SEND, behavioural needs, high ability children, teaching assistants to deploy etc – to not put great thought into preparation. But you can make the job of planning easier.
Schemes of work and prepared curricula reduce the hours thinking up ideas or trawling the internet. We used the school closure this Spring, to write our own curriculum – long-term plans, unit plans, vocabulary lists – the works.
Having this means teachers know exactly what to teach and when. They can invest their planning time into preparing the bespoke elements to fit their classroom dynamics.
4 | Be generous with time
On top of standard PPA time, teachers at Coppice Valley get an additional hour a week release time from teaching to spend on subject leadership. Teaching assistants cover for teachers while they monitor standards in the subjects they lead.
This means less for teachers to do in their undirected time but also gives me the assurance that subject leadership is happening. Often, it’s relegated to the bottom of the to-do list but it’s too important to let go, especially since the latest Ofsted framework put such emphasis on the curriculum.
5 | Communication
There’s no point having fantastic systems if no one knows about them. You can’t over-communicate when it comes to embedding new systems and policies. Staff do appreciate reminders, as they juggle the demands of teaching, to help them avoid dropping a ball, which leads to stress.
I’ve started using a Virtual Staff Room Hub since we went into bubbles to get over the isolation and communication difficulties. I update it weekly and add daily news as things happen. It’s still early days but it seems to be working well. Adding a thank-you or a shout-out to staff members keeps up morale, too.
Most people want to do a good job and to feel that they’re valued. One of my staff pointed out to me that I’m great at thanking but not so good at praising. I’d never considered this before. So now I’m careful to be specific in my thanks and compliments.
Little things like this stack up into something bigger – your culture. If the culture of your school is healthy then your staff will be less stressed. Oh and also chocolate is a vital part of culture… I found a pack of Rolos on my desk this morning, a surprise from a mystery staff member. They were all gone by 9am, but I was very happy!