In a recent education supplement of a national broadsheet paper, there appeared a column entitled, Why Teaching Isn’t Stressful. In the piece, David Mingay – a teacher himself – argued that those who found the job stressful or who suffered mental health problems as a result of teaching, should quit.
He cited a report from the NUT conference which claimed that ‘one in three [teachers] will have mental health problems at some point due to the stress of the job’ and that ‘drug addiction, eating disorders and obsessive behaviour are also common’. I imagine that while half the teachers reading the article were nodding their heads in quiet agreement, the other half were rather less quietly spitting feathers.
I found myself torn between the two camps. Because as a teacher who did find teaching stressful and did suffer mental health problems, I chose to take Mingay’s advice and leave the profession.
A quick glance at any one of the numerous internet forums for teachers suggests that opinion is just as divided. One contributor comments: ‘I get so fed up with [people] commenting on how cushy it is to be a teacher with all those long holidays, late starts and early finishes [whereas] in reality I arrive at school for 7.45 and rarely leave before 6, I spend loads of time in the evenings, at weekends and during the holidays preparing my classroom, planning and assessing work’.
But she gets an unsympathetic response from a fellow colleague who writes: ‘I work shorter hours than my two best friends. I get paid more. I have more job security. I get 9 more weeks’ holiday a year. I never work weekends. I get job satisfaction. I get a reasonable yearly pay increase, they get below inflation.’
So, why does this apparent discrepancy arise? One theory is the difference between working in the primary and secondary sectors. I suspect – from his references to excessive homework and detention - that Mr Mingay is a secondary teacher. And it seems to be a common conception – especially among primary teachers - that their fellow colleagues in the secondary sector have got it just a tad easier. Having said that, ask the same primary teachers if they’d rather work in key stage 3 or 4 and they are not so forthcoming.
I’m not convinced by the argument that primary is more stressful than secondary, but I do believe that the environment in which we teach is responsible for the widely differing experiences which teachers encounter. The socio-economic background, the management of the school, the funding and resources available, the involvement of parents and countless other issues all play a part in how teachers experience the job. And these factors undoubtedly have an impact on the varying amounts of stress under which teachers are put.
Mingay complains about the hypocrisy of teachers who complain about their own workload while expecting their students to succeed under similar conditions. My idea of hypocrisy is describing a profession as ‘one of the most pleasant and satisfying jobs on could ever wish for’ in one sentence and then claiming teachers should be given a pay increase in the next. If teaching is such a bed of roses, then surely the government should be charging teachers for the privilege of ‘working with the most exciting people in the world’.
In reality, the idea that an increase in pay would solve the problem is naïve. Do doctors not suffer stress? How about lawyers? With inflated pay would come higher expectations – it would increase pressure on teachers – the only difference would be they’d have a nicer house and a bigger mortgage.