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'I dread every day’: Teachers are in the midst of a mental health crisis

The tinny alarm rattles, and Katie* turns over in bed, eyes still bleary from sleep.

Small glowing numbers glare back at her in the darkness: it’s 5.45am, she needs to get up to be at school for 6.30am, where a small mountain of admin is waiting at her desk.

As she gets the train, followed by the tube to the secondary school she teaches at in London, Katie makes mental notes of what’s on her schedule today – she recently took on new responsibility as head of her department, which makes her jam-packed rota even harder to juggle.

First is form time, then she’s teaching for the first two periods. At break, one of her students – a forlorn Year 9 student, with watery eyes and a quivering lip – needs to speak to her about an incident that took place on social media. Period three – meant to be Katie’s non-contact time where she can work on lesson plans and other admin – becomes a write-off as she has to cover for another teacher, who is sick.

Period four sees Katie having to race back to her classroom on the other side of the building, files tucked under her arm. Lunch is a ham and cheese sandwich hastily stuffed into her mouth, as she has to do surveillance of the canteen as well as chair a meeting about exam targets with other teachers in her department. Period five flies by, before Katie then holds an after-school club for an hour and a half.

Waving off the last student out the gate at, Katie’s day is still far from over, as she collects the admin – still left untouched on her desk – to finish later. She checks her watch: it’s already 5pm. She’ll be working until at least 9pm at home, effectively without a break all day, before her alarm wakes her up at 5.45am to start again.

It was a lifestyle Katie loved, once. But after ten years as a teacher, she admits she’s reached the end of her tether.

‘During term time, my hobbies, my passions, my relationships… life in general is just off the table,’ she tells Metro.co.uk. ‘We’re expected to work until we’re entirely burned out.

‘I’ve started to dread going to school every day. I feel anxious and sick at the thought.’

Katie is not alone. Teachers all across the UK have reported being caught in the grip of a mental health crisis.

The Teacher Wellbeing Index, a survey commissioned by the Education Support charity, found that 77% of teachers experience poor mental health due to their work, and that 72% report being stressed and overworked. The survey points towards the average teacher’s excessive workload, and a lack of a work-life balance, as being the key drivers for poor mental wellbeing amongst those working in education.

It’s little surprise, then, that teachers are set to quit the profession in droves: research by the National Education Union found nearly half of all teachers (a staggering 44%) plan to leave schools altogether by 2027, with 52% of educators saying their workload is ‘unmanageable’.

For headteacher turned author Nick Smith, who saw monumental change in teaching throughout his 30 years at the blackboard, increased stress has come as a result of more responsibility being piled on while funding has been slashed.

‘There’s massively increased accountability for teachers from government, parents and society at large,’ he tells Metro.co.uk. ‘We’re not just responsible for having students to be able to read, write and do sums, we’re expected to stop kids from becoming terrorists to sorting out their BMIs.

‘Expectations are incredible, and the perplexity of the role nowadays is vast – more than people really realise.

‘I would be so drained: I’d get to work every day at around 6.45am, and around three nights a week I’d be working until as late as 9pm. I’d also work throughout school holidays and weekends. It was pretty all encompassing.

‘It became increasingly difficult to have free time. I live in Exmoor, so I would regularly go for long walks along the Moors, where I couldn’t get phone signal, just to have some time away from the job.’

Katie agrees the role has got more complex since she started a decade ago: ‘Teaching is so much more than facilitating knowledge. You become a social worker, you become a parent. It’s multi-faceted. The education system is not set up for it or designed for it, and schools aren’t either.

‘It’s a pretty thankless task.’

And having worked in both at state and private schools, Katie adds that the problem of overstretched staff isn’t just entirely limited to rundown comprehensives.

‘My experience working in state schools is actually better,’ she says. ‘They’re generally bigger, so you can rely on each other a little bit more. You know it’s going to be a challenge, but you’re all in it together so you’re a little more supported. It’s almost like a Bushtucker Trial.

‘Having worked at for-profit private schools, they really do cream the profit off, and there are times there just isn’t enough staff to go around. There’s no support, and we’ve left been so overwhelmed and floundering.’

For Katie, running is her salvation – her feet pounding pavements in the seldom moments she has time to herself. But other teachers find themselves caught up in all sorts of vices to cope with the ongoing pressures of the job: a teaching union found that 22% of teachers are drinking more alcohol as a way to cope with pressure – and 2% had even resorted to self-harm.

It’s not just teachers who are struggling with their mental health. These overstretched and overworked adults are having to provide support for classrooms of children who are also facing their own battles with emotional wellbeing.

In a survey by the Children’s Society, 52% of young people have experienced a deterioration in mental health in the last five years, with five children in a classroom of about 30 likely to be suffering with a mental health problem.

‘We tell children they can speak to us at any time about their problems, and rightly so,’ Katie says. ‘I’m seeing more kids needing to talk to me, and I think that comes down to the prevalence of phones and social media. We do need to provide more support for children, but we also need to access this support ourselves.

‘So many schools try and talk the talk, but in reality, there is very little guidance given to teacher to help their mental health. You’re just expected to navigate it yourself.

‘As some teachers feel overwhelmed, they’re having more sick days. And then you’re asked to cover, which increases your stress and your workload. It’s a horrible circle to get stuck in.’

One of the last straws for Katie and her career came in the last year, when she met up with someone she used to work with. Over drinks, they made a confession that they fundamentally lied to get her to take a teaching role – claiming they had no real wellness package for teachers like they had previously asserted during her interview.

‘It really got to me,’ she says. ‘I just feel that some senior leadership teams will just say anything to look supportive, but most of the time, it isn’t the case at all.

‘If I’m honest, I’m guilty of lying about the state of things too. There’s times I’ve been at parents’ evenings and I’ve fibbed about how good the school is at supporting people. It wears you down – I don’t want to be selling these lies either. But sometimes, you have to fool yourself in order to keep going.’

For Sarah Fletcher, a teacher for nearly 20 years until she left the profession in 2020, she found herself having to lean upon her undergraduate degree in psychology to provide adequate mental health care for both her students and herself.

Having worked in a college for disadvantaged children in Blackpool, Sarah had to navigate the shocking murder of one of her pupils during her teaching career.

‘It was totally unexpected,’ she recalls. ‘And it really took its toll on me. We had to provide extra support to students, who were already struggling with numerous social or domestic problems. We were also expected to continue teaching despite this huge, emotional burden.

‘Thankfully, I had these skills and tools from my degree and from counselling that could help get me through, but it was still really, really hard. We needed to support these clearly traumatised teenagers, but also we had to support other staff as a unit and provide a really nurturing environment, which was hugely draining. My own family life went out the window, I barely saw my kids during that time. It was really hard and it took a lot out of me.

‘I know that example is extreme, but there are lots of challenges that teachers face with their young people. For me, my psychology training really helped me to manage my mental wellbeing, and that of others. I think teaching those skills to educators will really help schools.’

Having left the profession just before the onset of the pandemic, Sarah, now earns a living as a coach and psychotherapist, and says she has far more of a work-life balance compared to being in the classroom.

‘I used to be working all hours,’ she says. ‘As much as I loved it, it was a very different life.

‘I think teaching, as a job, is becoming unmanageable. The last few years have been incredibly chaotic and difficult, and more and more work is being piled on.

‘We’re expect to manage attendance and phone parents and do lots of spreadsheets. It became a paperwork exercise, more focus on ticking boxes and less focus on what we love – actually teaching the kids.’

The last few years have been a particularly tumultuous time for the profession. Since 2010, the UK has seen nine Secretaries of State for Education, with each incoming candidate having their own vision and agenda in a bid to ‘overhaul’ the schooling system.

It was during the ongoing coronavirus pandemic, however, where some teachers really felt the strain.

With schools forced to close to stop the spread of Covid-19, they found schedules hastily thrown off course, trying to get to grips with new technology, as well as provide support to children struggling with the changes the pandemic brought about.

Poor planning, sudden closures of schools and the algorithm exam results are but a few of the failures laid with the Department of Education, with then-Secretary of State, Gavin Williamson, much maligned amongst the teaching community. Williamson has since received a knighthood.

Nick describes the MP’s tenure as education secretary as ‘the golden age of educational mismanagement’.

‘It was farcical,’ he says. ‘Teachers were forced to run ragged to cover for the department’s errors. It was an embarrassing time for the government.’

Katie agrees that the government has taken the wrong tack with the education system, not just with their policies, but at how they try to entice people in the profession.

Last year, it was announced that a bursary of £129 million is available for trainee teachers in a bid to ‘recruit and retain world-class teachers’.

They also pledged to bump the starting salaries of teachers, in some cases by up to 8.9%, as part of former Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s manifesto to see new teacher pay to rise to around £30,000 a year. 

But for Katie, money is not an adequate motivator to keep people in the profession.

‘By increasing the entry wage, it means we’ll have a whole cohort of teachers who will stick at the job for a few years but see their salary stagnate,’ she explains. ‘You’re just going to have people that take the high pay at entry level, but then will leave within a few years.

‘If they really want to keep us in the profession, better systems need to be put in place to make sure they’re retained. We need to be rewarded while we’re in education to keep us there, instead of luring people in with cash and hoping for the best. Maybe things like a guaranteed pay rise every three years, or teachers earning sabbaticals after a certain amount of years of service would be more effective ways of keeping more teachers in the profession.’

Katie also argues a strong leadership team needs to be put in place in all schools, with adequate staff enabling teachers to focus on the primary task at hand: educating and shaping young minds.

‘Many hands make light work,’ she says. ‘Schools need to be better staffed. Things have been stripped back so much that we are covering such a multitude of roles. You can’t focus on one element anymore, and that’s when it becomes overwhelming and that’s when you burn out.

‘Hire more caterers in the canteen. Employ people to watch the kids in the playground. Allow teachers to be more flexible, allow for realistic targets -and for us to be paid adequately. If you’re making a positive impact, you should be rewarded for that. In the teaching profession at the moment, it’s all stick, no carrot.’

For Sarah, it’s small improvements in teachers’ lives that will make a staggering amount of difference for everyone.

‘A happy teacher makes for a happy classroom,’ she says. ‘A teacher who is taking care of themselves will be an exceptional role model for their students. If they are noticeably overwhelmed, overworked and stressed, that’s not setting up their classroom for success.

‘We need to make teachers feel cared for. It just makes sense to make education a culture of focus on wellbeing, because then we’ll turn out well-adjusted young people who can choose their own path in how they contribute to society.’

*Names have been changed

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