Additional Experience: Primary School Teacher
In this Additional Experience, we speak to primary school teacher Ian. Ian explains just what being a teacher entails, and the ups and downs that come with this crucial position.
How long have you been in your profession?
I qualified as a teacher in 2001 and took a time-out in 2015. I’ve worked in permanent positions, short-term contracts, day-to-day work and also a year abroad in the Netherlands (European School The Hague).
Can you tell us a little bit about what your job entails?
I deliver the National Curriculum of England and Wales and have done the same abroad with the European Schools Curriculum and the International syllabus for PSHE (Personal, Social and Health Education).
I’m responsible for all planning, preparation, teaching, assessment, report-writing, being a social worker, doctor, dentist, parent. Teaching isn’t just teaching, it’s so much more for not nearly enough money.
I teach children how to read, write, add-up, take away, divide, play sports, music, geography, history, manners, science and everything else that goes with being a primary school teacher.
What aspects of your job, if any, do you find challenging for your mental health? Why is that?
The stress levels are ridiculous. That’s pretty much all I can say. I was doing 60 hour weeks at on point, often more.
I had to go to the doctor’s one time (despite being very physically fit), because I was covered from neck to toe in spots. When I showed these spots to a doctor she asked me what I did for a job and when I answered ‘Primary School Teacher’ she immediately said ‘Psoriasis, stress-related’.
Teaching also broke my relationship up. I’m not married but I was living with a girl, and that went bad given my workload.
What aspects of your job, if any, do you find beneficial for your mental health? Why is that?
Lightbulb moments are always sweet. Once you get a child to understand something it’s like a massive adrenaline rush. Whether they can’t count to three or they can count to a billion, it’s just that moment when you see they’ve learnt - it’s really something.
Some of the things children come out with are golden. I could write you a book, seriously. They’ll make you laugh, make you cry. I don’t have any children of my own, but those little ‘uns are so ace.
How is your work life balance? Is it easy to separate the two worlds or do you find they overlap quite a bit?
Work - 90%Life - 10%
Is there anything that you or your organisation does to improve and/or maintain your mental health at work?
I’ve had a couple of decent headteachers who have been very good to me, also some good teachers who worked aside me. As for the local councils I worked for, no.
Do you feel that it’s easy to discuss your mental health with colleagues and managers?
I tend to keep my cards close to my chest, but they can tell.
Do you feel like your experience is common in your line of work?
Without a doubt.
Are there any stories in particular that you’d like to share?
One of the things that keeps teachers going is the stories you can tell.
I was teaching a class of year 1/2 children (ages 4-6) and doing a lesson on houses and places to live. I made a Powerpoint presentation full of pictures of where people live - semi-detached, detached, flat, caravan, etc. The children loved it. Towards the end I showed them a picture of Buckingham Palace.“Who lives here” I asked. Hands up all over the place.“The Queen.” I thought I’d raise the bar and showed them a picture of The White House.“Who lives here?” I asked…blank faces, no hands up. I thought I’d give them a clue and said “The most important man on earth lives here.”Hand up from some young lassie: “Father Christmas”
I almost fell down laughing. That’s what keeps you ticking as a teacher.
Psychological insight from Dr Lucy Stirling
As Ian has said, being a primary school teacher is a multifaceted job. One in which the teacher is supporting children to develop their cognitive, social, emotional, cultural and physical skills to the best of their ability. Not only does this mean educating, which in itself requires “planning, preparation, teaching, assessment, report-writing…” but it means taking on many other roles, such as that of surrogate parent for the day, mentor, counsellor and role model.
This breadth of responsibility puts a great deal of pressure on the teacher, in a system that is itself pressurised by budget cuts, fewer staff and bigger classroom sizes. Ian shared examples of ways he experienced this pressure; extensive working hours, stress-related physical symptoms, negative impact on a relationship and a lack of work-life balance.
Ian is far from alone in feeling this pressure. The 2017 UK Health Survey showed that over half of education professionals have a diagnosed mental health problem and 75% reported to have suffered behavioural, psychological or physical symptoms due to work. Whilst knowing that a problem is shared can be comforting, it can also lend itself to a sense of hopelessness and a lack of agency about the situation. This in turn can further increase negative thoughts and feelings and perpetuate a downward spiral.
Without a doubt the systems beyond single teachers, e.g. schools, local education authorities and the Department for Education, need to change. At a school level, leads can model a good work-life balance and build an open and supportive wellbeing culture at school where everyone, pupils and teachers alike, feels able to talk about wellbeing and to express their needs without fear of judgement. However, there are also important things that individuals can do to improve their psychological wellbeing as it pertains to work.
There is a wealth of evidence showing that developing a regular mindfulness practice, maintaining regular physical exercise and improving work-life balance all help to improve how people manage stress and boosts positive mental health. This being said, people commonly cite finding it difficult to find time to integrate these things. As Ian acknowledged, there is an imbalance between the time he spends focused on work and the time he spends on everything else; a position familiar to many. Life is made up of different domains, e.g. work/education, relationships (family, social, intimate), personal growth, health, parenting, leisure, spirituality, community and environment. It is easy to find that you have more heavily invested in one area than another; sometimes consciously and sometimes without knowing it. Either way, it is important periodically to review what is important to you in each of these domains; what sort of person do you want to be? What sort of personal strengths and qualities do you want to cultivate? What do you want to do? How do you ideally want to behave? Gaining clarity on what is meaningful can help you to take action to redress the balance.
Sometimes people are effective at identifying these things and making changes on their own, at other times they need to call on family or friends for support and there will be other points where talking things through with a mental health professional, such as a clinical psychologist, will be useful to ensure that current patterns don’t persist.
Finally, Ian has nicely demonstrated the importance of reflection. The act of thinking about the aspects of his job as a school teacher that he enjoys, that motivate him, that make him smile, is positive in and of itself. Being reminded why we chose a particular career gives us the opportunity to weigh up the impact, both positive and negative, that the role has on our health and wellbeing so that we can make a choice to continue on that path or to make a change.