Stressing The Statistics

19/03/2022

On our last CPD day, held over Zoom, we heard a talk from a guy discussing a statistical analysis of our department’s exam results. He said they were pretty positive but, if I’m honest, statistics go over my head most of the time. Or, even more honestly, they bore me. Every so often, though, you come across a statistic that thumps you in the gut, slaps you round the face and yells, “Pay attention!” Or should.


A little before Christmas the Educational Institute of Scotland carried out a survey of its members. The results were published a few weeks ago and headlined in its magazine the Scottish Educational Journal. So here’s a statistic that ought to give anyone even barely interested in education pause. Of the respondents to the survey, half reported their state of wellbeing as “poor” or, in the case of 13% of respondents, “very poor”.


I’d like to imagine that any Headteacher or Senior Manager somewhere off the sociopath spectrum reading that statistic would be left slack-jawed with horror. What it means for people in these positions is that, unless their school is significantly untypical (and even someone as unversed in statistics as I knows most schools are not), then fully half of their teaching staff are in a bad way. Some of them significantly so.


To some extent, of course, the pandemic has had an effect on teacher wellbeing. From what I can make out, however, from remarks I have read on the interweb, school managements have not always understood how to support their staff through some of the hardest days they have ever had to face in their professional careers. Often the priority has been to promote a sense of ‘normality’. Ways have been sought to ensure that parents nights can be held, that meetings can be held, that new initiatives can be brought in. Being charitable I can see that there may have been a belief that creating an illusion of normality might have been supportive of staff and students. 


Nothing, however, can be further from the truth. Suggesting that things are “normal” when they are self-evidently not - when you are sitting at home creating lessons and interacting with pupils through technologies you had never heard of until the day before yesterday - simply creates cognitive dissonance that results in levels of stress on the high side even for teachers. Want me to put some numbers on that? Again from the EIS survey: 70% of teachers frequently feel stressed in their job. 22% report feeling stressed “all the time”.


Again, for Headteachers or Senior Teachers who have any sense of a duty of care to their colleagues that should be horrifying. It should be like an ice-cold shower that sobers them to a reality that exists, probably, in their school: that one in five of the people who are meant to inspire children with a joy in their subject feels under stress every moment of their working day and beyond.


Beyond? One final statistic from the survey. More than 90% of teachers are working more than their contractual hours with 45% working, effectively, more than a whole extra working day per week unpaid. For too many teachers workload has spiralled in the last ten years or so, to the extent that it cannot be covered within their working week. That has little to do with COVID and everything to do with a toxic working culture that has developed in teaching.


So, how to address concerns over teacher wellbeing? In some schools managers have instituted “wellbeing days” devoted to yoga sessions or creative arts but, sadly, not afternoons in the pub. These are fine but if issues of workload are not addressed they are nugatory. If school managers do not take seriously the statistics of stress and their relationship with workloadthat have been highlighted by the EIS survey it can only be damaging to the staff to whom they have a duty of care and to the students they teach.


Let me finish with a quote from one of the great science teachers and one of my personal heroes, Richard Feynman: “Students don’t need a perfect teacher. Students need a happy teacher, who’s gonna make them excited to come to school and grow a love of learning”. These are wise words that deserve a hearing from the captains and the kings in schools. Happy teachers who feel free to share their enthusiasm with their students and who are not stooped under stress and exhaustion are the heart and the soul of great schools. Right now too many teachers are not happy and Headteachers need the courage to ask why and, above all, to encouragte honest answers.