BY ELIZABETH FABRI
CLOCKING off at 3pm every day and 12 weeks of uninterrupted annual leave is frankly not a reality for thousands of teachers, who put in hours of their own time each week to stay ahead. Long hours, heavy workloads and stress are driving many to the brink of exhaustion, while others are leaving the profession for good.
Schools can be stressful workplaces at the best of times. From managing student behaviour, writing reports, preparing daily work pads, marking, to dealings with parents; every day is filled with challenges.
Research shows between 30 per cent and 50 per cent of early-career teachers bid farewell to the profession in their first five years; an alarming statistic that needs to change.
“It is well documented that employee mental health plays an important role in any workplaces and the classroom is no different,” Australian College of Educators chief executive Helen Jentz said.
“Education practitioners are part of a particularly challenging, dynamic and high-profile profession and responsible not only for ensuring the achievement of academic results but also, positive behavioural and social outcomes.
“This combined with significant government regulatory requirements, management expectations and parent demands can lead to highly charged and stressful environments.”
In June, the Hunter Institute of Mental Health released results from its 2016 Start Well study, which surveyed more than 450 early career teachers in NSW.
The study, supported by the Teachers Health Foundation, put forward a number of recommendations to address teacher mental health, which included:
1. better peer support to promote professional relationship development
2. The incorporation of mentor seeking strategies into support programs, and
3. Improved awareness and encouragement for collaboration among teachers and schools.
In the last four years, the Department of Education WA reported that 435 teachers claimed stress leave, and in 2016 alone 980 teachers contacted the WA Department’s free counselling service.
Statistics such as this have prompted Government and non-government organisations to invest significant resources into better understanding the triggers of poor mental health in teachers, and how we can improve and strengthen support for staff.
Professional services organisation Principals Australia Institute (PAI) was one of the many groups assisting school leaders achieve the best possible outcome for themselves, their staff and students, through ongoing professional development services and learning.
PAI developed a one day, face-to-face Teacher Wellbeing workshop, which takes an evidence-based approach to achieving a healthy mindset in and out of the classroom.
“While teaching is a rewarding and positive career choice, it can be incredibly challenging,” PAI chief executive Paul Geyer said.
“According to a WorkCover Australia report in 2014, teachers make more mental stress claims than any other profession, with the education sector representing 16 percent of all mental stress claims made to WorkCover.
“Obviously, these are very concerning figures, and while the personal cost to a stressed-out teacher is high, there are broader impacts including staff morale, public perception, and the financial cost of workplace stress claims.
“To help with this situation, PAI developed our Teacher Wellbeing Workshop, to empower teachers to prioritise their own mental health and develop a positive, resilient mindset.”
Mr Geyer said the workshop gave teachers a shared understanding of what wellbeing really meant, and a plan of attack for the short and long term.
“Issues teachers identify include heavy workloads, and working conditions such as a lack of administrative support, poor student discipline, tough emotional conditions and a lack of participation in decision-making,” he said.
“Self-doubt and a feeling of being overwhelmed are also common.
“In addition, some early-career teachers feel that they have emerged from their degree poorly prepared for the rigours of the classroom, and are increasingly finding themselves teaching ‘out-of-field’ subjects, in which they are not highly trained.”
However, it wasn’t just early teachers that struggled; PAI also identified principal wellbeing as a major concern, with one in three principals reported being bullied, and burnout rates sitting at one in five.
“PAI recently launched a Principal Wellbeing Workshop to support principals in prioritising and managing their own wellbeing, developing a resilient mindset in stressful situations, and supporting the wellbeing of their staff team,” he said.
Mr Geyer said continuing diligent mentoring and support for teachers in their careers was critical.
The Australian Institute for Teaching and School Leadership (AITSL) newly launched app My Induction was one example of the resources available to support teachers starting their career.
The app included links to various resources and enabled beginner teachers to self-report and track their levels of professional enthusiasm and self-efficacy, and perceived levels of stress and support.
State education departments also all offer employee assistance programs, including confidential counselling services, programs and workshops for building optimal wellbeing, promotion of health and wellness days through online and internal staff communications, and dedicated intranet page for staff to point them towards resources available.
However, while much was being done there were still areas for improvement, primarily at the school and tertiary level.
Flinders University Teacher Education Special Education lecturer Dr David Armstrong suggested the phrase ‘team around the child’ should be applied to teaching staff.
“Focussing on supporting the child is a noble idea but here’s another perspective: a calm inclusive and effective teacher can help all the children they interact with,” Dr Armstrong said.
“’Team around the teacher’ conveys the idea that educators need a team of supportive professionals to be able to help all students flourish.
“A confident teacher who feels supported by parents, colleagues and school leadership is much better placed to set up a calm and productive classroom, which reduces the chance of poor behaviour.”
Dr Armstrong said skills such as learning how to meet the needs of students with disabilities and/or mental health difficulties should be mandatory in teacher preparation at university.
“This should be specified in the professional (AITSL) standards,” he said.
“Students who present with poor behaviour are often simply not having their needs met. “Teachers need the knowledge to confidently meet the needs of diverse range of students, including those described as ‘gifted’ or who have a disability.”
He said programs to prevent ‘burnout’ among teachers should also be a national priority.
“Research discloses that effective school leadership and on-the-ground support from immediate colleagues is key to teacher welfare,” he said.
“Take your welfare seriously: you need to look after yourself to be that great teacher.”