Despite the pressures, how can we keep great teachers in teaching?

By Dr Emma Kell

Wednesday 6 November 2019

Tackling the growing teacher supply challenge is an important issue facing the teaching profession in England. To coincide with National Stress Awareness Day (6 November), author and teacher Dr Emma Kell looks at why improving job satisfaction and wellbeing is important to keep our best teachers in teaching.

Stress is something that affects us all on a day-to-day basis but the feeling of being under too much mental or emotional pressure can seriously affect your body and mind. Many things in our lives can cause stress: planning a wedding, being diagnosed with a serious illness, moving house, going on holiday, financial worries and even your job.

It is widely acknowledged that teaching is among one of the most stressful jobs in the UK. In fact, a study earlier this year by NFER found that teachers endure greater job-related stress than other professionals do. The report found that one in five felt tense about their job most or all of the time, compared with 13% of those in similar occupations. A worrying, but not at all surprising, insight.

As a former teacher myself, I know that many teachers often feel that the pressures of the job are very demanding and draining. Now don’t get me wrong, teaching is a wonderful job. But it would be foolish to deny that this is a profession without its challenges.

Are teachers being driven out of classrooms?
It’s no doubt that the teaching profession is facing a teacher retention challenge, particularly in the secondary sector. NFER’s own research highlights that England’s school system faces a substantial and growing challenge of ensuring there are sufficient numbers of high-quality teachers employed in schools. Thousands of teachers are deciding enough is enough and leaving teaching, and recruitment of new teachers into the profession is not keeping up. In fact, 27% of new teachers leave teaching within the first three years and 32% within the first five years. 

In my book ‘How to Survive in Teaching’, I surveyed 3,864 teachers and educational professionals to identify the best or most positive elements of being a teacher in the UK today. Unreasonable working hours, Ofsted and/or related monitoring procedures and poor mental health directly related to work were significant factors in decisions to leave teaching. These are a just some of the multitude of serious challenges that the profession is facing that many feel like quitting is the only solution. 

Why is teaching so stressful?
With teacher retention being a serious issue facing our schools, the proportion of teachers feeling stressed is a source of serious concern. Teachers and school leaders are increasingly being asked to do more with less, leaving many feeling unable to cope with being in a classroom.

Earlier this year, counsellors at the Education Support Partnership, a charity that helps education staff with their mental health, received a record number of calls to their helpline, a 28% rise from two years ago. Cases related to workplace stress jumped by 49% compared to last year. Certain factors such as the day-to-day impact of squeezed budgets on teachers and young people (leaking ceilings, dried-up glue sticks…), the catastrophic impact of high workload on mental health, high accountability pressures and the general perception by the sector that politicians do not respect teaching, contribute to this.

As NFER School Workforce Lead Jack Worth expressed, …”there is a clear need to improve the working conditions of teachers, with a focus on making the teaching career more manageable and sustainable.”

Work-related stress can affect not only teachers’ lives but those of their students too. If teachers are absent for long periods due to sickness then standards of education for pupils may be affected. Therefore, maintaining a healthy work/life balance is important to the profession in order to be able to attract and retain staff and so they can continue providing a high-quality education.

Not all doom and gloom
Before we crawl into a corner and give up on the good fight, let’s take another perspective on the issue. Despite all of the above, gifted individuals full of energy and promise are still making the decision to join the teaching profession: 29,255 teachers embarked upon teacher training in the academic year 2018-19, up from 27,145 the previous year. Let’s flip the narrative and examine why, despite it all, these individuals decided to become teachers and most importantly, how we can end the woeful attrition rates of previous years by ensuring that great teachers not just survive, but thrive and stay in teaching. 

Over the past six months, I’ve been interviewing and surveying the views of new teachers as part of my ongoing research. Amidst all the complexity of the teacher crisis, ‘Why do you teach?’ is always my favourite question to ask teachers, because the answers invariably fall into one or both of the following categories:

  • To make a positive difference in society
  • To share a love of my subject

Digging a bit deeper, there’s a deep moral and social imperative behind most teachers’ decision (despite everything!) to enter the classroom. Here are some example responses from new teachers:

To help. To be responsible for that lightbulb moment knowing that you’ve made a difference.’

‘I wanted to be a human ‘bolthole’ to vulnerable students and make some difference in their collective lives.’

‘When I was a depressed thirteen year old girl, it was a teacher that listened to me. That believed what I was saying and believed I could come out the other side. Those teachers gave up hours, to listen to me. And it helped. They're my why.’

Teaching is one of the most important jobs there is, a chance to shape the lives of children and young people through education. But teachers face a huge responsibility. If we can meaningfully invest in teachers’ professional and personal development, grant them trust and integrity, and progress in practical actions so they can achieve a healthy work/life balance, then the end of the tunnel for the teacher supply challenge might just be in sight.

Dr Emma Kell is a teacher with over 20 years’ experience and author of ‘How to Survive in Teaching’. She tweets at @thosethatcan.