The Australian Education Union’s (AEU) 2015 State of Our Schools report found that teachers are under greater levels of stress in the classroom due to mounting work pressures.
While this issue has led to many teachers contemplating a new career, it has shown to have a much darker side. Increased anxiety has been shown to lead to mental health issues – and in a busy environment, this can have severe consequences for both teachers and principals.
Rachel Clements, director of Psychological Services at the Centre for Corporate Health in Sydney, is an expert in emotional resilience and mental health. She told The Educator that a key starting point in providing better support to teachers involves a broader reality check of what their job entails.
“Teachers are constantly being asked and often required to do more with less. This idea that they have it easy because they knock off at 3pm and get 11 weeks annual leave each year is definitely skewed,” she said.
“For most teachers, spending evenings, weekends and part of their holidays developing lesson plans, marking student work and furthering their own professional development is more in line with the reality of what the job entails.”
A ‘two-pronged approach’ needed
Clements said addressing the worsening stress of teachers requires a two-pronged approach.
“Firstly, awards/agreements need to be reviewed to reflect the current teaching environment and to ensure they are addressing the real issues teachers are facing,” she said, but added this was “not something easily or quickly achieved”.
“Focus needs to be on initiatives that can be influenced or in fact developed and implemented.”
Clements said this should involve providing teachers with training on how to cope with the pressures they are under, strengthening their personal resilience and developing the leadership skills of those who hold key positions within the school to promote positive well-being.
She added that while most schools have programs in place to improve staff well-being, schools need to ensure they have a highly supportive environment for staff as well as students.
“There are some good initiatives out there, however these vary from school to school,” she said.
“If schools want to create a mentally healthy workplace for their staff then our research and experience shows that they need to have various support services and initiatives across the prevention, intervention and recovery of mental health concerns, stress and psychological injury.
“We know that one of the biggest contributors to preventing poor health and well-being at work is how supportive we feel our relationships are in the workplace, specifically with our manager/principal/assistant principal.”
Personal resilience ‘a learnable skill’
Clements said that when there is a supportive and authentic relationship, employees are more likely to reach out for assistance when they are feeling overwhelmed and therefore able to get back on track more easily.
“Another key preventative factor is personal resilience, which is not a genetic but rather a learnable skill,” she said.
“By giving teachers the skills and strategies to better manage their stress and shift their stress response from seeing it as a challenge or a threat, schools will take a big step in improving the well-being of their teachers.”
Clements said that in terms of intervention and recovery, it is important that key members of staff know how to recognise when someone is not coping, how to respond and have a supportive conversation and then how to link the employee in with support services both internal and external to the school.
“Where managers often struggle is recognising that someone is not travelling well, yet not feeling confident enough to have a conversation with them, so training needs to be provided to equip these managers with the skills and strategies to do this in a supportive manner,” she said.
In August, Clements will be speaking at a conference being held by Gowrie NSW, alongside UTS and Macquarie universities. The conference, called: ‘In Pursuit of Playfulness, Curiosity and Innovation’, covers a range of issues and topics relevant to teachers and principals.