When the dust started to settle after the end of the 2019-20 academic year, it became clear that ‘lockdown’ had put enormous strains on teachers across the globe. As the ELT industry grows more aware of the importance of mental health, is there a wider culture of stress which causes mental health issues?
“Well…it’s that time of year, isn’t it?”
This seems to be a common refrain whenever I meet colleagues in the staffroom, at an exam session, or at a conference. In reality, ‘that time of year’ is fluid: it could be the start of a course, during the first round of observations, end of term exams and reports, and so on. Stress, pressure, and deadlines seem to be the teacher’s lot. But at what cost? Do statements like this normalise a culture of stress in ELT and, if so, the mental health problems that come with it? Education Support’s Teacher Wellbeing Index for 2019 suggested that 78% of UK-based teachers had experienced behavioural, psychological, or physical symptoms of mental health issues, and just over a third had experienced some form of depression. Furthermore, a staggering 49% said that the culture in their school had a negative effect on their mental health.
ELT teachers probably have it ‘easier’ than their public sector counterparts in the UK, which Education Support’s annual report focuses on. There is much less paperwork, often much fewer students (at least in the private sector in Europe), and the hours are probably more manageable, too. But we also cannot be too quick to discount the conclusions that mental health issues are prevalent in education. Working as a teacher in my last academy, we were expected to complete all marking and assessment at within 24 hours; you were encouraged to take your work home with you, and communicate all issues in the WhatsApp group for staff. Add to this some unsupportive (and often bullying) managers, and we were left with a workplace culture that fostered mental health issues. Is this the norm in our profession?
In preparation for an IATEFL workshop, Phil Longwell conducted a survey of over 500 ELT professionals concerning their attitudes and experiences of mental health. More than a third of the respondents commented that they had experienced some form of mental health issues in their careers. When asked what they considered causes of stress, the responses commonly cited hours, management, expectations, workload, support, and tellingly, lack.
That culture of instant error-free marking, weekly testing, and bizarre speaking exam mocks led by the teacher in front of the class soon took its toll.
Longwell argues that stress is caused when there’s a mismatch between a person’s workload and their perceived ability to deal with it. I admit I used to thrive when that time of year arrived, at least until I changed academies in September 2019. On reflection I think I had been naïve to believe that the supportive and collaborative environment that I had experienced for so long was a universal of ELT. Of course, it isn’t. Expectations of instant error-free marking, weekly testing, and bizarre speaking exam mocks led by the teacher in front of the class soon took its toll. At the end of the first term, I remember my manager telling me off in front of a class of teenagers for marking an exam incorrectly. Soon I was getting daily tension headaches and a rapidly increasingly case of imposter syndrome. The culture of the academy had started to erode my mental health.
On reflection, each of the academies, summer schools, and even secondary schools I have worked in during my career had the same stressful working environment. The difference is that I always felt a part of the community (and was included as such) in each of those workplaces up until I started that last position. Then I was the new guy joining an established group of teachers and managers; I was the outsider, and the ‘core’ team did nothing to welcome or support me as part of their group.
Is there a culture of allowing mental health issues in ELT because we expect the job to be stressful, because it’s that time of year?
Looking back on the experience, I find myself wondering how much I ignored or even enabled mental health problems with colleagues and staff in those workplaces and communities where I did fit in and where I was part of the ‘core’ team. Was Charlotte’s* stress about the systems and procedures something I could have reduced? Did Stephen* leave after two weeks because he had not felt welcomed by the existing teachers? Does the workplace culture in ELT allow for mental health issues because we expect the job to be stressful, or because it’s that time of year?
In hindsight my solution to dealing with my mental health was far from ideal: I buried my head in the sand, refusing to acknowledge that I was unwell and believing instead that I had become a weak imposter. Of course, the best solution would have been professional help. If you are suffering from depression, talk to your doctor who can refer you to a specialist. This is much easier said than done. Erroneously believing my Spanish wasn’t good enough to talk to a therapist I avoided the GP entirely, and only with a lot of support and encouragement from my partner did I opt instead for the Centre for Interactive Mental Health’s online therapy. This is Cognitive-Based Therapy (CBT) for depression, which works surprisingly well if you have the willpower and self-control to do it properly. It’s an online course which combines CBT theory, case studies, and practical tasks. There is a 1-hour session each week, as well as homework tasks to keep you on track. If you’re UK-based, Education Support offer a free helpline where you can talk to trained staff and mental health professionals. Although a representative informed me this is only available to UK residents, the online chat worked for me and the advice was sound. I’ve included a list of additonal resources to help teachers tackle mental health issues at the end of this post.
It’s just a job!
This handy article (or is it a listicle?) from Scholastic in the US details what teachers can do to combat stress in the classroom, and the poster on the right has five of my favourite tips to help beat it. I’m reminded of some advice one of my old colleagues gave to a teacher who was struggling with marking overload: it’s just a job! One of the lovely things about working in a friendly and supportive academy or school is the culture and community that grows with it. Whilst we should never stop trying to cultivate communities such as these, we should be aware of the added sense of responsibility that come with them. Does this sense of community and shared culture mean that teachers are more willing to have an uneven work-life balance? Perhaps. ELT is just a job, and that means it is okay to leave the homework on your desk until the next day, and it should certainly stay there over the weekend.
The first draft of this post was entitled ‘the elephant in the classroom’; it seemed like a neat metaphor for the way that mental health is often ignored in ELT. When I started research, I found elephants hiding in the titles of books, research reports, conference sessions, and websites dedicated to dealing with mental health issues in the classroom. Yet with all of that in place, there still doesn’t seem to be much awareness of the importance of teachers’ mental health or what we could be doing to help. That is not to say that we are actively choosing to avoid these issues – I suspect this is a passive decision, the result of the immense pressures that owners and managers are under (now, more so than ever).
Directors don’t need to start running therapy sessions and asking everyone how they feel all the time. Instead, I recommend three small changes we can all make to help our schools become more mental health friendly. Firstly, we need to make sure that everyone has someone they can talk to. My own imposter syndrome would have been a lot stronger if there hadn’t been a colleague I could talk to when my manager ran into my room and shouted at me about a mis-marked question. I’ve heard some of my teachers in the past telling me how helpful our chats on the way home had been for them. Being able to share our doubts, fears, or even our achievements and victories can be very lethargic; I am incredibly fortunate to have a partner to do this with, but ELT teachers can often be much more isolated. If there is a teacher in your school who is, could you buddy them up with another teacher, or could you pop into their classroom during planning time or break for a natter with a cup of tea? It will go a long way to helping them.
Secondly, be on the lookout for stress and be wary of how much you’re passing on to other people. This goes as much to Directors of Studies to their teachers as it does to teachers handing stress to the admin team. Unless it’s the end of the course or the final day for exam enrolments and you’re missing marks, there’s no reason why a deadline couldn’t be extended a few days to alleviate some pressure. There are really very few reasons why a report, exam score, or homework correction can’t be delayed a little bit. Encourage your teachers to agree a schedule with their classes for homework and exams, to give everyone a clear idea of deadlines, and the time it takes to correct different things. For example, writing tasks could be given on a Thursday, handed in on the next Tuesday, and returned seven days later. I suspect there is a culture of I’m the manager and I’m really stressed, so my teachers need to be, too. If you are doing your job well enough, you have fostered an environment where your teachers are supported rather than caving under pressure.
Finally, choose which of these emojis describes your staffroom today, and if you’d like it to be different. Joachim Appel described his as a ‘community of moaners’, saying that breaktime chat is filled with anger and aggression, and it’s all too easy to take part in that and lose sight of what is actually being said. If you listen more, you might be surprised what you pick up on. Maybe there is a teacher who’s come in frazzled from a class they can’t control or about to go in to one where they feel like the imposter. Make sure that when they leave to go back to class, they’re feeling supported. Perhaps the solution can’t come in that moment – it might well take more than a chat – but if you can leave them feeling that a solution can be found, that sense of worthlessness or being the imposter will be a little weaker. A good staffroom has the potential to be the centre of a vibrant and positive academy, so take the opportunity to listen to what is being said and change the conversation into something positive.
I’m very aware that this ‘article’ likely only scratches the surface of mental health in the staffroom. In the coming weeks and months I hope to be able to write more on this, and to bring into focus issues of mental health amongst our students. I’m including here a list of all the resources and links I’ve found in preparation for this piece. I welcome any comments and suggestions about this post, and ways I can improve it or suggestions for future writing.
The Education Support charity have a lot of free resources available on their website, including lots of articles which go in to a lot of depth on many issues to do with teacher wellbeing. The page is regularly updated, so currently has lots of articles to support teachers during Covid-19.
This post from OUP ELT Global gives some more insights into support teachers’ mental health during the pandemic.
This interview with Henry Seaton, who wrote about teachers’ mental health in the US, delves in to some of the issues raised here.
The excellent Sandy Millin has a thorough page of references to mental health on her equally excellent website!
Elly Setterfield has written several insightful posts about teacher confidence over at her blog The Best Ticher, which are both well worth reading and could prove very useful for teachers and managers alike.
Phil Longwell’s website is full of resources on mental health and other issues. This is particularly worth a read – as someone with long term mental health issues, his work is insightful.
Also fab is Lizzie Pinard, who offers some more references and links.
Imposter Syndrome has only really come into view in the last few years, but is a very relevant issue that lots of teachers find themselves suffering from, although they might not realise it at the time (I certainly didn’t last year!). This article from Time magazine gives a detailed introduction, whilst here Melody Wilding over that The Muse details five different types and methods of beating it. In ELT it’s common to see teachers freak out the first time they take a C1 or C2 level course, which is nicely discussed in this article from Cambridge University Press.
Women of Color in ELT offer a moving account of a teacher suffering mental health issues.
If you’re a rebel and/or feeling very brave, have a read of this interesting article about Mental Health Days and then ask your DoS for one!
Psychologist Kelly GcGonigal gave a TED Talk in 2013 about changing the way that we respond to stress.
* Names have been changed
Updated 07/11/2020 to include ideas of a homework schedule.