Sunday, 25 May 2014

Teacher Battery Life.... Job Satisfaction.... Teacher Wellbeing.

Very early on Sunday morning, I posted this pic on Twitter after a fun night out with a couple of other teachers blowing off a bit of steam:

I posted it because that's pretty much how I feel every Friday night.  I am exhausted.  Why?

When I was a young teacher, probably about three or four years into it, my then principal, Bob Marlow, said that if you weren't shattered every Friday night you hadn't done your job properly.  A full on week would be full of all the things that teachers do:  maths, reading, writing, art, topic studies, PE, music, drama.... being creative and inspirational.

It seems though that in the last few years things have changed.  The government policies have been invaded with GERM, the expectations of parents have been inflamed by government propaganda on 'the crisis in education', teachers just keep adding more to their responsibilities, management focus on data and improved student outcomes, higher recognition of societies woes such as poverty and inequity.... 

All of this compounds on teacher workload, job satisfaction and wellbeing.  Work/life balance for many teachers is now seriously out of balance, and this is having a detrimental affect on their physical and mental health, and impacts on how schools run and children learn as a result.

I started working with Bob in my third year of teaching in 1997 (showing my age here) when the New Zealand Curriculum Documents were well into the full swing of being drafted, released, consulted, refined, issued, implemented.  It was busy.  We were getting our heads around eight curriculum areas all having fat documents with Strands and Achievement Objectives and examples of learning at a number of defined curriculum levels.  It all brought a new level of accountability to the education of children and the teaching profession.

But teachers were still free enough to be creative and innovative.  We did lots of extremely fun stuff, worked hard and learned lots.  But Bob still had us assessing the children regularly and every term we all focused on the one strand and produced a school wide snap shot of learning and assessment in that strand of the Curriculum.  Back then, despite being shattered on a Friday night, I'd push through and go out with my mates for a night out on a Friday, until it was netball/rugby season and Saturday night was the night out.

By the mid-2000s there was another Curriculum review, and a new draft Curriculum appeared in 2007.  We consulted, trialled, researched and commented and by the beginning of 2009 we were at full implementation stage.

However, this was high-jacked by GERM and the new National-led governments introduction of National Standards in reading, writing and mathematics.  The attention went off fully implementing and learning the new Curriculum Document (mercifully in one book instead of the previous eight separate books) and on to figuring out how National Standards work, how to assess them, how to make them meaningful considering they were not researched, trialled or based on how we knew children learned - unlike the Curriculum.

Any experienced teacher would tell you that they have always worked hard, but the climate of teaching changed in 2009.  Teacher bashing became a sport in New Zealand thanks to the new government's mantra that teachers were failing their students and we had a big tail of underachievement.... all GERM mantras. 

In the last five years I have seen and heard of teachers crumbling under the pressure of the workload.  They mourn the loss of creativity and innovation because senior management is obsessed with data and improving student outcomes.  There are still pockets of innovation and creativity out there, but slowly GERM is strangling the life out of those insurgents who resist the data hungry beaureaucrats.  

This weekend I visited a school where a teacher had recently resigned.  She had resigned because she had high standards for herself as a teacher.  But under the current climate of what teachers are expected to do, she found she wasn't meeting her own standards in the job anymore.  She physically and mentally couldn't sustain the workload, and is now looking to work outside of teaching.

Teachers have absorbed more and more into their workload as the years have progressed.  We do it because that is the nature of the job, and people who go into teaching have that nature.  But when is enough enough?  When do teachers say:  "Hey, that's enough, I physically and mentally can not do anymore that what I'm currently doing, but hey, even that is a tad too much?"  When do teachers finally stand up and say the wellbeing of themselves and their family really does have to come before the job - because ,ask any teacher's loved ones, and they will all say the teacher in their family puts the job before them way too much.

As teachers we have always said the job is never done, there is always something else to plan, make, assess, sort, file, find..... but I have reached a point in my career where I know I can't do everything, and sometimes I have to fake it until I make it

And this pic I tweeted did cause a little response.  I did a Storify to present it in this blog post:

@66_pixie put the challenge out to me first that the picture I had posted represented teacher burnout, followed by @traintheteacher on how the "Superhero narrative needs to stop".

I've pushed myself the last few weeks.  There was lots going on.  I won't bore you with it all, but the important stuff was for the kids - assessing where they are currently at; getting baseline data for the four new students in my room; marking and collating the data; parent-teacher interviews.... there have been some late nights, two in which I was at school till 7:00pm and another until 8:00pm, plus some early wake up calls to get stuff done before I went to school.

I was shattered on Friday.  I came home (from an NZEI meeting - see, Friday night, dedicated to my profession) about 8:00pm and died quietly in the chair.  At about 9:00ish I went to my room, fluffed about, then decided I could accomplish nothing and was in bed not long after 10:00pm just cruising through Facebook and Twitter (discussing statistics on politicians using Twitter with some Masters student from Putaruru - and I thought his life was sad on a Friday night!) and the news because that was all my brain could cope with.  Put that on top of the Saturday night the other week when I slept through two Super 15 games in front of the telly before deciding bed is really where I should be.

Now, with the workload that it is, I think twice about going out on a Friday night, or any night.  I did the other week.  I went to a fantastic musical that a lot of people I know were in.  But I struggled not to yawn by intermission.  My body was stuffed.

But spending time with friends and family is important.  It is what makes me a better me and means I'm not always talking work stories - sometimes I have "I got up to mischief" stories!!  That's why the other Friday I went to the musical despite the fact I was bone tired, and why I went out for a blow out night with my teacher friends on Saturday.

Then as I cruised through Facebook after I finally woke up late Sunday morning (gee, I needed that sleep), I saw a post that a teacher friend, Kathryn, had posted.  I worked with Kathryn, a teacher from the UK, in 2009 in a large area school here in New Zealand.  She has since returned to teaching in the UK, and this was a post doing the rounds over there addressed to Michael Gove, the British Secretary of Education.  I reposted it on Save Our Schools NZ, saying it could be re-addressed to Hekia Parata.

Dear Mr Gove,

I am writing to thank you for teaching me so much about education. I have been a primary school teacher for 14 years and have always worked in challenging, inner city schools with many children who have complex behavioural and emotional needs. According to my performance management, I am an ‘outstanding’ teacher. I feel that over the last few years my skills have diversified conside...rably.

I am proud to be able to say that each year my pupils’ achievement and attainment have improved. I have become skilled at pinpointing what they need to learn and prioritising their experiences to ensure they succeed in the core subjects. Sacrifices have had to be made but, despite what they would like you to believe, there is not a single pupil who has not wanted to achieve and be successful.

The last few years in particular, my job has become even more varied. As we no longer have any external support and advice to help us, we have learned ‘on the job’ how to be councillors, behaviour specialists, social workers and mental health workers. We use our instincts when dealing with children with complex emotional and behavioural needs. We do everything we can, but you never can tell without the training. Hopefully those children experiencing extreme difficulties will pick up how to become good citizens and be able to live within, and contribute to, the community. I can only hope that they will know how to create a supportive and nurturing environment for their own children to succeed in the future. Maybe they will feel confident and proud of their achievements despite the lack of professional, quality specialists available to support their own complex needs in their formative years.

Until recently, I was not adept at data analysis. I now know that the pupils we are teaching are not simply children, they are numbers, percentages. The hours I have spent analysing data to decide which children need intensive afternoon intervention groups, those who need that extra ‘boost.’ Those children do not take part in the afternoon history, geography, art, science, music, PE or RE lessons as they are struggling with maths, reading and writing. They understand that they must miss out on subjects they are more likely to engage with, feel confident in, so they have the opportunity to achieve the required level in writing, reading and maths. They spend all day, every day struggling. Slowly feeling more and more like a failure, becoming more and more disengaged.

It is amazing that every one of my pupils knows what level they are working at and what level they need to be at the end of the year. Children are so desperate to achieve and to please others that they naturally put themselves under a huge amount of pressure. If they are not working at age related expectations they believe they are not doing well despite the amazing progress they have made. They are in tears. They feel the pressure. They know they are not where they ‘should’ be. They know already, at primary school, that they may not be ‘successful’ in the future. They know that the only subjects worth anything are reading, writing and maths. They know that their options are limited.

A big part of teaching is, and always has been, acting. You draw your audience in; encourage them to take part and to be inspired, challenged and enthusiastic about what they are discovering. There is nothing better than a class full of buzzing pupils, excited about what they are learning, taking ownership of the lesson. This is becoming increasingly hard to achieve when we expect so much from them. There is little time to have fun, to enquire, to be intrigued, to be children. They have too much pressure. They must, “compete with the world’s best.”

Why are we not letting them grow as individuals? Why are we damaging their self-esteem and confidence by trying to make them all fit into the same box? To ensure a successful future for our country we need to give children a broad, balanced curriculum which enables everyone to excel at what they are good at. They need to feel empowered and valued for their individual skills to be able to take risks and push the boundaries to be successful. How is that possible if they have had a restricted education? How will all those talented people who are not necessarily ‘academic’ excel in their different industries if they were not given the opportunity to hone their skills throughout their education? How will this improve our country? What sort of adults will they turn in to? I know I never had those pressures when I was a child.

I handed my notice in last week. I can’t do this to them anymore.

I asked Kathryn to comment about the two education systems of NZ and the UK now she'd been back in the UK system for nearly two years.  She responded that her thoughts were not for public consumption.

But this letter to Mr Gove has struck a chord here on SOSNZ's Facebook page with these comments on the post:

How sad.
What a loss to the teaching profession and learners in the UK.
I thought it was written by an NZ teacher also.

 NZ is copying things that have been shown to fail in the UK and the US

what a crying shame.. and sadly, this is our children's experience in nz too x

As I sit here writing reports based on National Standards data I do not know how much longer I can continue 'playing this game'. I am not being true to myself and this is not what I set out to do.

Well written. I to handed in my notice last week, for the same reasons. I cannot understand, no matter how much teacher's express the above concerns it is still happening. I feel more like an administrator than a teacher, specialising in data entry, has become the norm.

So true, very sad, well written!

The future of our children looks bleak

This is exactly why we must vote for change this year. Sadly this government are more intent on promoting data than education.

These were actual comments made on the post.  (I've obviously not included the names of the commenters to give them some privacy).

The last tweet on the Storify above was from @equilibriumctc about her tweet on a chat on #teacherwellbeing on Sunday night I had retweeted.  Isn't it funny how on one day so many things have collided together and caught my eye.  The focus of the chat was work/life balance and how to balance being a teacher between work and family.

It was an amazing chat to participate in.  People from all over Australia and in New Zealand participated, with a variety of families, including those of us with fur babies who also are impacted by teacher workload and work/life balance just like the human participants of a teacher's family.  Again I have Storified the chat to allow you to follow through.

Hands up if the above picture is the life of you as a teacher?
So what do we do about it?
  • We just have to accept sometimes we aren't a superhero and it just is not humanly possible to get everything done.
  • Our families (including friends and pets) have to come before work most of the times.
  • We have to be good time managers.
  • We have to embrace and use the word "no" when required.
  • We need to keep the lines of communication open with our senior leaders/management.
  • We need to set special time aside for children/partners/specific family members or friends.
  • We need to have supportive families who understand the psyche of being a teacher.
  • We need to be aware of the impacts of government policies and how they will affect our job satisfaction and workload.
  • We need to be able to take action if government policies negatively impact on how students learn and how we teach.
  • We need to embrace sleep, exercise, leisure and hobbies to make us more interesting people and to keep us happy as humans.
  • We need to have people from outside the profession who will listen to us whine on about how hard teaching is without rolling their eyes at us too obviously.
  • We need a colleague who we can confide in about issues within our ckassrooms and schools, who will commisserate and/or provide advice or another point of veiw.
What are the impacts on teachers, students, schools and the profession if we don't do the above?  Quite simply we'll all end up in straight jackets burbling incoherently and student learning will go down the gurgler.  Or dead.

The post on Save Our Schools NZ's Wordpress blog, Dear education minister, please don't send your condolences, showcases the letter written to Mr Gove in the UK by a widow after her husband, a teacher, died aged 37 from a stress induced heart attack.  Another post from SOSNZ, Teacher stress, depression and suicide, points out some rather scary statistics and also some sound advice on what to do and where to get help.  Teachers are amazing people who carry in their hearts so many people, and in their minds they have a to-do list that would frighten you.  It can easily become too much too quickly in the wrong environment.

This article from Scotland, Severe workload pressure is 'damaging' teachers' health and well-being, according to a new survey, (20 May 2014) is damning when Only a third (33%) said they would recommend teaching as a career and only a quarter (26%) said they feel very well, health-wise, in their job.  In New Zealand this NZCER survey last year reported,
"More than a third of secondary teachers think their workload is so heavy that they are unable to do justice to the students they teach and morale has dropped more than 10 per cent since 2009, according to a survey of 1266 secondary school teachers."  (New Zealand Herald, 3 July 2013).  And in March the NZ Herald's article Report card for our schools said: "Principals and teachers continue to enjoy their work, but reported becoming over-stretched - morale in both groups slipped since 2010, with stress levels increasing.  A third of teachers thought a high workload prevented them from doing justice to their students, and continued to lack the opportunity to observe the teaching of effective colleagues."

Another blogger, Boonman, in his post Workload and other stuff, discusses the causes of workload and how this workload may inadvertently result in the charterisation of education in the UK and/or NZ.

As a teaching profession we will fail standard if we don't set the standard for workload, job satisfaction, work/life balance and our own well being.  We have to be proactive in ensuring that we are a healthy profession physically and mentally and that we will stand up for our rights as professionals to ensure our students will have the best education possible and will grow to be well rounded members of our society.