Following the mid-year break, it is worth reflecting on an issue that dominated the media during the break period, that of teacher well-being. Why is teacher reported stress increasing?
During the previous few weeks, a Sydney private school principal asked parents to cease harassment of his teachers, and considerable media attention focused on the book Teacher, by Gabbie Stroud, which chronicles the daily challenges of the author’s time as a teacher. The challenges of the teaching profession and the resultant attrition from the teaching workforce have dominated the literature for a number of years. However, anecdotal reports continue to emphasise the unique rewards associated with being a teacher.
Teacher attrition is attributed to well-being, however, the definition of well-being itself is not straightforward. A literature review conducted by Acton and Glasgow (2015) concluded that well-being is informed by factors including: individual (a need for autonomy and a sense of competence, positive attitude, work-life balance, capacity for emotional intelligence); relational (e.g., quality of student and staff relationships, connectedness and belonging in the workplace); and contextual (e.g., work intensification and policy change).
A number of reports provide evidence of the contextual factors. A 2017 Australian study of the effectiveness of teacher education and early career teachers (Mayer et al.), acknowledged the challenging career patterns for beginning teachers with multiple short-term contracts and job insecurity. The study found teachers’ decisions to remain in teaching are linked to a combination of intrinsic and extrinsic rewards, including “their capacity to make a difference and effectively contribute to students’ learning, the enjoyment of teaching and working with children, developing new teaching and leadership skills etc. In addition to these intrinsic and extrinsic rewards, there are certain conditions of work that make the everyday experience of teaching enjoyable or not”.
Evidence of increasing stress in the profession is provided in Monash University’s Australian Principal Health and Wellbeing Survey, which suggests a lack of job security in teaching contracts, restrictions in teacher autonomy, and limited mentoring opportunities contribute to this situation. A recent study of promoting the teaching profession, commissioned by the Queensland College of Teachers (Bahr, Graham, Ferreira, Lloyd & Waters, 2018), identified “adverse perceptions of task demands (working conditions) that are instrumental in teacher turnover and attrition. These include: workload (the number of annual working hours), likelihood of working in disruptive classrooms, and availability of support staff”. Sources of teacher stress cited include: overcrowded classrooms, an emphasis on testing, restrictions on curriculum, multiple extracurricular and administrative demands and additional stresses of teaching subjects for which the teachers had no specialised background.
A Facebook page specifically developed for teachers to share workplace concerns and strategies, Minds Wide Open, posts reports about significant increases in teachers’ working hours, additional emphases on compliance and demands as contributors to the decline in teacher well-being and morale. These anecdotal reports are supported by qualitative data from a recent research project, Teaching and Learning – Review of Workload, commissioned by the NSW Teachers Federation and undertaken by Sydney University Business School and School of Education and Social Work. This study confirmed there was “a surprising uniformity in responses in relation to high hours of work and administrative sources of workload”, even accounting for school size, type and diversity. The project reported an increase in workload over the past five years, which when coupled with perceived conflicting demands contributed to low morale or stress.
Despite these negative data, the NSW study also concluded that teachers are happy to work long hours if they understand and appreciate the value of the work, noting that increased administration and perceived extraneous policy requirements do not fit this category. It is also positive that in Queensland, many teacher organisations are attending to workload and well-being issues and each main employing authority has significant well-being support infrastructure. An awareness of the profession’s challenges also means that teachers are alert to supporting their own and their colleagues’ journeys.
Job satisfaction, positive or negative, is connected to staying or leaving a job in any profession. There is a wealth of evidence which suggests that significant work intensification and changing employment practices are contributing to a decline in teacher satisfaction. In my next blog I will discuss some well-being management suggestions from a range of practitioners, many of them teachers. I would also be very interested to hear of any effective strategies that you, your colleagues, or your schools are using.
I want to be clear it is not the individual’s sole responsibility to manage their well-being: employing organisations at all levels of leadership need to be active in developing supportive workplace practices. Therefore, in my next blog I will focus on both individual and systemic strategies. I look forward to receiving your suggestions to include.
Acton, R., & Glasgow, P. (2015). Teacher wellbeing in neoliberal context” A review of the literature. Australian Journal of Teacher Education, 40 (8), 99-114.
Bahr, N., Graham, A., Ferreira, J., Lloyd, M., & Waters, R. (2018). Promotion of the teaching profession in Queensland. Bilinga: Southern Cross University. Prepared for Queensland College of Teachers.
Mayer, D., Dixon, M., Kline, J., Kostogriz, A., Moss, J., Rowan, L., Walker-Gibbs, B., & White, S. (2017). Studying the effectiveness of teacher education: Early career teachers in diverse settings. Singapore: Springer Nature.