What are the things that teachers worry most about?
Perhaps we worry most about our workload, whether we can find enough time in the day to do all the things we need to do? Or maybe we worry about pay and finances. Some of us may have problems with our employers or colleagues that dominate our thoughts. We might feel ill-equipped to deliver parts of the curriculum or we might have concerns about particular students in our class. We may worry most when exams are approaching or when we have to take over a new class. From time to time we might worry that our own health or problems in our home lives are having a negative impact on our teaching. Probably a combination of these and other things causes us stress from time to time.
Here at English In Action we wanted to address some of the common problems that English teachers are likely to worry about and give tips on how to minimise their effects on our teaching and mental health generally. It will take more than one blog post to address all the potential issues, but we will start off with some ideas for maintaining good mental health in all situations.
Before the Covid pandemic, an article in The Guardian reported that one in twenty British teachers had significant mental health problems lasting more than a year. Problems with mental health were expected to increase as the pandemic took hold but then get better. However, according to recent studies, the number of UK teachers and education staff who are suffering both psychologically and physically due to their work is still growing.
The 2021 Teacher Wellbeing Index, an annual report by charity Education Support in conjunction with YouGov, found that teachers’ mental health is getting worse rather than better in several areas, compared to a year ago at the height of the Covid pandemic. The study found that 77% of educational staff experienced symptoms of poor mental health due to their work. Between 72% and 84% felt stressed at work. About half of those in the survey felt their organisation’s culture had a negative impact on their wellbeing, but roughly the same percentage continued to go to work when they felt unwell. 54% of respondents said they had considered leaving the sector in the past two years due to pressures on their mental health.
Teacher Wellbeing Index
The above statistics specifically refer to educational staff in Britain, however, it is safe to assume that many similar pressures affect English Teachers around the world. While there are plenty of resources aimed at dealing with the mental health problems teachers observe in their students, there tend to be less easily available resources to support teachers themselves. In the following section, we have condensed some of the advice we were able to find around the web into a shortlist of top tips.
- Talk openly about your feelings with people you trust and ask for help when necessary. This may sound obvious but is not always easy. Many of us have been brought up to keep our feelings to ourselves and, even if we aren’t shy about expressing our feelings, we don’t all have people we feel comfortable talking to. It is important to cultivate friends who we can be open with. These may be work colleagues, family members or other people we have regular contact with. We should look upon building these support networks in the same way we think about doing regular exercise or taking out health insurance, as a sensible and prudent part of taking care of ourselves. If we don’t have any of these people to turn to there are local, national and international support organisations we can and should make contact with if we recognise our mental health is at risk. We should never be afraid to ask for help. Most of us would not hesitate to call an ambulance if we fell down the stairs and broke our leg. We should apply the same logic and urgent action if our mental health is at risk.
- Keep active. This could mean joining a gym but could equally mean going for walks in the country or cycling around the park sometime during the week. As well as keeping physically fit, regular exercise can boost your self-esteem and can help you concentrate, sleep, and feel better. Exercise keeps the brain and your other vital organs healthy and plays a significant part in improving your mental health.
- Eat well and wisely. A diet that’s good for your physical health is also good for your mental health. A healthy balanced diet includes a variety of fruit and vegetables, wholegrain cereals, a mixture of dairy products and oily fish. Doctors recommend eating meals at regular intervals, drinking plenty of water and avoiding too much salt or sugar.
- Drink sensibly. Drink plenty of water and unsweetened fruit juices. But be careful with alcohol. Many of us drink to relax and wind down at the end of a hard day and some people drink to deal with stress and anxiety. But drinking can easily become habitual, and the seemingly positive effects are only temporary. When the drink wears off, you feel worse because of the way the alcohol has affected your brain and the rest of your body. Drinking is not a good way to manage difficult feelings and can lead to more serious physical and mental problems.
- Make time in the day to invest in your hobbies and interests outside of work and teaching. This could be anything from reading novels to practising judo. What do you love doing? What activities can you lose yourself in? If nothing springs to mind, think about what you loved doing in the past and try to rekindle that interest. Or try something new. Enjoying yourself helps beat stress. Concentrating on a hobby like gardening or painting can help you forget your worries for a while and change your mood for the better. Outside interests are not optional extras, they are an essential part of what makes you, you. And you are important.
- Take meaningful breaks. This would be good advice for all people but as teachers, we all know we tend to carry on working during our breaktimes at school or at least talking or thinking about school related issues. Then, we take our work home with us, literally. We may have marking to do, lessons to prepare or exams to organise. We often tell ourselves we can’t afford downtime because there is so much to do which will just build up and get worse if we don’t get on with it. Yet, we have all seen the effects of burnout in some of our colleagues. We are no use to anybody if we are mentally unfit to carry on. Taking short but real breaks during the school day and longer breaks from work related issues when we are at home is essential to preserving good mental health.
- Investigate relaxation and meditation techniques. This could be as simple as breathing exercises or as complicated as yoga. There is no ‘one size fits all’ technique, but many studies have shown that mindfulness and meditation have a positive impact on our mental health.
- Spend time in nature. Many anecdotal accounts, especially during the recent pandemic, indicate that simply spending time outside in parks or in the countryside has a calming and profoundly positive effect on mental wellbeing.
- Seek professional help when necessary. If you discovered a lump or had severe pain in your chest you know it would be wise to get advice from a healthcare professional as soon as possible. The same is true if you become aware of serious issues with your mental health.
- Look out for your colleagues. Perhaps you are the friend they need to speak to.
This list is not comprehensive but should indicate some of the basic steps we can take to monitor and improve our mental wellbeing. Fortunately, we live in times when mental health is treated more seriously than it once was and there is generally less stigma attached to admitting we have some mental health issues. English teachers are always under a lot of pressure, so let’s look after ourselves and each other.
What are the types of issues which you worry about? Let us know in the comments and we will try to address those concerns in future editions of this series.