Coping with the stress of inspection
Now that Ofsted has published its response to the consultation on ‘A good education for all’, we know that the spectre of unannounced inspection has been withdrawn for the moment. Ofsted has acknowledged the case made by headteachers that they really should be in their schools for an inspection and has agreed to shorten the notice to the afternoon of the day before. What it has not acknowledged, however, is the emotional shock of an unannounced inspection.
Sir Michael Wilshaw has famously suggested that teachers ‘do not know what stress is’
When I submitted my consultation response, I suggested that inspection brought with it a real and serious level of emotional stress. Since then, of course, Sir Michael Wilshaw has famously suggested that teachers ‘do not know what stress is’. Salutary, then, that the TES has recently run an article on teacher suicide. In this article we look at some of the signs of stress and ask, are you or any of your staff at risk?
Stress at its most harmful level
According to the TES, suicide among teachers is increasing – there has been an 80% increase from 2008 to 2009 – and there is an increasing number of referrals to the Teacher Support Network (TSN). The chief inspector notwithstanding, this is the real picture of teacher stress.
Being a headteacher is not like being the manager of a commercial business for we identify ourselves by the job we do and, like it or not, we are reflected in the life of our school. This is more than a job; it is part of our life. For our staff, too, their self-esteem and their sense of value are so often inextricably linked with the part they play in the organism that is their school. So, when their school is subject to an inspection that can praise or damn, is it any wonder that anxiety levels peak?
The harsh reality
Let’s get something into perspective; difficult though it may be to see, your health and wellbeing and that of your staff are actually of greater importance and value than your school’s performance figures. And, while it may be hard to admit, we all need support in our teaching and our leadership from time to time. We need to be able to ask for support without feeling inadequate.
The symptoms of stress
How alert are you to your own stress or the stress of your staff? Are you suffering unexpected extended illness or aches and pains? Have you noticed that a colleague is demonstrating uncharacteristic behaviour? It may be sensible to pay some attention to what might be warning signs. The Health and Safety Executive identifies the following symptoms of workplace stress.
Difficult though it may be to see, your health and wellbeing and that of your staff are actually of greater importance and value than your school’s performance figures
- Negative or depressive feelings
- Disappointment with yourself
- Increased emotional reactions – more tearful or sensitive or aggressive
- Loneliness, withdrawn
- Loss of motivation, commitment and confidence
- Mood swings (not behavioural)
- Confusion, indecision
- Can’t concentrate
- Poor memory
Changes from your normal behaviour
- Changes in eating habits
- Increased smoking, drinking or drug taking ‘to cope’
- Mood swings affecting your behaviour
- Changes in sleep patterns
- Twitchy, nervous behaviour
- Changes in attendance, such as arriving late or taking more time off.
This is a worrying list of symptoms. Those of us who occupy positions of school leadership are sometimes too busy to notice when our colleagues are anxious and we are certainly even less likely to recognise when it is happening to us. In my experience, the headteacher who spends more and more time in his or her office and who takes more and more decisions without consulting colleagues is likely to be under pressure. The trouble is that, when we are in this situation, we become less and less likely to admit it, sometimes even to ourselves.
As quickly becomes obvious, this is a downward spiral and sometimes leads to tragic consequences. There have been examples of teachers taking their own lives for a variety of reasons but there is evidence that, for some, the trigger was an inspection by Ofsted. As a consultant whose work includes Ofsted inspection, that fills me with shame.
Way back in 2007, John Illingworth told the NUT Annual Conference, ‘It is hard to imagine the emotional turmoil that drives a teacher to take their own life rather than face an Ofsted inspection. We are living in an education reign of terror and we must put a stop to it now.’ Illingworth was referring to a headteacher who had recently committed suicide after a critical inspection and a teacher who had done so on the eve of an inspection. Two years after that conference headteacher Irene Hogg took her life after inspectors criticised her leadership. And Michael Wilshaw says we don’t know what stress is!
You owe it to yourself, and you have a responsibility to your staff, to spot the warning signs and seek help. So, where do we find this help?
Where to find help
Don’t try to jolly people up and get them to look at the funny side. They might do that later, but your task is to respect how they’re feeling now and help them deal with it, not suppress it
Teacher stress has been recognised for well over a century; in fact, the TSN began life as the Teachers’ Benevolent Fund in 1877 and is preparing to celebrate its 135th anniversary. The TSN offers a range of support services, from a 24/7 telephone line to email advice and online support. It also publishes a series of helpful guides and online stress-management tools, as well as providing financial advice.
What to do for the best
A kind word and a compassionate manner go a long way but a colleague who needs help probably needs professional help – it does the school no good when we prop up people who should not be at work. The Red Cross makes three good points about the way we offer our help:
- Don’t try to jolly people up and get them to look at the funny side. They might do that later, but your task is to respect how they’re feeling now and help them deal with it, not suppress it.
- Don’t say things like, ‘I know just how you are feeling, just the same happened to me’. This isn’t empathy, it is more like boasting. It is very alienating and irritating. Can you imagine anyone thinking, ‘Oh, now I feel a lot better, knowing that someone else was distressed and upset in the past’? It is best avoided.
- Don’t hurry the next action. Always remember that a person who is upset is vulnerable and probably not in a state for successful decision-making.
If you or a colleague are not coping, proper, professional advice and care may prevent escalation. Recognise it, address it and resolve it.
The TSN Support Line is available 24 hours a day, every day. Telephone 08000 562 561 or 08000 855 088 in Wales.