Don't quit teaching yet! | Education Support Partnership

Don't quit teaching yet!

If stress is making you so ill you’re convinced you’ve picked the wrong profession, maybe there’s a better way? We talk to three teachers who thought about giving up but decided to stay.

Victoria’s story

Victoria Hewitt reached rock-bottom with her job and thought that was it. “I had a relentless workload with unreasonable expectations.  I was teaching Geography, History, ICT and Geography. The workload was constant.

“The emphasis on data, assessment and progress was extensive. I just couldn't meet the expectations in the time available. It continued like that for two years. I was exhausted. When finally I broke down in tears in front of my class. I knew I couldn't be there anymore.

“The day I returned to work, I had a back-to-work meeting in which I was made to feel like the stress and anxiety I felt was a result of my own personality. I left work immediately after the meeting. I don’t remember how I got home.”

David’s story

Secondary school teacher David (not his real name) had a similar experience driving home after yet another highly stressful day at work. He too doesn’t remember how he got home. “All I remember on the drive home was thinking I’d be better off driving my car into the central reservation than going home.”

Victoria came to us for help. “I rang the Ed Support helpline and they were brilliant. I got a shoulder to cry on. I cried a lot and the counsellor listened and tried to keep me calm. She was fantastic.

“I decided I’d give teaching one more try. I applied for a position at a top school in the area. I had no confidence I’d be invited for interview, let alone get the job, but I did, even though I was still off work when I went for interview.

“I asked about wellbeing and was happy with the response. My decision was made for me. I accepted the job offer and it’s been the best decision.”

Fortunately David did arrive safely but he collapsed in tears when he arrived. “I went to bed and did not come out again all weekend. My wife told me that I must go to the doctor. I went. More tears and a diagnosis of depression and anxiety brought on by stress of work. I was signed off for a month and referred for further help and counselling.”

David’s school had struggled with Ofsted for years over ten visits. “The school’s need to improve saw relentless monitoring. We had financial difficulties and redundancies meant I was given even more work.” The final straw came when David received an email telling him he was going to be observed the next day. That’s when he drove home in such a daze he has no memory of it.

David also decided to try another school rather than quit. “The deputy head at the school where I’m working now contacted me saying they needed a new head of department and would I like to apply. He knew all about the reputation of my last school and I already knew and respected him.

“I really wish I’d known about Ed Support as I could’ve used the helpline services to get me through a very tough time. I tell colleagues about this service now so if anyone else finds themselves in a similar position they know they don’t have to go through it alone.

“Teachers are in high demand. So if you are working in a toxic environment - get out!” 

Bonnie’s story

English teacher Bonnie Harrington had problems at all three of her previous schools. And she too thought that was it. “At one school a sudden decision was taken that teachers should never sit down in their classrooms while teaching. Another decision was that all registers had to be taken within ten minutes of the lesson. If you missed your register, or if it was late, you’d have a meeting with your head of department. Miss again and a meeting with the SLT then the head. Everyone knows the start of a lesson can be busy or unusual but there were no acceptable excuse. The stress led to panic attacks.”

At another school surprise book looks were common. “A teacher would let themselves into a classroom, take a book, highlight a list of expectations (green if met, orange if not) and put it in your pigeon hole. There was no discussion. I was constantly on edge, constantly waiting to be caught out. There was no praise, positivity or support. The overall feeling was that of an exam factory; corporate and zero tolerance.”

Bonnie left her job without a new one to go to. “I was so miserable I just couldn’t take it anymore, it was toxic.” Then when a school close to her house advertised she decided to give teaching one last chance.

At interview Bonnie asked a lot of questions. “I was on the lookout for red flags and I couldn’t see any. I knew the school was ‘on a journey’ towards good/outstanding Ofsted and that tends to pull teachers together towards a shared goal. They were changing their behaviour policy which showed they wanted to improve. The SLT/ middle leaders I met we’re genuinely warm, friendly and approachable. I just got a good feeling that it was ‘right’.

“There’s plenty school leaders can do to support wellbeing. My current school is NAILING it. For example last week of term all meetings are cancelled. Lesson observations are not a surprise but happen within a two-week window and are a full discussion. There are regular staff voices. There are book looks as a department, where good practise is discussed, no nitpicking and negatives. SLT are present around the school and approachable and plenty planned staff socials, Friday fitness and free breakfasts after parent evenings. We finish on Fridays at 2:35. There’s a weekly recognition on Monday morning of genuine thank yous from colleagues.

“Ultimately, no job is worth your health, so that must come first. No questions,” adds Bonnie.

What can you do?

If high levels of stress have convinced you to leave teaching you might want to think again.

Could you suggest improvements at your school? Few schools want to lose good teachers. As the recruitment crisis bites it is in their interests to try to improve wellbeing and keep the teachers they have. There is good practice out there, as we’ve seen, and maybe your workplace needs a bit of a push in that direction. We work with many senior leaders in schools to support them in transforming wellbeing in schools improving how staff are listened to and engaged with.

However if this doesn’t work, you don’t have to stay with something that not only isn’t working but is making you ill. But there are alternatives to leaving a profession you’ve worked so hard in and enjoy.  

And always remember our helpline counsellors are here for you 24 hours a day, every day of the week if you need to talk to someone in confidence.