Stressed? Overwhelmed? Anxious? If we are to put in place a schools recovery plan to help teaching staff and leaders, we need to know what challenges we are addressing and how to address them. TDT’s Director of Education, Gareth Conyard reflects on wellbeing and CPD.
The terms “stress” and “anxiety” are often used interchangeably but in fact relate to different emotional conditions. I was reminded of this when reading a recent article by Ed Dorrell (2022) focused on the impact of the pandemic on schools, in particular on the leaders and teachers who have been managing huge additional demands for the last two years.
In the article, Dorrell suggests the idea of a “schools recovery plan” to help teachers and leaders recover, matching the intent behind the Department for Education’s education recovery plan (DfE, 2021) to support pupils.
Such a plan, I believe, would do well to be clear about the issues it seeks to address and the different responses that might therefore be appropriate.
In her 2021 book Atlas of the Heart, Brené Brown seeks to be explicit about what different emotional responses are, how they are distinct, and how they interact. She helps to draw boundaries between emotions so we can be clearer about what responses might help.
As she describes it, stress is the feeling of being unable to cope, of having too much to do and not enough time to do it.
It is different from the more extreme feeling of being overwhelmed in that when under stress there is still an ability to understand what needs to be done to improve the situation, but you need some help doing it.
Whereas if you are overwhelmed you just need somebody to take the problem away, at least for a bit.
Anxiety is something different still. It is a process of worrying – sometimes excessively – about things that might come to pass, something out of your control or the consequences of an action that you cannot now change.
Using the pandemic as a lens to frame these distinctions:
- Feeling stressed: There is too much to do to ensure students are taught well when absence levels among staff are high, so help is needed to agree to drop some tasks and to help manage the workload better among teachers in school.
- Feeling overwhelmed: There is too much to do to ensure students are taught well when absence levels among staff are high, and there is no idea how to respond to improve the situation.
- Feeling anxious: What would the response need to be to a new variant of Covid? Was it the right decision to keep the school open last year when cases were rising? Did this lead to somebody vulnerable catching Covid?
Brown goes further in her book and disaggregates feelings of fear, dread, and vulnerability. And, of course, these emotional states can exist in parallel – humans are complicated!
So why does any of this matter?
If you consider the differences between being stressed, overwhelmed, or anxious, the response that might help teachers and leaders will also need to be different.
For example, trying to take away all the work from someone who is stressed can in fact feel disempowering and lead to further stress and even anxiety (“They think I am bad at my job, and I am going to get fired!”).
Whereas asking somebody who is feeling overwhelmed to come up with a solution to their problems is unlikely to work as they don’t have the capacity to find an answer.
When considering how to help teachers and leaders we must also be clear about what this means for effective professional development, especially at a point where the government’s education recovery plan and the recent White Paper (DfE, 2022) make much of the “golden thread” of professional development which places new demands and provides fresh opportunities for teachers and leaders – including the Early Career Framework (ECF) and National Professional Qualifications (NPQs).
We often make much – quite rightly – of the importance of understanding working memory in the effective imparting of knowledge and information, and its retrieval at the right time.
As well as this, the circumstances in which information is given matters. For example, evidence suggests (Sims et al, 2021) that habit-forming can limit growth in teacher effectiveness and that habit-forming is more likely to be a barrier when under stress. We also know that the emotional state of the teacher or leader engaging in professional development is relevant, with the latest evidence (Hobbiss et al, 2021) suggesting that the prevailing wisdom that stress has a negative impact on working memory may not be true, and instead it is anxiety that has the significant detrimental impact (Cherry, 2022).
This knowledge helps to guide decisions about what professional development might work best for different people in different emotional states.
For example, a teacher who is under stress may respond positively to an NPQ as it offers tangible tools and advice to help them cope with the challenges faced and, importantly, they are in an emotional state to be able to process the information being shared.
The same may be true for a teacher feeling overwhelmed, but not immediately – time and space are needed first to help the feeling of being overwhelmed pass.
But a teacher feeling anxious is less likely to benefit from undertaking an NPQ, at least in isolation, and should consider accessing professional mental health support in the first instance.
To frame it another way, those experiencing stress can be helped by what we might class as education domain specific support (“I am stressed about classroom behaviour, I can be helped by the NPQ in Leading Behaviour and Culture”), whereas anxiety requires input from a different domain of expertise (psychology) and the education elements are less germane.
These are complicated distinctions for teachers and leaders to navigate, but this is made easier by a positive staff culture that encourages open and honest conversations so that the right diagnosis can be made about how people feel and how to help them.
Creating the right “culture of improvement” (Weston et al, 2021) is imperative to ensure appropriate action is taken, for example by lowering levels of stress through the effective use of CPD and working together, as demonstrated in a recent Teacher Development Trust blog by Dr Sam Sims (2022).
That could be supported by a schools recovery plan – as suggested by Ed Dorrell – that provides a holistic approach to supporting teachers and leaders, supplementing the “golden thread” approach to professional development with support for anxiety (and wider mental health issues) as well as supporting the right kinds of open and honest school cultures.
- Gareth Conyard is director of education at the Teacher Development Trust. He worked at the Department for Education between 2003 and 2022 on a range of policies from early years to higher education. Most recently, he led the development and delivery of the Early Career Framework and reformed National Professional Qualifications. This article first appeared as part of a series of blogs on the TDT website to mark Stress Awareness Month in April.
- For help or advice on any issue facing those working in education, you can contact the free Education Support 24-hour helpline on 08000 562 561 or www.educationsupport.org.uk
Further information & resources
- DfE: Guidance: Education recovery support, June 2021: https://bit.ly/3LnkJJH
- Cherry: Implicit memory vs explicit memory, Very Well Mind, February 2022: https://bit.ly/3OFor3n
- DfE: Policy paper: Opportunity for all: strong schools with great teachers for your child (white paper), March 2022: https://bit.ly/3qLTqQX
- Dorrell: Teachers are at breaking point because of Covid – the government needs to help them recover, too, The Independent, April 2022: https://bit.ly/3MCcKbF
- Hobbiss, Sims & Allen: Habit formation limitsgrowth in teacher effectiveness: A review of converging evidencefrom neuroscience and social science. Review of Education (9,1), February 2021.
- NPQ in Leading Behaviour and Culture: https://tdtrust.org/npqlbc/
- Sims: Lowering teacher stress through CPD & teamwork, Teacher Development Trust, April 2021: https://bit.ly/3MwOcB0
- Weston, Hindley & Cunningham: A culture of improvement: Reviewing the research on teacher working conditions, February 2021: https://tdtrust.org/coi/
First published in Headteacher Update, 2nd May 2022