Sir Michael: Rottweiler to Puppy on Teacher Stress

Sir Michael Wilshaw appears to be in the process of a David Beckham style turnaround in public perception – going from national villain to cherished hero. Okay so that may be stretching the point but having originally appeared to enjoy being Michael Gove’s Rottweiler we all watched aghast as he turned on his owner(s) and then, despite the attempts to ‘mussel’ him most recently we watched as he started to bark some home truths about academies and grammar schools.


However just when we wondered who he might take a bite out of next Sir Michael seems to have gone all Andrex Puppy having been quoted in the TES:

“That stuff about stress, although I was hugely misquoted there, I probably wouldn’t say now.”

Now I am not sure this means he doesn’t think the same way about stress now as he did then or that he simply shouldn’t have said what he said. However it does signal recognition of the damage and misjudgement of his quotes in 2012 where he effectively characterised Teachers as not knowing what stress was.

Now one could suggest that some of Sir Michael’s quotes were due to him being of a different era yet there are enough studies from the1970s and 1980s to suggest teachers were describing back then very much what they would describe now as factors that create stress. For example a study in the mid 1980s indicated 90% of teachers were reporting aspects of their job as stressful with prime concerns being time, students, finance and feedback from administrators; a list that wouldn’t look out of place 30 years on. Even then the authors (Raschke, et al.) were describing a ‘teacher crisis’ as thousands of teachers were leaving the classroom. So it would seem that teaching has long existed in a crisis and that stress has long been a feature of teaching.


To dig a little deeper we can see that teacher stress can be characterised as the ‘squeeze’ on teachers to the point by which a teacher is ‘unable to meet the demands’ made upon them – resulting in high levels of anxiety, depression, and low self-esteem.

To be more specific stress is located in the interplay of ‘Self-Efficacy beliefs and our locus of control’ – as in can we do what others are expecting us to do with what resources we have. So whilst teacher stress is perhaps part of a continuum in teaching the ‘squeeze’ demands may well be a key variable which change whilst the symptoms may stay the same (albeit the frequency of the squeeze may have changed).

Regardless it would seem that the repeated exposure to increasing challenges of diversification, surveillance, performativity, accountability and continual and rapid structural change may be exposing teachers to new forms of ‘squeeze’ compounded by magnification through social media, blogs, tweets and rapid news exchange.

The financial cost of such stress, anxiety and depression is said to account for the loss of approximately 220,000 days a year at a cost of over £19 million and it would be interesting to explore what £19 million of preventative strategies would look like and achieve not least at an individual wellbeing level?

Examples of preventative approaches are however often thin on the ground or short-lived and there would seem few examples in England from the last 30 years of any sustained effort to address the stress of teaching. Most recently (19th October 2016) the government   select committee inquiry into the supply of teachers did hear about plans in Nottingham to cap teacher workload to 2 hours an evening – which I am assuming this means they are acknowledging teacher stress. If so this is interesting as the government’s own response to the workload challenge didn’t acknowledge teacher stress within their report? Equally whilst I am sure Nottingham’s plans are well intended the potential unintended consequences in reducing teacher autonomy and agency, by defining the amount of time, are recognized as key factors in increasing stress which shouldn’t be underestimated. So whilst tinkering with workload is a start this may not be the answer.

So I am glad that Sir Michael has acknowledged that he now recognises the sensitivities that surround teacher stress. However teacher stress, emotion, resilience, and wellbeing are ultimately complex topics and those of us who prepare or work with teachers have to (as we are doing at The University of Manchester) look further as to how we select, prepare and support teachers for what should be both a demanding but positive and sustainable career. This isn’t driven purely by expediency related to retention, albeit this is important, however it has to be driven by authentically enabling happy, healthy teachers to engage with children in positive ways.

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