One thing we know about people who are abused in childhood – be it physically, emotionally, or sexually – is that there is often a good chance of those patterns repeating in later life if not addressed at the time: the abused becoming the abuser.
I often wonder about this as I read stories about the rise in mental health problems for our students. More and more these days, young people are struggling with the pressures surrounding them. Expectations of examination success, without which – so goes the fear – they will ruin their entire lives! A missed grade at GCSE could be the difference between going to the sixth form centre which will get you the A-levels you need to go to the university of choice. And failure to get into that university, of course, means no hope of getting that job. The highly competitive job which everyone you know is also gunning for. The one your life will end without!
It’s dog eat dog – the pupil you share a desk with today will be the job applicant you’re going up against tomorrow. And while you might want to take a weekend off to de-stress and wind down, they might be doing that little extra to give them the edge over you…so better to make sure you’re doing even more work than them to succeed. You can always sleep when you’re dead!
Our students are freaking out because they see a society with serious economic inequalities out there and they do not want to end up on the wrong side of the rich/poor equation. Schools are now having to introduce relaxation measures such as “mindfulness” into the school curriculum to offset the stress induced by the average UK education.
Rather than reducing the stress, we are accommodating it!
Which brings me back to the cycle of abuse.
Is it any wonder the British children are being worked into mental breakdowns by an education system which is, itself, staffed by adults equally overworked and prone to suffering damaged mental health?
When I set my students a homework task which, despite being well-thought-out and contributing usefully to developing their learning, is their third piece of homework set that day, all for the same deadline forty-eight hours later (and the second day that week of similarly heavy homework timetabling from all other subjects), the part of me which should feel sorry for them is likely to be crowded out by the part of me that convinces myself dealing with such a heavy workload will somehow be good for them. I look at my own “homework” for the next few days – that set of reports to write, the GCSE mock exam to mark, the observed lesson to plan – and I rationalise to myself that learning how to cope with such pressures is a vital feature of the “hidden curriculum” all teachers are engaged in to get young people ready for life in the “real world”. They will learn time-management, adaptability, coping under pressure, meeting deadlines, I tell myself. It may not be nice, but at least they will become “work-ready”.
A student’s eyes roll when you set them holiday homework – a project perhaps, that will keep them well occupied during all the hours of free-time – and you don’t even register that you should feel sympathy because you know your own holiday will be equally compromised by the extra revision session you’re putting on mid-week as an intervention for struggling students; the piles of homework you decided you would look at over half-term; the new scheme of work you didn’t find time to write during the last six weeks. If you can figure out ways of managing your time effectively to get on top of your work and ensure some hollow semblance of a holiday, then surely so too can your students?
We don’t even realise that we are perpetuating the same unhealthy working practices that are killing our profession as we normalise this insanity. Even as the numbers of mental health incidents in young people rise, we see no connection between what we are asking of them and the intense levels of pressure with which we are breaking them.
And of course, those who thrive in such a ridiculous environment end up getting the best grades, the best university places, the best jobs. They end up being the new star employees killing themselves to fulfil every ludicrous task their bosses set for them until, eventually, they become a boss themselves, demanding more of the same from their own employees, ensuring the cycle continues…
The best advice I ever got from a manager at my school was to fail more. They pointed out that the number one cause of excessive workload in the professions was teachers rising to the challenge of larger demands on their time.
“Every time you guys prove that it is possible to do what was asked of you, you set a new standard of what is expected. If you all demonstrated that what was being asked of you was too much, then we’d have to change our policies. As long as the policies are being met by staff, as far as we’re concerned those policies are working.”
Unfortunately, such advice – fail more – is easier said than taken. The aforementioned job insecurity affects us too, and in this time of austerity cuts, it is a bold move to actively flag up an inability to meet any demands of a profession which is looking to make savings on the payroll.
So we continue doing the impossible, even though the effort to do so is unsustainable. We swallow down the impending burnout. We put aside sleep, friendships and family obligations to keep our bosses happy.
We get the job done!
And we demand the same of our students, feigning astonishment as more and more of them start to crack. Wondering what we could do to help? Wondering what kind of world we are creating where such madness is considered normal.