Can current teacher stress levels be better managed?

Posted in : Cassidy's Comments on 18 September 2017
Frank Cassidy
Former Principal & Regional Officer of ASCL
Issues covered:

After a lovely summer break schools are back to face the budget realities of 2017-2018. I wrote back in January 2017 about teacher morale problems and now we are seeing further evidence of an education system under strain in terms of teacher stress levels.  Even with the prospect of Secretary of State Brokenshire’s funding boost, school leaders have been struggling to make timetables work with fewer staff and inevitably bigger classes. The Belfast Telegraph reported on July 15th 2017 that;

“Perhaps some relief for our schools will come from Secretary of State James Brokenshire’s release of new funding including £30 million for education.” The allocations do not include the extra £1 billion pledged to Northern Ireland as part of the Conservatives' deal to ensure DUP support at Westminster so it will be interesting to see if this “windfall” actually reaches our beleaguered teachers in their classrooms.

Recent newspaper articles over the summer months have refocused attention on the effect of these harsh financial realities on the changing nature of work in schools and the professional lives of teachers. In England, there is a crisis in recruitment and a debate over the 1% pay cap on salaries. Writing in the Sunday Mirror on July 16th 2017, under the headline “Teachers are quitting the profession in their droves amid warnings of a looming crisis”, Keir Mudie believes that low pay and harsh working conditions are responsible for the fall in numbers.

While recruitment issues are different here in Northern Ireland with a local oversupply of newly qualified teachers, similar concerns about pay and the deteriorating quality of working life in the classroom have translated into industrial action by the teaching unions.

The Belfast Telegraph highlighted the issue recently following a report by BBC Radio Ulster's Stephen Nolan Show, that 679 teachers had 28,507 work days off due to stress, depression or stress-related illnesses in the 2016/17 academic year - which represents a substantial increase from 578 teachers in 2012/13 taking 20,478 days off.

In response, Avril Hall-Callaghan of The Ulster Teachers Union rightly argued that (teaching unions) have been highlighting issues surrounding each one of these statistics for some time now.

"We are seeing teachers buckle under the stress of trying to cope and parents need to be aware that it is their children who will bear the brunt. Teacher morale is at an all-time low. A key factor is that school budgets have been so brutally hacked away that principals simply don't have the cash flow to fund their schools.”

It is also clear that this crisis in teachers working lives is not only about money, as teachers join the profession conscious that it is not particularly well paid. It is about a change in the day to day classroom experience and a drop in work satisfaction and that positive feeling of “making a difference” in the lives of young people. Budget cuts have resulted in a major change in average class sizes and this factor alone has dramatically increased the volume of work. Add to this an increase in poor behaviour levels among pupils and changing patterns of parental support and consequently, the job has become significantly harder.

A teacher blog in The Guardian in 2015 gives some detail about the effect of this stress…

“A lot of teacher stress has been caused by endless scrutiny of working practices. If management think that someone’s a cause for concern they might place them under even more scrutiny; out of genuine concern perhaps – but by doing so they’re unwittingly adding to their plight. Our tolerance levels get lower the more stress we’re under. Every class is different, but how many tellings - off would you typically dish out in a week? What sort of classroom offences might they be for? If it suddenly seems as though you’re doing nothing but shout at the children in your class, and for relatively minor infringements, ask yourself – has this been going on for a while?”

Maurice J. Elias Professor, Psychology Department, Rutgers University writing about school leadership responses to teacher stress feels that the culture and climate of the school are crucial. His research confirms that teacher burnout is most often an organizational problem and it is insidious because it can remove dedicated teachers from the field of education, sometimes even before they physically leave their jobs. Its solution is found most often in creating a positive, supportive school culture and climate, where teachers are treated as professionals and given the opportunity to collaborate, problem solve, and get needed, reasonable supports in timely ways. This is where the intervention of school leaders can ameliorate the difficulties to some degree. When the conditions of teaching are bad, the conditions of learning tend to be worse, and children suffer in lasting ways. That's why the collateral damage of burned-out teachers is burned-up children.

The message for school leaders is that as class sizes rise following budget cuts and teachers are inevitably put under greater pressure, more support mechanisms must be put in place to help them deal with the issues like indiscipline. Expectations in terms of outcomes and new initiatives need to be recalibrated accordingly and most importantly teachers must be included in the discussions to put these measures in place.

In terms of the official position of the employing authorities, TNC 2011/1 A Strategy for Teacher Health and Well-Being in Northern Ireland describes the broad principles and guidelines for ensuring that stress is minimised and sets out goals for improvement. This strategy was developed in a context very different from that of today, however, and much more proactive steps will be needed to deal with the new workplace pressures in schools.

The Department of Education and Employing Authorities are committed to providing experienced personnel with specialist skills who have developed expertise in the areas of staff welfare and Carecall and other counselling providers have worked well with schools to provide support for staff in recent years. The contact details of these officers are available on the DENI website.

Flexible working arrangements have, of course, also been negotiated for teachers to help with these pressures including Job Share, Career Break, Flexible Working and Temporary Variation of Contract – though they can bring their own management difficulties. In 2011 it was agreed that efforts needed to be made to reduce bureaucratic burden and allow teachers the time to focus on their core business of teaching and learning. Surely this aspect of the employer/school staff relationship and ETI expectations on schools now need to be revisited in the light of these current realities.


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This article is correct at 18/09/2017

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Frank Cassidy
Former Principal & Regional Officer of ASCL

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