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FEATURE: UK EXAM LANDSCAPE


stress leaves people at serious risk of both long- term physical and mental ill-health. Toxic stress needs to transition into tolerable stress and a 10- minute chat and cup of tea in the staff room is simply not enough. “Schools and overseeing organisations need


to have professional development on the physiology and brain science of toxic stress and then learn how to provide an environment conducive to calming teachers’ minds, brains and bodies. This could include a ‘nurture room’ for staff (a student-free, work-free room) in which staff can unwind; a group forum for teachers to talk in confidence about their feelings, and in particular stress triggers from their work; regular wellbeing sessions for all staff, for example mindfulness, yoga, Tai chi and senior leaders providing positive feedback to all staff on a regular basis, including how they are enhancing children’s wellbeing. “Moreover, bearing in mind the research that


loneliness is as bad for your health as smoking 15 cigarettes a day, teachers should not be left alone with challenging groups of students. There should be creative solutions to improve staff ratios, such as volunteers or the use of apprentices. “In summary, there needs to be a shift to far


2017). Half of those surveyed had experienced depression, anxiety or panic attacks. One-third said their job made them feel stressed most or all of the time and more than 70% did not feel that they received sufficient guidance about their health and wellbeing at work. “So what can be done? The first thing is to


understand the causes of mental ill-health as described by the teachers themselves. Many teachers do not feel valued – 60% of teachers report feeling that their wellbeing is not considered important by the school (National Association of Schoolmasters Union of Women Teachers (NASUWT) Big Question Report 2017). Teachers feel powerless, blamed and criticised – 52% say they believe they are not empowered as a teacher. Almost 60% attribute ‘disempowerment’ to a culture of blame and criticism and 58% to a lack of respect for teachers’ professional judgment. Teachers also feel overwhelmed, and 59% attribute this to a lack of understanding of the nature of their job from decision makers. Three-quarters of teachers feel constantly evaluated and judged and 84% of teachers cite workload as their biggest issue (NASUWT, 2017). “Teachers feel that senior leaders and


overseeing bodies are not empathetic about high class sizes and that there is pressure to ‘teach to test’. There is a feeling that data matters more than child wellbeing. This creates a sense of disillusionment, as many teachers come into the profession to change the lives of children, not to collect data for the education league tables. “Similarly, many senior leaders feel they are


measured by purely academic outcomes and, accordingly, often lose sight of what makes a difference to lives of children as they navigate a path through the regime of testing and assessment. With senior leaders under pressure to obtain results, they are often not in a state of wellbeing themselves to be able to offer grounded, empathic and nurturing support to teachers. “Teachers are increasingly becoming mentally


June 2018 www.education-today.co.uk 31


ill as a result of feeling under-valued, powerless, criticised and overwhelmed, and therefore suffering what is known in research as ‘social defeat’. This syndrome reveals that in an ongoing culture of submission and dominance, there is usually a dramatic adverse effect on mental and physical health of the submissive party. Research shows that social defeat is linked to toxic stress (chronic or frequent unrelieved high stress states) which can trigger a range of mental and physical health problems, including anxiety and depression, diabetes, heart attacks and cancer. “All overseeing education bodies must start to


treat toxic stress in teachers very seriously, as an urgent matter of health and safety. This is because the evidence from decades of neuroscience research is overwhelming, that toxic


more psychologically and neuroscientically aware whole-school cultures. These need to be underpinned by an understanding of the research on ‘social defeat’, and the impact of an environment where test scores trump wellbeing. “Improving teacher wellbeing needs to start at


the very top, with organisations such as the Department for Education, Ofsted and the Regional Schools Commissioners balancing the scales and ensuring staff and student wellbeing, as well as academic outcomes, are key performance indicators for schools. Governing bodies working with senior leads have a duty of care to ensure teachers feel empowered, valued and nurtured so they can nurture the children in their care. Employers need to put in place safety assessments around psychological hazards, such as toxic stress, in the workplace and undertake frequent health checks.”


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