Why is teaching making you so poorly?

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I’ve been a teacher for two years now. Since starting I’ve put on a stone and a half, have stopped all exercise in term time and am eating far too much junk food. I’m also worried that I’m drinking too much. I feel sluggish all the time and sometimes get out of breath just walking between classrooms. I don’t sleep well and often feel worryingly anxious. Every term I seem to get ill and struggle on until the holidays when I collapse. Some weekend days I can barely bring myself to go out of the house. I’ve invested a lot in teaching and don’t want to give it up, but I am seriously worried about my long term physical and mental health.

Teachers, as recently acknowledged by Damien Hinds, work long hours and these eat into time that could be spent doing things that contribute to good health. Anyone starting work at seven in the morning and working through to seven in the evening, or later, will struggle to find time to cook proper meals. Eating high-fat ready meals or takeaways, snacking on sugar and finding bursts of energy in caffeine can quickly create a pattern of peaks and troughs that is hard to break. Even if people working this long can summon the willpower to exercise, it is likely they’ll find workouts comparatively unsatisfying, which affects motivation in the longer term. All this damages quality sleep, which means the high-sugar, high-fat and high-caffeine diets feel necessary to push through the day. For teachers in this situation, alcohol, or indeed any other addictive substance, can be very tempting because it provides a short cut to altered consciousness, which gives the illusion of switching off. For most people though, drinking immoderately takes far more than it gives and contribute to the issues that started problems in the first place.

All that said, the truth is certainly more subtle than long hours cause bad health. Plenty of people in all sorts of jobs, including teaching, work very long hours and thrive. Some people who work comparatively few hours suffer from lifestyle health problems too, which means things must be more complicated.

To understand why some thrive and some don’t, whatever context they are in, it might be helpful to begin by considering what it is that makes some people quite able to cope with a large volume of work and the long hours required to complete it. First, it is important to recognise that people who feel they are being successful and making progress at things they care about are typically far happier with high workloads than those who feel they are failing at things they don’t think important. When things are going well and we can see a direct benefit of what we’re doing, we don’t mind working very hard and may even find ourselves energised. While we may know our hours are excessive, and be mindful of the impact this is having on those close to us, we are less likely to find the time spent working stressful in itself. Teachers perceived to be doing a good job working in high performing schools with autonomy to plan, teach and assess in the way they think best are probably less likely to find long hours stressful, because there is a pay off to self-esteem, career prospects and perhaps even their own finances.

Teachers working in less happy contexts are far more likely to suffer mentally and physically. For those under the cosh, whether it is because of questions around their own competence or concerns about the perceived quality of the schools in which they work, perpetual anxiety can quickly make long hours feel unbearable. In an unfortunate double-whammy, teachers working in environments like this are those least likely to be given professional freedom, which makes work feel even more like drudgery. If results do not improve, which they may well not given the limited influence teachers have, all tasks come to feel pointless, which can quickly create a demotivating sense of futility and senselessness. The frustrations of working like this for hours and hours, day in and day out, can very quickly spill into other areas of life; even if you have the time, it’s hard to find the energy to go for a run or cook a proper meal from scratch when you’ve spent your day in a state of low-level panic about the length of your to-do list. It is far easier to drink half a bottle of wine, eat a pizza and try to forget you’re likely to wake at 4am saucer-eyed and too nauseous to eat anything before the breaktime doughnut you haven’t the willpower to resist.

Unfortunately schools can buy into the inevitability of this, whether consciously or unconsciously, by creating cultures that endorse and even validate it. In some schools Heads begin the count down to the next holiday on the first day back after the last one. This, while superficially a positive example of in-it-together camaraderie (“Just twenty-seven get-ups until Christmas, guys!”), actually sends a rather negative message because it is an admission that the coming term will be relentlessly brutal, and that the best way to get through is to remind yourself at some point in the future it will end. This feast and famine approach to life makes developing consistent, healthy patterns really difficult. Motivating yourself to exercise or eat better for seven days, after six weeks of inactivity and sugar can be so hard it doesn’t feel worth bothering, especially as those who do make changes are unlikely to see any benefits in such a short space of time.

Some schools go further by normalising the binge-eating of biscuits, cake, confectionary and sweets during term time. The stressful, pressurised nature of the job can mean it conveniently assumed that eating poorly is simply unavoidable and providing sugary treats seen as a duty of those chairing meetings. Those choosing not to tuck in can find themselves, good naturedly but persuasively, pressured into ‘having just a slice.’ While saying there is never a place for such indulgences would be going too far, it is just as important to accept that it is harder to stay healthy if snacking is made a regular feature of day-to-day professional interaction.

Some teachers, concerned about relative inactivity and poor nutrition, fall victim to the myth that teaching in itself is such a physically demanding profession that it compensates for a lack of purposeful exercise and a problematic diet. This, on the face of it, is not a stupid thing to believe. Teaching is, of course, more active than many jobs, particularly those based predominantly in offices. Typical teachers do move a fair amount and even the act of standing in front of a class and explaining something burns more calories than working on a computer. Unfortunately though, making a simple comparison like this is flawed. Firstly work for most teachers is not as active as many believe it to be. Those who teach in one classroom and move no further than the staffroom are unlikely to be burning very many more calories than an office worker. Of course, PE teachers and those with responsibilities that take them over a large school site will expend more energy but even these, unless they are getting out-of-breath fairly regularly, are probably not exercising as much as they should.

Secondly, those with more sedentary jobs at all concerned about their health are likely to be acutely aware they aren’t getting enough exercise and so, sometimes literally, take steps to compensate. Increasingly, flexible working arrangements mean office-based workers make time in their day, even at lunch, to do some form of physical activity. In schools such flexibility is rare. This, added to punishingly long hours, which make working through break and lunch common, makes it much harder for teachers to do the same.

Many schools do recognise the unhealthy lifestyles of their staff as an issue and run well-meaning initiatives, typically called things like ‘healthy schools’ to address it. These usually involve a focus on better eating and may include stress-busting programmes like mindfulness, sports clubs for staff and Yoga. While the thinking is admirable, such policies can never have more than a limited impact if they deal only with the symptoms of poor health while ignoring the causes. It is all very well offering beautician appointments in non-contact time, or a running club at 3.30, but if workloads are too high for people to spare the time to attend them then they will not be beneficial to most teachers. Indeed, it is even possible they can make things worse because they can lead school staff at all levels to feel poor lifestyles are actually the fault of individuals for not taking advantage of school provision, which means less focus on changing negative aspects of the overall environment itself.

Some things, admittedly, schools can do very little about. Teachers are more prone to illness than those in many other professions because the nature of their work exposes them to more germs. Schools are full of people, both children and adults, and can act as vectors for coughs, colds, flu and stomach bugs. There is a fairly direct correlation between standing in front of a class of spluttering children and becoming poorly yourself. That children as a whole are not a demographic typified by high standard of personal hygiene makes the situation worse and means those who work in schools are more likely to get an illness than those working in offices. It probably isn’t fair to pin all the blame for this on students though; very busy, time-pressured working environments make us all, at times, less fastidious about things like hand washing and dirty tissues than we know we should be. Remembering this can help us avoid falling for the narrative that our various ailments are inevitably caused by stress and unhealthy lifestyles. While, of course, these do play a role in lowering immune systems they alone are not the cause of the end-of-term flu.

Finally, it is again worth examining the harmful but pervasive belief that good teachers are always busy and stressed. This silliness and easily lead schools and teachers to the conclusion that unbalanced, unhealthy lifestyles are inherent to teaching and there is no place in the profession for those who are either unable or unwilling to accept them. Teachers simply must reject such thinking. Those that do not, victims of a sort of Stockholm Syndrome, are contributors to the sort of culture in which bad health can seem an occupational hazard and becomes normalised, so hiding the true extent of the problem.

What can I do about it?

 

Anyone who has ever been on an aeroplane knows that the pre-flight safety briefing says they should put on their own air mask before helping a child. This is always quite jarring to hear. Our instincts tell us that when it counts the most our first responsibility is to those we care most about, not ourselves. To understand why we get this advice it is important to remember that the airline is not making a judgement about whose life is more valuable. It is a recognition that if, for whatever reason, an adult becomes incapacitated then they are no longer in a position to provide help to anyone at all.

There are lessons in this to those in danger of burning themselves out. When we are not healthy, we do everything worse. Detailed planning may well be done, but its quality is likely to be questionable. Teaching exhausted is a recipe for disaster. Marking and assessing may fulfil all the requirements of a policy but is far less likely to address the most pertinent areas. Even teachers who are able to compartmentalise so well their pupils don’t notice a difference are very unlikely to be able to keep it up forever. Teachers who leave the profession because their health becomes so poor they cannot continue deprive future generations of pupils of an experienced, competent practitioner, which means even an apparent short term victory can result in a far-reaching and more important defeat.

To be fair on ourselves and our pupils we must begin by accepting that our first priority must be our own health and well-being. Only when this is assured can we properly prioritise the needs of those we are responsible for.

Of course, this is much easier said than done.

Exercise is a good place to start because, done regularly, it can provide a structure on which to hang other things too. While meaningfully training for a marathon might be unrealistic for many teachers, especially who those who feel they often don’t have time to go to the toilet, even a very small amount can improve wellbeing. Committing to a brisk twenty minute walk three times a week, preferably at set times, and sticking to it come hell, highwater or Ofsted can be a really positive step towards restoring balance because it makes physical activity a feature of a properly structured week. It also makes increasing volume and intensity of exercise later easier; going from nothing to hard workouts feels like an intimidatingly huge step whereas establishing even a very low level of basic fitness makes doing a bit more feel more achievable.

Those wiling and able to push themselves a bit harder are likely to get more benefits. Being out-of-breath and sweaty can have a meditative effect because it focuses attention. It is actually quite difficult to be anxious about an impending lesson observation or deadline when your mind is set on getting up a hill without stopping or bench-pressing a weight right at the top end of your capability. While the effect is of course only temporary there are longer-term benefits to clearing your mind completely a few times a week, because it provides a sense of perspective that may make it easier to switch off at other times when it is helpful to. Finally, when work is at its worst and it feels like we’re making no progress at all, improving at something else, whether getting faster, stronger or just generally fitter can give a greater sense of control and help reinforce self-esteem, which has a beneficial knock-on effect. While, for most people, exercise has perhaps the greatest overall benefit it is also worth noting that other hobbies can help too; while playing a musical instrument or painting a picture won’t reduce weight or make those doing them fitter, the act of purposeful attention on something other than work has benefits too.

Another benefit of physical activity is that it can provide more motivation to eat better because it makes the effects of not doing so much more obvious.  While eating badly is even more damaging without exercise, the impact of it often isn’t immediately clear because those who aren’t pushing themselves are far less likely to notice until they’re in a really bad state. It is generally easier to resist wall-to-wall cake or three beers every evening if you know regularly indulging will mean you’re less able to run your twice-weekly 5k without stopping for a rest half way through. Once again it is worth emphasising the importance of following through on a commitment to exercise because otherwise good intentions can act as an excuse for not making changes to diet. It is all too easy to succumb to the biscuit tin by thinking ‘I’ll burn this off in the holidays’, and then finding other reasons not to exercise when they finally arrive.

Those who find them either unable to exercise at all, or do much less than they are used to will have to make changes to their eating habits if they don’t want to put on weight. It would probably be a mistake to go into this in too much detail as what works is very individual beyond some basic well-established rules; eat three meals and don’t skip breakfast, watch portion size and make sure that calorie intake does not exceed what’s burnt. Some teachers find it helpful to bring in everything they eat into schools, including snacks, which makes substitutions easier. While it is always difficult to resist cake when everyone else is eating it, it’s easier if you have chunks of pineapple or even just an apple to eat instead. It’s also worth remembering that what seems a craving for alcohol is often actually hunger, which means eating sensibly and regularly can lead to a reduction in high calorie wine, beer or spirits in the evening.

An empty fridge makes stopping at a takeaway or a rushed trip to the supermarket for a ready meal tempting. Planning meals on Saturday or Sunday can also help teachers avoid their good intentions evaporating the following week, as well as helping save money. For those teachers who have time to do it, batch-cooking meals can be even more helpful because heating these up can take less time and be less hassle than even ordering a takeaway. For those who struggle to do this, but do cook sometimes, just making double or more of the amount you usually eat and freezing the rest can be just as easy.

Before finishing up on diet, it is important to acknowledge that a few teachers find losing too much weight more of a problem. Those who find this happening to them must, of course, take action too. These people simply must make sure they eat healthily and regularly to avoid further problems.

A lot of teachers who take steps to increase exercise and eat properly will find they sleep better without doing anything else at all. Establishing a set of patterns and routines creates a reassuring sense of order and regularity that makes falling and staying asleep less of a struggle. However, even those who adopt a sensible, balanced lifestyle can still experience problems.

Tolerating less sleep in the week and trying to compensate with lie-ins at the weekend is usually a mistake. Firstly, this doesn’t really work because it makes establishing regularity impossible. Those that sleep in late on Saturday and Sunday are likely to find it difficult to get to sleep early on Sunday night, which means they won’t have had enough when the alarm rings on Monday. This deficit can make caffeine and sugar feel necessary to stay alert throughout the day, making it more difficult to drop off at an appropriate time. Many teachers don’t actually recognise this as a problem because they are working late into the evenings anyway but this pattern, of course, creates further issues.  While it does require some discipline to do it, especially for those who enjoy late nights at the weekend, getting up and going to bed at the same time each day is more sensible for most people.

Those that do work right up to bedtime typically find it harder to get drowsy and then fall asleep because they are likely to be still thinking about the things they were working on. This is even tougher for those anxious about how this work will be judged, which is another reason to be wary of schools with extensive and punitive quality assurance measures. Teachers, like everyone else, should make time to unwind and relax before trying to go to sleep. To avoid sitting around and worrying, which is no more productive than just doing the work, it is important to do something else and to fully focus on it. Playing a musical instrument, having a conversation about something other than teaching, drawing, reading a novel or even doing something as simple as properly watching a film or TV program works so long as attention is fully on them. At all costs avoid trying to do any of these things at the same time as working because it isn’t unwinding at all. Anything done like this will be of lower quality and will take longer anyway, negating any of the perceived benefits. It should go without saying that email and social media is also a considerable danger, especially if messages and notifications are school related; it’s very hard to not think about school when your phone is constantly reminding you of it. If you can get away with it, don’t have work email on your phone and switch if off, or at least on silent in another room, when preparing to sleep.

Drinking less also has benefits to sleep. While the effects of alcohol can, superficially at least, soothe anxiety and help some people feel calmer, this is usually only temporary. Not drinking at all, in the week at least, is probably a good idea but any reduction will have some benefits. If stopping altogether feels unrealistic, switching to lower-unit drinks, which are increasingly easy to find, can be beneficial to those too habituated to cease indulging altogether.

The changes described so far are likely to make it easier to fall asleep in the first place, but some unlucky teachers will still find they wake in the middle of the night, sometimes for hours at a time. This is truly miserable; turning over and switching on a light to see the clock says three or four in the morning can be unimaginably depressing, especially when it happens regularly. This is far more common for those feeling generally anxious. If this happens, tossing and turning in bed is usually not the answer, but nor is getting up and doing work or, as I have done before, even going in to school only to find it dark and locked up. It is better to leave the bedroom and do something intellectually undemanding for half an hour or so, before trying again. In the midst of this all it can also be helpful to try and retain perspective; in the small hours insomnia can be anxiety inducing in itself with the prospect of the day ahead, already demanding, seeming truly horrific. If this happens to you remind yourself that fatigue in itself is not life threatening. Like driving for most of us, many of the processes of teaching are automated and, while of course unpleasant, most of us are able to get through a working day on very little sleep. That said, it is a serious problem and those experiencing this regularly should get professional help.

It would not be honest to finish this chapter without acknowledging that, as with almost everything in teaching, context is of huge importance. Some schools do make living a healthy lifestyle impossible and teachers working in these should feel no guilt in moving on to more enlightened institutions. Once again it is worth remembering that careers should be long; marathons and not sprints. While martyring yourself can seem noble if, as it is very likely to do, this results in a departure from teaching altogether then the overall, potentially multi-decade, cost is much, much too high.

Looking after yourself does not make you weak. It marks you out as a true professional.

 

 

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3 thoughts on “Why is teaching making you so poorly?

  1. Martin X says:

    I’d lead with the analogy of the oxygen mask, because it really catches the attention of the reader.

    I confess, though, I found this post overly long and I only skimmed it. I tend to roll my eyes a bit when someone starts going on about diet when discussing topics that don’t have anything to do with diet. My feeling is that the substance can probably be condensed into about two paragraphs and would likely become more memorable.

    Like

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