There’s no tired like teacher tired  

Improving wellbeing, recruitment and retention of teaching staff must start with honest recognition of quite how exhausting the job is

Improving wellbeing, recruitment and retention of teaching staff must start with honest recognition of quite how exhausting the job is

26 Feb 2024, 5:00

When I was 14, my mother became a teacher. From then on, she would regularly come home after work and fall asleep in front of the TV news. We used to tease her: how could she could be so tired when she only had a part-time job? And then life had its revenge and I, too, became a teacher.

Now well into my third decade in the job, I am still perennially surprised by how very, very tiring the job can be, especially at this time of year. Now it is me slumped in front of the evening TV news every evening.

And it’s not just our own tiredness, The pressures of the job mean any responsibilities at home or in ours wider lives take a knock too. It’s no surprise that home tensions are so common among the profession.

In teaching, everything seems urgent, even though little of it might actually be important. Most enervating, perhaps, is having to complete tasks for the sake of accountability – tasks that take us away from the real job. What really wears teachers down is the weight of knowing what we do makes such a significant difference to our students’ lives. We won’t not do those things, and we can’t not do what managers ask us to do to prove we’re doing it. And so we do both.

More exhausting even than this consistent over-burdening is the holistic nature of the job. A good teacher is physically, mentally and emotionally engaged. Spiritually, even. A teacher simply cannot turn off.  

Each of us is only a few generations away from working on the land. Among my ancestors, there are farmers, ship builders, lorry drivers, shopkeepers, builders and policemen, among others. As I leave for work some mornings feeling tired and sorry for myself, I try to remind myself that they would have jumped at the chance of a life like mine, doing the job I do. 

A teacher simply cannot turn off

I spend my days reading poems and plays. I am often caught in various sorts of crossfire, but nobody shoots at me. Teaching is a privilege. Nevertheless, there is such a thing as teacher-tired.

In 2021, a YouGov TeacherTrack survey suggested that 50 per cent of teachers suffered at least one characteristic associated with work-related burnout ‘all the time’ throughout the academic year. Further, 89 per cent reported that they felt a lack of energy or exhaustion in relation to their job ‘some or all of the time’. The mental health consequences of this are patent. Teachers are not just tired; they are dangerously tired.  

One former colleague managed the demands made upon him by only ever submitting information or data on the second request. If it was really necessary, he reasoned, managers would ask again. Many tasks seemed to evaporate for him that way.

Another committed to only ever doing things in a half-arsed sort of way so that she would never be asked to do those things again.

These are desperate measures, and they speak of desperate times.

For my part, I approach each term a little like a military campaign. I plan. I prepare. Physical fitness, good diet, a sound sleep regime, all these things will sustain you through the initial skirmishes of the term rushing towards you. Experienced teachers also know that sometimes simply getting to the end of the day in one piece is enough. So they let themselves have those days.

Teacher tiredness sometimes plays a conversational role akin to the weather. It is a safe topic on which agreement is assured and debate limited. So teachers can talk about their weariness without fear of being controversial.

Until government funding is increased and contact time reduced, maybe that is the key. Talking about things normalises them and allows the people who experience them to see they are not alone.

We need to admit that teaching is uniquely tiring. That way, perhaps more managers will be inclined to reduce the burden however they can. And more importantly, perhaps more trainees will enter the profession with a true idea of what it means to be a teacher and they, too, will give the job a few decades to grow on them.

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