Qualitative study: how managerialism in UK schools erodes teachers’ mental health and well-being

I have been a full day at a very interesting conference about data and educational policy, but than you read this study and you remember some of the teachers you know who had a burnout lately. There are always real people behind the data! This study is a qualitative study in which the researchers try to understand what can worsen mental health and well-being of teachers.

From the press release:

Performance targets, increased workload, curriculum changes and other bureaucratic changes are eroding teachers’ professional identity and harming their mental health, a new study in Educational Review finds.

The study’s authors interviewed 39 teachers across England and Wales who had experienced long term absence from work due to mental health problems, and six head, deputy and assistant head teachers who had dealt with mental health problems among staff.

The teachers cited constant, complex change in educational policies, target-led performance, lack of managerial support and heavy workload as causes of increased stress and anxiety. They spoke of disillusionment, loss of self-esteem and feelings of failure, leading some to take early retirement or, in one case, attempt suicide due to pressure of work.

Many believed that the focus on targets and results is fundamentally altering the teacher’s role as educator and getting in the way of the pupil-teacher relationship, ultimately harming the learning opportunities and failing to address the psychological needs of children. Job satisfaction is also being eroded by bureaucratic demands, with excessive paperwork and pressure to improve results adding to teachers’ already heavy workloads.

Difficulties with leadership and management styles were widespread, with many teachers feeling they were under constant scrutiny and pressure to perform to unrealistic expectations. Although conscious of the pressures on school managers to successfully implement new policies, teachers felt excluded from the process and ill-equipped to make the required changes.

This managerialist approach to education and the consequent loss of decision-making about classroom practice left many teachers with doubts about their role. Most felt that they were failing the children and themselves by no longer being able to encourage active learning in the classroom.

The study’s Principal Investigator, Gerry Leavey, Director of the Bamford Centre for Mental Health & Wellbeing at Ulster University said: “The destruction of self-esteem and effectiveness, combined with the despair of an externally constructed failure permeated most of our interviews with teachers. Their comments express a tension between the old view of what it means to be a teacher – commitment, service to the school and pupils’ learning – and the new managerialist view – accountability, performativity and meeting standards in a new, corporate world.”

“This tension is often internalised and impacts on teachers’ identity. It often pits taking care of themselves and the non-academic needs of pupils against management duties and targets. Too often, this leads to stress and mental health problems. Too many good teachers are leaving the profession through ill-health”.

Dr Barbara Skinner, an educationalist at Ulster University, added that: “Educational reforms, and the rigidly prescribed organisational and management structures that accompany them, should be weighed against their impacts on professional identity and personal well-being. We also need better evidence-based interventions to promote teacher well-being”

Abstract of the study:

In Europe, well-being in the workplace has increasing prominence in the policy and research agenda, and education is a key context in which the challenge of occupational stress has been reported. Traditionally, the ethos in school settings could be said to be shaped by the vocational motivation of employees; that is, a commitment to a social benefit through the development, support and improvement of the pupils, and this commitment used to override workplace challenges and help teachers deal with stress. This article argues that teachers’ commitment is being eroded by the impact of bureaucratic changes at management level, such as the setting of performance targets, increased workload, increased accountability and changes in the curriculum. This in turn impacts on their professional identity and can negatively affect their mental health and well-being. The current article describes a qualitative study undertaken among 39 teachers and 6 school leaders across England and Wales in which we sought to understand, through interviews, the contextual workplace experiences of teachers who experienced work-related stress. Policy developments in education and management implementation of these developments and the consequent erosion of teacher autonomy dominated the narratives. We examine how managerialism can relate to a loss of commitment, professional identity, self-confidence and vulnerability to stress, anxiety and depression. This article proposes that educational reforms, and the rigidly prescribed organisational and management structures that accompany them, need to be weighed against their impacts on professional identity and personal well-being.

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