Stress. How much is too much?

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One possible solution?

One possible solution?

Like most teachers, I’ll be back at school on Monday and already I’ve got the heeby jeebies. Apart from all the usual planning and preparation, controlled assessment folders for the new GCSE specification need final moderation. Every English department is in the same position; this is our first run through with new marking criteria and so much is riding on us getting these marks right. There can be no mistakes.

I know I’m not the only one to be feeling the pressure at the moment. The new watchword in education is ‘accountability’. If students don’t make ‘expected progress’ then I’m at fault and liable to be sacked. Obviously if my results were poor this would seem a reasonable pressure to be under, but they’re not; they’re excellent. So why am I feeling under so much pressure?

There seems to be a belief that effective leadership is about being uncompromising and brutal. Ofsted chief, Sir Michael Wilshaw has said this explicitly.

Take that scene in Pale Rider when the baddies are shooting up the town, the mists dissipate and Clint is there. Being a headteacher is all about being the lone warrior, fighting for righteousness, fighting the good fight, as powerful as any chief executive. I’m not that bothered about distributed leadership; I would never use it; I don’t think Clint would either. We need headteachers with ego. You see heads who don’t use ‘I’ and use ‘we’ instead, but they should. We need heads who enjoy power and enjoy exercising that power.

Well, it’s a point of view. He’s also said

A good head would never be loved by his or her staff, If anyone says to you that ‘staff morale is at an all-time low’ you know you are doing something right.

The problem with Sir Mike uttering these pithy pearls of wisdom is that they lead to situations like this: What keeps me awake at night – A tale of two head teachers. The head in this article is described thus:

He rarely praises staff, but passes criticisms down through senior management. He has regular pupil attainment meetings with teachers, telling us that problems at home cannot be taken into consideration when getting levels up. Head Number 2’s staff feel unappreciated, demoralised and permanently on edge.

Is this really what we want staff in schools to feel? Can this really be the best way to lead effectively? Does SMW really think this is a successful model of headship? Maybe he’s been misrepresented by a cruel education press?

If this really is what he believes then it might pay him to consider the following question. What happens if you put something, or someone, under too much stress for too long? In the case of a steel bar, it breaks. In the case of a human being, they break down. Stress is caused by threat or challenge and we need to feel some of that if we’re going to perform at our peak, but there comes a point at which the pressure applied becomes too great and performance drops off. oal-1Yesterday, I came across The inverted U hypothesis which suggests that if too much pressure is applied to athletes then their performance is reduced. Now, I understand that this is sports psychology and only a hypothesis but it seems like common sense.

I haven’t been able to find any evidence for Wilshaw’s views, but maybe there is some. If so, I’d really like to see it.

It’s also worth reading Alistair Smith’s High Performers for an antidote to SMW. My favourite quote from this is still the advice to leaders to “Strip out every demand on teachers except that they prepare for and teach to the best of their ability.” Yeehaw!

Related posts

When independent learning meets high stakes success 
High Performers  
Who inspects Ofsted?
2012-04-13T10:35:46+00:00April 13th, 2012|English, leadership|


  1. Anna April 13, 2012 at 10:52 am - Reply

    Totally agree. SMW’s views about headteachers leave me cold. I am really lucky to work for a HT who is very supportive and encouraging; he has incredibly high standards, but the atmosphere is school is great.
    SMW’s views are preposterous. My husband is a head and works hard to ensure that morale amongst his staff is high.
    I would be interested to hear of evidence to support SMW’s views, but am doubtful that there is any. And if I worked for a head like his ideal I would be looking for another job! Accountability is a part of the job nowadays. I feel under pressure to get my class of Y4/5 to their projected end of year targets (lots of level 4B’s expected for my year 4’s!!) and am fairly sure that they wont all get there. I know I have taught them well but I also know that some of them just aren’t ready yet to make those leaps. It is the unrealistic expectations to make children perform that is the hardest part of teaching at the moment and is sadly driving many out of the profession.
    I’d like to see the system (and Ofsted) celebrating what is done well and sharing good practice- now that would make a difference. In the meantime, thank goodness for places like twitter where teachers can discuss issues with a wider audience.

    • learningspy April 13, 2012 at 10:58 am - Reply

      Thanks Anna

      Yes – I know what you mean about “unrealistic expectations to make children perform”. I feel ashamed that I can train children who are still functionally illiterate to get a C grade in English. But that’s the job right now.

      As Ian Gilbert says, we have to find away to follow the rules but sleep at night.

  2. Jackie S April 13, 2012 at 12:04 pm - Reply

    Can only endorse your blog.
    SMW is simply a bully who makes sound-bites that do not support positive school environments. Interestingly enough I believe he was loved at Mossbourne – was all the things he claims to despise in other HTs.

    What I find ironic is that as teachers we know that positive feedback is far more powerful than negative yet education managers seem to miss that central tenant of our profession.

    As to current English teaching at GCSE – can only agree with your key word – TRAIN – that’s what the current system is all about. There is little learning, little responsibility or accountability from the students. No wonder the universities despair about the quality of students.

    Get rid of league tables, let teachers teach. Expect students to learn and engage. It’s not even remotely close to rocket science!!

    • learningspy April 13, 2012 at 1:27 pm - Reply

      Jackie – that’s really interesting – was SMW really loved at Mossbourne? I wonder why he’s said what he’s said. It really doesn’t stack up.

      As to your recipe for improving education, sounds like your should take part in next week’s #ukedchat with @jamesmichie

  3. Helene April 13, 2012 at 12:23 pm - Reply

    To be fair to Wilshaw, he has since come back to these comments and backtracked/ explained… Not sure I’m convinced but he did clarify that low morale is NOT to be promoted in schools (wasn’t this in the recent TES article?)

    Apart fom that, great post, David! This kind of stress/pressure is all but too familiar!

    • learningspy April 13, 2012 at 1:25 pm - Reply

      Helene – here’s the TES article you refer to:
      Although his tone is much more conciliatory, it’s certainly not clear that he is back tracking on previous pronouncements. Do you have any links which show such a retraction?

      Thanks as always, David

  4. Jackie S April 13, 2012 at 1:31 pm - Reply

    David – thanks for the heads up – will poodle over to #ukchat
    Keep posting – teachers need to know they are not alone and sometimes you can feel that way in your own school.

  5. Data Fiend April 13, 2012 at 6:31 pm - Reply

    Hi, really enjoyed reading this.

    What really struck me is that Wilshaw’s comment:

    “We need headteachers with ego. You see heads who don’t use ‘I’ and use ‘we’ instead, but they should. We need heads who enjoy power and enjoy exercising that power.”

    goes against Jim Collins’ findings in ‘Good to Great’. Collins points out that, for an organisation to have the potential for sustained ‘greatness’, the person in charge needs to have what he calls ‘Level 5 Leadership’ – one element of which is modesty.

    Wilshaw’s view of leadership was often seen in businesses that did very well in the short term, but badly in the long term. The ‘ego’ leader rarely surrounded themselves with a strong team, took the credit for success and blamed external problems for difficulties. In contrast, the ‘Level 5 Leaders’ built strong teams and credited the team with success.

    Perhaps Mr Wilshaw should do a little reading?

    • learningspy April 13, 2012 at 9:52 pm - Reply

      Thanks for this Ms Fiend. A very useful addition to the post.

  6. A Smart April 13, 2012 at 9:46 pm - Reply

    I found this blog really interesting. I totally agree with everything on here. It’s damaging emotionally and physically being put under so much stress and I could never imagine myself working for an ethos which SMW describes. If I did, I don’t think I’d stay in teaching very long – how on earth would that inspire a new generation of teachers, people who genuinely want to teach in order to see children learn and aspire to be successful.

    “Strip out every demand on teachers except that they prepare for and teach to the best of their ability.” – couldn’t agree more.

    • learningspy April 13, 2012 at 9:52 pm - Reply

      Cheers Amy. It’s bad enough without actively trying to make things any worse!

  7. Andrew Old April 14, 2012 at 4:25 pm - Reply

    Wilshaw’s views here don’t seem to match at all with the views you are attributing to him. Now he may have been inconsistent, but equally you may have quoted out of context creating a strawman (you know what that is, right?). The fact that you used the words “Sir Michael Wilshaw has said explicitly” to describe what is your own personal interpretation of something he said suggests to me that you know that you are being at least partly selective.

    Personally, the quotes about heads being tough and not being scared by comments about morale don’t bother me too much despite my ongoing concerns about workload and bullying SMTs. Often it is a lot less stressful to work for somebody if you, at least, know where they stand and know what they are trying to achieve, than somebody who is weak and prone to changing their mind.

    • learningspy April 14, 2012 at 5:12 pm - Reply

      Thanks Andrew, that article seems to represent the views of an entirely different human being. Good for him. And anyway, I’m hardly ‘attributing’ views to him; I’m quoting him directly! I used the word ‘explicitly’ because the quote summed up exactly the leadership style I was criticising. Even if this is ‘partly selective’, it’s done enough damage because of the influence it’s already had. That was my point.

      Strawman you say? As I said, maybe he’s been misrepresented by the press. If so, he seems to have got a bit over excited and played into their hands. At best that shows poor judgment. I have no particular axe to grind with SMW, just that his reviews, as reported in all national newspapers, seem to typify the bullying SMTs piling ridiculous workloads on us poor saps.

      I’m not really sure where we disagree on this?

  8. Jackie S April 14, 2012 at 5:23 pm - Reply

    However, if you read today’s Times, it’s clear about the way Ofsted will spring its surprise visits and I can only see that they will add to the burdens and stresses of the profession. The new Ofsted agenda is driven by Michael W, so where does he really stand on anything, other than making teaching harder?

    I’ve been doing this job for well over 20 years and it’s become more stressful, not less and I am not an example of a lazy or poor practitioner. I can’t see how good people who do care can keep going amidst the criticism and why would any thoughtful intelligent young person come into the profession?

  9. sean fenwick November 23, 2012 at 10:54 pm - Reply

    I feel that quotes from SMW are often misunderstood and taken out of context. However in his position he should be more aware of how he could be misquoted. His comment about staff morale was in response to an underperforming teacher who made the comment to him and the fact it is easy to hide behind other staffs comments (which are likely not to exist anyway). My concern is the staff morale of those teachers who bust a gut everyday (the majority) who are let down by the small minority who don’t pull their weight and are not challenged about it. I was at the festival of education and listened to someone in the audience who challenged him about his recent comments about teachers who leave at 3. This chap (as many others had) missed the point. It isn’t about leaving at 3 but those small minority who see teaching as a job not a vocation and dont make the commitment which most do. We should all be honest and accept that there are a small minority of lazy teachers as there lazy people in all professions.

    • learningspy November 24, 2012 at 4:36 pm - Reply

      Hmm. A small minority of barbers are Sweeny Todd. A small minority of doctors are Harold Shipman. And yet we don’t treat hairdressers or doctors as serial killers. The public perception is that teachers are lazy. Someone in Wilshaw’s position should seek to challenge rather than reinforce this perception

  10. […] Stress. How much is too much? […]

  11. sean fenwick November 25, 2012 at 11:00 pm - Reply

    Take your point. However, when I have heard him speak I think he does. Are his quotes used selectively in the media?

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  15. […] ever more closely. This strikes me as unlikely to result in anything much expect making people ill. We need a certain amount of stress to keep us on our toe but too much stress is counter productive. Instead, I’d rather observe with the teacher I’m supporting. We can then talk about […]

  16. May May 12, 2014 at 1:10 pm - Reply

    Teachers in the UK are under obscene amounts of stress. I teach in a year 1 and 2 classroom. I have four pupils on the SEN register with no support, two pupils with emotional and behavioral issues, no support. I don’t have a full time Teaching Assistant. The Year 2’s are a particularly weak bunch and I am under pressure to get them good results in their SATS. I have moderators coming to moderate the SATS in two weeks, combined with observations and pupil progress meetings, I am knee deep in paper work. There appears to be plenty of time for checking up on teachers but not much time given to support teachers. How much stress is too much? Well, we are not in control of that, we do what we are told otherwise we get branded with the inadequate brush. The profession attracts kind, caring individuals but it has pulled the wool over our eyes because as far as I can see this does not seem to be a very caring profession, we are too busy ramming literacy and numeracy down pupils throats. It is results driven, paper work heavy, tick the boxes to achieve outstanding ofsted results. What we put in is not what we get out as the work is never done, so where is the job satisfaction?

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