While there’s a growing focus on student mental health, educators say the teacher shortage crisis is taking a toll on their own mental wellbeing.

This week, students head back to school, but as the teacher shortage crisis continues, educators are facing the start of another stressful year.

Those who left the profession in 2018 have detailed the stress, workload and lack of work-life balance as reasons for quitting.

Many who answered the union-run survey said they loved the kids but the job was taking too much of a toll on their personal life, as well as their mental health and wellbeing.

There is likely to be little reprieve from these stresses in the 2019 school year, as the term kicks off with New Zealand schools still looking to fill hundreds of teacher vacancies.

Ministry of Education deputy secretary of early learning and student achievement Ellen MacGregor-Reid said recruiters were working to fill 250 teacher vacancies for the first term.

The ministry hopes it will be able to fill the remaining spots, thanks to its overseas recruitment campaign.

However, there may be further vacancies to fill that haven’t been lodged with recruiters, where principals may be using their own networks and head-hunting teachers.

Over the past year, schools and unions have been referring to the current lack of teachers as a crisis.

The lack of teachers has been impacting on quality of education, and on the workload and stress on teachers, managers and principals.

This added workload, bigger class sizes, difficult behavioural issues, and overall stress has culminated in diminishing mental health, wellbeing and work-life balance.

A new survey of teachers leaving the profession by the primary and secondary unions – NZEI and PPTA – found the burnout resulting from increased workload, and lack of work-life balance, had largely led to them quitting. Fewer than 10 percent said they intended to return to teaching.

The leaving teachers and principals spoke about the impact on their lives, which made it impossible to continue in the job.

Increasing workload, diminishing work-life balance

Of 169 leaving primary school teachers and principals, 43 percent said a lack of work-life balance was the main reason for leaving, while 27 percent said workload was to blame.

Leaving primary teachers also cited wanting stable employment, while others were at retirement age.

Of the 201 secondary school teachers and principals leaving teaching, 62 percent said workload was one of their reasons for leaving.

Meanwhile, 51 percent cited work-life balance; 40 percent said they wanted a chance to recharge; and 21 percent cited health concerns, though there was no further details of their specific issues.

These statistics were backed up by a range of comments talking about the toll the job takes on the lives of teachers.

“Love the kids, hate the structure of the profession. The stress and workload was taxing on my wellbeing,” one primary school teacher said.

Another outlined a similar experience: “I love teaching, I love my students. I think I am very good at it. But it’s just too much. It has to be your entire life, and I am no longer prepared to give that much while sacrificing my, and my family’s, wellbeing.”

“I work on average 65-70 hours a week during term time and at least 50 percent of every school holidays too,” one leaving primary school teacher said.

“The workload combined with daily behaviour management issues in the classroom make stress levels too high and staying in my job unattractive. In fact, my teaching job is making me very unwell both physically and mentally.”

NZEI Te Riu Roa president Lynda Stuart said New Zealand was losing passionate, quality teachers because they were overworked and underpaid, and simply could not put up with the situation any longer.

“This led to stress and a low feeling of self-worth that I was never doing enough which was impacting my health (mental and physical). A job is not worth this.”

‘A job is not worth this’

Secondary teachers and principals leaving the profession cited similar mental health and wellbeing issues.

“At the end of my first two years in teaching, I have come to the decision that the expectations on me as a teacher are simply too high for what I get in return,” one said.

“The workload is far too large and the hours given to complete it too few, which has led to increasing stress in all areas of my life. I enjoyed teaching and will miss the students, but it is no longer a viable career for me because of the huge toll it has taken on my wellbeing.”

Another teacher said the impact of the increasing workload – largely brought about through changes and new initiatives was “crippling”.

“This led to stress and a low feeling of self-worth that I was never doing enough which was impacting my health (mental and physical). A job is not worth this.”

PPTA president Jack Boyle said almost 50 percent of all new teachers left the profession within five years.

“Watching the spark go out in an awesome young teacher’s eyes is heartbreaking. We’ve known the statistics for a long time, but reading people’s’ stories in this survey really shows the human anguish behind the numbers.”

Principal burnout and PTSD

The results of the combined union survey echoed the findings of an annual wellbeing survey of primary school principals and leaders, conducted by NZEI and the Australian Catholic University.

Results from 2016 and 2017 found school leaders were experiencing burnout at 1.7 times the rate of the general population. Teachers working in rural or isolated communities, with less professional support, were disproportionately affected.

Principals and school leaders experienced stress at 1.8 times the rate of the general population, and had experienced sleep troubles at 2.4 times the general population.

Work-family conflicts and long work hours were also an issue.

In 2017, education leaders experienced depressive symptoms at 1.4 times the general population, and some teachers were showing symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder.

Australian Catholic University associate professor Phil Riley said results from the 2017 survey found 37 percent were displaying significant degrees of distress through raising a “red flag” in answering questions in the survey. This was up from 20 percent in 2016.

A participant was sent a “red flag” or automatic email urging them to seek help and sending support links if they indicated they were thinking of self-harming, they had a high combined score across categories, or a series of concerning quality of life indicators.

Senior leaders in schools needed help, and the education system needed a whole redesign, Riley said, adding that creative solutions like job-sharing could help relieve stress.

National Party education spokesperson Nikki Kaye says a long-term workforce strategy is important, but the government needs to address the immediate crisis. Photo: Lynn Grieveson

Urgent action needed

New Zealand Principals’ Federation national president Whetu Cormick said issues of stress and teacher wellbeing had always been an issue, but had “without a doubt” worsened in recent years.

The teaching landscape had changed significantly, with compounding expectations from the community and political leaders leading to the current situation.

Underfunding in education meant fewer teachers saw it as a viable occupation, which led to a staff shortage, meaning remaining educators had to pick up the slack.

Targets and the associated administration added to the workload and the stress, impacting on those in the job, and turning off some who might be considering the profession, Cormick said.

This week, some schools would be without enough teachers, so principals would step in to fill the gap.

Last year there were cases of Year 13 students and teacher aides minding classes. It was also common for high school teachers to teach subjects outside their expert area.

This took a toll on those who were being asked to work in unfamiliar circumstances, where they were not confident, or adding to the workload of other teachers and managers, Cormick said.

The Government talked about its long-term vision, which teachers were happy to engage with, “but what about now?”

Call for direction on class sizes

National Party education spokesperson Nikki Kaye said she was concerned about a combination of factors adding to the stress felt by teachers.

Increasing workload, class sizes, and difficult behavioural issues had amounted to increased stress, which took a toll on teacher wellbeing.

Kaye said the teacher shortage crisis should not be politicised, but it needed to be better understood by those in power – both the drivers and the consequences – in order to come up with short-term fixes and long-term solutions.

She questioned whether the minister understood the true extent of the problem, and the urgency with which it needed to be addressed.

Kaye echoed Cormick’s concerns about dealing with the immediate crisis, while also looking for a long-term workforce strategy.

In the short-term she suggested voluntary bonding and a signal as to the government’s plans regarding class sizes in the medium-term, so teachers knew what they were signing up for, if they decided to stay.

Hipkins has spoken extensively about the need to plug the immediate gaps through overseas recruitment, refresher training for those coming back into the workforce, and using the correspondence school.

But he acknowledged this was not a long-term solution, and said there was a wider piece of work to be done to get more teachers into initial teacher training, and keep them in the profession.

Where to get help

Lifeline (open 24/7) – 0800 543 354
Depression Helpline (open 24/7) – 0800 111 757
Healthline (open 24/7) – 0800 611 116
Samaritans (open 24/7) – 0800 726 666
Suicide Crisis Helpline (open 24/7) – 0508 828 865 (0508 TAUTOKO). This is a service for people who may be thinking about suicide, or those who are concerned about family or friends.
Youthline (open 24/7) – 0800 376 633. You can also text 234 for free between 8am and midnight, or email talk@youthline.co.nz
0800 WHATSUP children’s helpline – phone 0800 9428 787 between 1pm and 10pm on weekdays and from 3pm to 10pm on weekends. Online chat is available from 7pm to 10pm every day.
Kidsline (open 24/7) – 0800 543 754. This service is for children aged 5 to 18. Those who ring between 4pm and 9pm on weekdays will speak to a Kidsline buddy. These are specially trained teenage telephone counsellors.
Your local Rural Support Trust – 0800 787 254 (0800 RURAL HELP)
Alcohol Drug Help (open 24/7) – 0800 787 797. You can also text 8691 for free.

For further information, contact the Mental Health Foundation‘s free Resource and Information Service (09 623 4812).

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