Those with less experience in the profession are more likely to experience panic attacks, insomnia and mood swings than their more experienced colleagues. 52% of NQTs and those in the profession under five years have recently considered leaving teaching due to mental ill health. 40% of NQTs have experienced mental ill health in the last 12 months compared to 31% of all teachers.
This research illuminates some critical issues and raises interesting questions. For example, why are NQTs and those with less than five years’ experience more likely to experience mental ill health than more experienced colleagues? Issues of workload or poor classroom behaviour are frequently cited, but surely these issues apply to all teachers?
My own research in the Carnegie School of Education at Leeds Beckett University demonstrates that new teachers are extremely vulnerable and more likely to leave the profession. They are often perfectionists and have extremely high expectations both of themselves and their students. However, when they qualify they are still learning to be a teacher, especially if they have followed a one year postgraduate course. Our evidence suggests that they are expected to ‘hit the ground running’ and to be fully formed teachers from the outset. It would appear that there are limited opportunities for them to really hone their craft and experiment with different teaching techniques and learn from them. Often, teaching approaches are imposed on them rather than being given the opportunities to learn from making mistakes. The pressures on school leaders are immense and their priority is rightly to raise educational standards for their students. Our data demonstrates that new teachers are expected to perform to a very high standard right from their very first day and there is limited opportunity for finding out what works for them.
There are implications for senior leaders in schools. Giving new teachers space to learn to become a teacher, the permission to make mistakes and learn from mistakes are vital for early professional growth. In addition, opportunities to form professional networks with other new teachers are valuable and help to promote the dissemination of effective practice. School leaders need to consider how they will nurture the professional development of new teachers in supportive ways rather than expecting them to be fully formed teachers from the outset. The use of coaching may be a particularly valuable tool to facilitate professional growth. In addition, new teachers need to be given space to develop professionally by engaging in research, professional networks and observing other teachers across a range of schools.
The role of initial teacher training (ITT) is critical and we welcome proposals to introduce mandatory mental health awareness in all courses. However, these programmes should include practical advice on how to manage conditions such as stress, anxiety and depression as well as how to organise and manage workload. Courses should also introduce trainee teachers to strategies which promote resilience.
Unless these issues are resolved there will be a potential crisis. Far too many teachers in the early stages of their careers are experiencing mental ill health, including burn-out. Far too many are opting to leave the profession within three to five years. This is a significant waste of financial and personal investment on the part of those teachers and the public purse. It is time to open up the conversation about how we can best support new and recently qualified teachers so that they are well-placed to address the day-to-day challenges that they face. Investing in their mental health will pay dividends in the long-term by retaining them in the teaching profession. This will enable them to make a significant difference to the life chances of children and young people and to experience a rewarding, challenging and enriching career.