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Struggling teachers: what are they really thinking? And what kind of support do they want?

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We’ve all read about struggling teachers, but usually in the context of leaders taking action around them. What does it feel like to be a struggling teacher, middle leader or school leader? And what support do those who are doing the struggling actually need?

Doctoral researcher and former school middle leader Suzanne Culshaw started looking into this for her thesis after she heard someone talking about the impact of lesson observations on 'struggling teachers,' adding: “we all know who they are, don’t we?” But the more Suzanne thought about it, the more she realised she wasn’t actually sure what it meant.

A literature review revealed 'struggling' was mentioned in journal articles, but without defining exactly what was meant. Articles usually focused on finding a solution to the struggling, or took the perspective of the leader working with a struggling teacher – what Suzanne describes as “a predominantly deficit view of those teachers. Struggling teachers are seen as poorly performing, lacking competence and a problem to be dealt with.” Having interviewed 14 secondary staff at all levels who had self-identified as struggling, she says she does not equate struggling with failing.

What does it feel like to be a struggling teacher or school leader?

The staff – mostly teachers but also middle and senior leaders – talked of bodily tensions, that they felt like they were drowning or suffocating, or that their head was exploding. They said their job made them feel as if they were stuck on a hamster wheel, and they felt blamed, panicky, stressed and judged. They often reported a lack of sleep, and physical and mental health issues (some diagnosed and others not).

They often talked of their fear of being “caught out,” found wanting, or being a fraud, asking themselves questions such as: “can I do this? Should I even be a head teacher?”

They told Suzanne they did not meet their ideals and had a voice in their head questioning whether they could do the job.

What were teachers struggling with?

They usually talked about struggles with other adults, often line managers or senior leaders. Parents were often a cause, particularly if senior leaders sided with them without getting evidence from the teacher. Predominantly, students were not the problem.

Teachers were also conflicted when asked to bend the rules, for instance, around controlled assessments. They also mentioned constant changes (particularly around assessments, exams and levels), “pointless paperwork” and being asked to teach a different specialism.

Other stressors included other people’s time management  particularly around deadlines  and inflexibility. There were also difficulties around being part-time and having a teaching and learning responsibility.

Support packages added to teachers’ stress

Teachers told Suzanne that informal support packages – often instituted after a lesson observation – were not experienced as being supportive. They disliked being micromanaged and having no say over who their mentor or supporter was. “The whole process feels like it’s being done to you,” said one teacher; while another resented being under observation the whole time even though the “issue” was marking.

Ironically, they also mentioned “asking for help and not getting it”.

What were school leaders struggling with?

Heads found themselves struggling when doing things for the first time and when their experience as a leader didn’t match that of being led. They described having to wear “the head teacher mask,” having to “set the weather” in their school and wondering if they were good enough.

The also found it stressful to lead their staff on government policies in which they did not personally believe.

What do struggling teachers and leaders really want?

In practical terms, they don’t want to deal with emails outside of school hours; they want a focus on genuine teaching and learning rather than a tick-box approach.

They didn’t want one-off well-being gimmicks (such as yoga), endless observations, management by fear or doing things for Ofsted. And they wonder why nothing ever falls off their priority lists.

In general terms, they want to be more trusted, have more autonomy and be allowed to exercise more professional judgement. They say conversations are key and leaders need to know them better. And they hate being ignored by leaders after “difficult” conversations.

If mentoring and support was needed, they want it to come from someone within their team – or at least have some say in who it was - and not just be someone in a position of authority. They hate being micromanaged.

They also want leaders to understand the pinch points at certain times of the year, to accept and acknowledge that struggling was part of the job, and to know them better. And they want to be dealt with “as humans, with compassion”. They want leaders to focus more on the good, saying “positivity breeds positivity” and “if leaders built us up more, we would be in general happier.”

Suzanne concludes: “It’s interesting that teachers and leaders who self-identified as struggling were so adamant that the usual interventions really don’t make things better. This is a new and interesting way of looking at it – that struggling is often normal and people can be helped without targeted interventions or micromanagement. I’m really hoping this will be useful for school leaders and teachers as well.” 

Experience of struggling teachers: implications for policy and school leaders is being presented by Suzanne Culshaw of the University of Hertfordshire at the BELMAS conference during the weekend of 7 July 2018.

BELMAS is an educational leadership research association open to school and college leaders at all levels as well as academics, and it encourages members to generate and share ideas, and good practice. BELMAS is an independent voice supporting quality education from effective leadership and management. Find out more at www.BELMAS.org.uk.

Susan Young

Susan Young is a journalist who has been specialising in education for more than 20 years. She was news editor and an assistant editor on the TES, where she created and edited a section for school leaders, and has also worked for the Observer and the Express.

As a freelancer, Susan writes for and works with a range of educational organisations, including the British Educational Leadership Management and Administration Society (BELMAS) and English UK.

She's interested in most things in education, from politics to practicality, but particularly loves hearing from professionals about the initiatives they're putting in place in their schools to make things better. Do get in touch.

First published 09 July 2018