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Opinion: Helping teachers start well, stay well

5 June 2017

It is not always easy starting a career in teaching. Like other helping professions, the work of a teacher can be very rewarding but also very challenging. Researchers have estimated rates of 30 per cent to 50 per cent of teachers leaving the profession within five years of beginning their careers; some may argue that the challenges can outweigh the rewards for many in the initial stages of their career.

While the availability of teaching jobs is certainly a factor, there are others reasons why early career teachers decide to leave the occupation. People often think first about the challenges associated with teaching like lesson planning, marking and classroom management. But working with children, young people, families, and communities can also bring significant social, emotional and psychological stresses that others may not consider.

In recent years, concerns have been raised about teacher burnout, mental ill-health, and the rate of attrition among those within their first five years of teaching. In fact, Safe Work Australia’s 2013 report on compensation claims for mental stress in Australia identified school teachers, along with police officers and general clerks, as accounting for the majority of claims for “work pressure.”

What has received little attention is any evidence-based and practical suggestions about how things can be done differently to better support our teachers and keep them in the profession. 

The Hunter Institute of Mental Health has released the outcomes of research conducted in NSW with over 450 beginning teachers to better understand their experiences and make recommendations to help them start well and stay well in their occupation. 

The responses revealed that early career teachers have many positive and rewarding experiences as part of starting their employment, but they are also challenged. Some of the key challenges cited in the research included a lack of work life balance, managing their workload and responsibilities, and difficulties finding the time needed for planning and collaboration.

"People often think first about the challenges associated with teaching like lesson planning, marking and classroom management. But working with children, young people, families, and communities can also bring significant social, emotional and psychological stresses that others may not consider."

Dr Gavin Hazel

The research also indicated some practical ways forward. Firstly, a strengths-based approach should be used to develop wellbeing skills and abilities of early career teachers. Secondly, emphasis needs to be given to both help-seeking and self-help strategies. Thirdly, intervention must be sympathetic to context of teachers work and should be incorporated into existing procedures where possible. Fourthly, e-mental health should inform the development of interventions and support strategies.

Evidence suggests that well-coordinated programs and approaches implemented in workplace settings can improve mental health and wellbeing and reduce mental ill-health.

Supporting our teachers can start with simple strategies such asking the right questions at the right time. We can prepare people to actively listen, provide information about wellbeing, and support their colleagues. This is not about making people clinicians, it is about strengthening their capacity to support and assist their colleagues by providing them with evidence informed strategies, practical information and paths to connect people to other kinds of support.

As a society we need teachers and rely on them to help develop the social and emotional skills of our children. But to do that effectively, we need to help teachers start well, be well and stay well in their profession. Visit himh.org.au/startwell.