Occupational stress — what nobody tells you about teaching in Pakistan

Published August 4, 2015
The profession has been suffering from a high turnover rate in recent years because of teacher burnout. —AFP/file
The profession has been suffering from a high turnover rate in recent years because of teacher burnout. —AFP/file

The reactions I get from people on telling them I am a teacher can be categorised into three kinds: reactions from those who happen to find my profession admirable and praiseworthy; those who belittle my line of work (it obviously can’t compete with lucrative and promising corporate or foreign-backed development jobs); and those who envy me (the short working hours and numerous holidays within an academic year are rather tantalising for those who toil and moil nine to five, or even till much later).

However, it is unfortunate that up till now, I haven’t come across any individual (except other teachers) who recognises the stress that accompanies this profession.

The World Health Organisation's (WHO) defines occupational stress as,

The response people may have when presented with work demands and pressures that are not matched to their knowledge and abilities and which challenge their ability to cope.

For a majority of teachers, their work falls within this definition.

The profession has, in fact, become plagued by a high turnover rate in recent years because of burnout. And those who continue to stay in the profession take days off, consider quitting or perform ineffectively because of work-related stress.

Research reveals the severity of occupational stress that teachers across the world face. This BBC report states that stress levels amongst teachers are on the up. In fact, national statistics compiled from 2003 to 2006 by the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) in the UK, show that the highest reported rates of occupational stress, depression or anxiety are found in the teaching and research professions, and that these rates were almost twice as much as the stress felt in other professions.

Also read: Non-tuition allowance for teachers

As stated in this report, the situation in American schools is no different, and the disengagement and stress teachers feel at work could be adversely affecting the performance of students in return.

As a teacher who has taught at several well-reputed private schools in Pakistan, I will list some of the causes of stress below. While many of these are established reasons, some are exclusive to my experience as a private school teacher in the country.

Workload:

A survey of 3,500 members in the aforementioned BBC report shows that most of the respondents considered quitting the profession in the past year because of workload.

The constant drudgery of preparing and checking assignments and assessments, is definitely a stress-trigger for me too. Each week is spent with lectures, each month is spent with assignments and each ‘end of term’ is spent submerged in heaps and piles of examination papers.

And like most other teachers, my work does not end within work hours. I usually end up bringing work home because there is an extent to the number of papers I can check within school timings, especially when there’s an approaching deadline.

Managing yearly, monthly and daily planners and being assigned extracurricular activities further augments the workload. While the burden might vary depending on the number of pupils, the grade and the school culture, only in rare cases is it reasonably humane.

Pupil behaviour:

Disruptive behaviour in classrooms is attributed to a range of factors, from family problems at home to a large classroom size. But whatever, the reason/s might be, what doesn't change is that the teacher has to deal directly with such instances of disruptive behaviour, and it can really take a toll on their mental and physical health.

Nearly two-thirds of the 800 primary and secondary school teachers from the UK said they suffered from stress, anxiety or depression because of poor student behaviour. In our part of the world, the bid to succeed in a competitive market is making students take a lot of liberties which are condoned by the school management. Unfortunately, it is not the school management but the stressed and anxious teacher who has to pay the price for such a compromise.

I can never forget the time when my colleague Sana entered the staff room, flustered and in tears, because of the behaviour she faced in class. The students had apparently ganged up against a new teacher and were trying their best to disrupt her lecture by making noises, flying paper planes in the air or asking ridiculous questions from time to time.

While I am yet to experience such misbehaviour personally, the daily use of mobile phones during class, talking or passing notes during a lecture, or the late entry of that one particular student, are enough to keep my nerves on edge.

Salary package:

According to the ILO/UNESCO’s recommendations in 1966, teachers’ salaries should;

a) Reflect the importance to society of the teaching function and hence the importance of teachers, as well as the responsibilities of all kinds which fall upon them from time to time of their entry into, service.

b) Compare favourably with salaries paid in other occupations, requiring similar or equivalent qualifications.

See: Education Watch: Teachers hired on less than minimum wage

Public and low-cost private school teachers in Pakistan do not get a stipend which fulfills the aforementioned recommendations proposed by UNESCO. And while elite private schools do pay teachers relatively well, it is not enough to run a household in the midst of rising utility bills, and the high cost of living. This is another cause of stress, as the effort an honest teacher puts in, is not being compensated adequately.

In order to make ends meet, I have male colleagues teaching at four to five schools during the day and going to tuition centres in the evenings. Some of them also muster the energy to tutor privately on weekends as well.

Lack of a supportive environment:

Another reason for occupational stress for teachers is the lack of support they receive in schools. Many private schools now offer counseling to ensure the emotional well-being of students, but for teachers, there is no such avenue.

More than anything, it is the absence of a platform which treats and discusses these problems as serious, legitimate issues that need fixing, which make you feel like you're just another a cog in the wheel.

Unfortunately, the administration and school management prioritise the student's preferences over the teacher's, because in the burgeoning market of schools, as the headmaster of one of the best schools in Lahore himself put it, “Each student is like a customer you have to please and cater to…competition is fierce and we can’t imagine losing a single student”.

That's what I was told after I had made earnest complaints about the students bunking my class, not studying or performing below par. Obviously, that was my last year in that school and the headmaster probably heaved a sigh of relief after my exit.

Security threat:

The 2014 Peshawar school attack on students and teachers, which shocked the entire world, meant a new kind of challenge and bravery for Pakistani teachers. It also meant a new kind of occupational stress – our workplaces were now the most likely targets of an impending brutal attack.

We were greeted by armed guards pointing their guns at us; parking our cars within school premises without ‘car stickers’ was a big no; passing through body scanners and a search of our belongings on a daily basis; security drills with students and teachers running helter skelter after the din of an alarm; none of this helped to infuse any calm or tranquility in our work lives.

Read on: Guns for schoolteachers: An inevitable death in Swat

While there are many other reasons which make teaching one of the most stressful occupations, to have the school administration and the Ministry of Education acknowledge this fact and take tiny, if not gargantuan steps to address this problem, would go a long way in bolstering a workforce which is instrumental in shaping Pakistan's future generations.

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