‘It’s been tumultuous’: Covid stress takes toll on teachers in England

Teachers in England have described a nightmarish term in schools in which Covid has triggered soaring anxiety levels, exhaustion and fear, driving many to consider quitting and even self-harm.

As schools limp towards Christmas with flagging attendances and rising cases in some areas, teachers said they lived in constant fear of catching the virus in school, and were overstretched and understaffed. They complained of feeling abandoned by the government and unfairly vilified by some parts of the media.

Many of the 200-plus teachers who responded to an appeal from the Guardian to share their experiences expressed anger and despair. “We really have been thrown to the lions,” said one primary school teacher working in Swale, Kent, one of the worst-affected regions in the country.

There was also support for union calls for schools in England to follow Wales’s lead and move learning online for the last week of term to stem rising infection rates and avoid staff and pupils having to self-isolate from family over Christmas.

“I’m tired, exhausted and full of fear,” said a head of religious studies, also in Kent.

“A slow walk to madness or death,” said a London sixth-form teacher.

“I have felt a bit like a hamster on a wheel with a sharp sword poised above me,” concluded one Chester headteacher.

Many described being on the receiving end of parents’ fears and frustrations, as well as pupils’ anxiety and disillusionment. Increased numbers of students with mental health issues have been referred for treatment, and one student and family welfare officer from Gloucestershire said there had been a student overdose on site.

The term has been “manic”, “chaotic”, “brutal”, “a nightmare”. They have struggled to teach in class and remotely at the same time. Behaviour has deteriorated, and teachers have been less able to intervene because of Covid restrictions.

There have been more fights among pupils – six in one day at one school. One school leader said there had been an increase in gang culture, which thrived during the first lockdown when schools remained closed to most pupils, and has since spilled into schools.

Classrooms are freezing as schools try to ventilate by opening windows. “My hands are blue and painful most of the day,” said one clinically vulnerable teacher in Lancashire. “Morale among most of my colleagues is extremely low and there are many staff, including myself, considering handing in our notice. We feel like we have been completely abandoned by this government.”

“I feel ignored and voiceless,” said another Lancashire teacher. “My concerns about safety and workload are dismissed, my emails are unanswered, my worries mount, and I’m expected to carry on as normal. I’m losing the battle to stay positive.”

Many teachers have been seriously ill with Covid, and they accused the government of failing to acknowledge the health risk to teachers. They described seeing one colleague carried off in an ambulance, another emerge from weeks in hospital having lost two stone in weight, others signed off sick for six weeks and more with long Covid.

Pregnant teachers said they were frightened that they were putting their unborn babies at risk, and the experience has been particularly distressing for newly qualified teachers (NQT) at the start of their career. “I for one am exhausted and I’ve only been teaching 12 weeks,” said one TeachFirst recruit.

One 26-year-old NQT said: “It has been a disaster for my mental health. Instead of getting off to the cheery, optimistic start I had hoped for my teaching career, I have been left exhausted, demotivated and mentally distraught.

“It reached the point where the depression and anxiety caused by work – especially on Sunday nights – led to self-harming and a desire to inflict enough pain upon myself so that I could avoid going in with good reason.” Their doctor diagnosed depression and they were signed off work.

David Mottershead, an English and media teacher in Letchworth, brought his retirement forward and will be leaving next week. “It has been brutal,” he said. “My school is not the villain here, but the protocols put in place by government have caused real problems. In one day, three excellent young teachers told me they were leaving next year.”

Susie Burden has had a baptism of fire after taking over a year ago as head of Fulston Manor school in Sittingbourne, Kent. After a relatively Covid-free start to the autumn, it has been a constant juggling act since Halloween, counting staff and pupils in and out as Covid cases mounted.

At one point more than 50 staff were unavailable and the school was forced to close for two weeks. Some parents were angry that the school had opened at all; others were angry at the closure. “Schools are stuck in the middle,” she said.

According to Burden’s latest tally, on Friday morning more than 20 teachers and eight non-teaching staff were unable to come in. More than 220 children were due to be at home self-isolating, with more awaiting tests. “It’s been a tumultuous term,” said Burden. “It’s a lot of responsibility, for your staff, for your pupils, for their families. It’s hard. I can only hope that I’ve done my best throughout it.”

With a week to go before the end of term, teachers are exhausted, anxious and demoralised, while pupil attendance is dropping rapidly. “There’s an illusion that schools are open,” said Fulston Manor’s executive head, Alan Brookes, “but they are being hollowed out from the inside. It’s become increasingly like childminding.”

One Sunderland primary teacher described the loneliness for staff, isolated in their class bubbles and eating lunch in their cars to avoid infection. Her own sons are now self-isolating, so she is trying to teach from home. “My mind is torn in half, preparing ‘worthwhile’ lessons for my job while at the same time struggling to support my own children.”

A 37-year-old head of year at a secondary school in the Midlands, who is on antidepressants, is worried about colleagues’ mental health. “Although my school are trying their best, I have never known stress like it. Schools are not Covid-secure. Pupil behaviour is poor. Many are not wearing masks, there is absolutely no social distancing. We have seen more fights this term than ever – six in one day.”

Difficult meetings are held on Zoom with the parents of children who are refusing to come to school, to discuss mental health, self-harm and suicide. “Do I do the job willingly?” said one Bolton teacher. “Yes I do, I love my job. But don’t let anyone tell me I’m safe because I’m not and I’d just like this to be recognised.”

Responding to teachers’ comments, a Department for Education spokesperson said: “We recognise the challenges schools are facing and are enormously grateful to teachers and other school staff for the resilience and commitment they have shown in supporting children through the pandemic.”

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