Presidential Address to 79th Annual Congress of the SSTA

At the end of congress last year, I was honoured to have our Immediate Past President, Catherine Nicol, hand over the Presidency to me. It has been a busy year.  To say that it has been exhilarating and an enormous learning curve is understating the last year. Catherine gave me a lift home at the end of congress, and we chatted about what lay ahead.  One thing I knew for certain was that I already knew what my theme was going to be when it came to this day to stand at this lectern to deliver the President’s address.  The actual content was not set in stone, but my theme was: Your Voice. We are the Scottish Secondary Teachers’ Association and our raison d’etre is to be the Voice of Secondary Teachers, to be your voice.

Over these past 12 months, there have been many issues raised.  Our committees have been working hard, and you will hear their reports later in this congress.  However, to me, there was one issue that stood out from the others.  It has been a long-standing issue and one that can often be linked to the many others that our committees have been working on and that is the issue of workload.

Why workload? Simple really. As our strapline for this year’s congress states:

Excess Workload Damages Health.

We speak about workload, we moan about it, we despair at it, we are exhausted by it.  Even the many past attempts to have it reduced by a plethora of initiatives: anyone remember Tackling Bureaucracy?  That quickly disappeared under a pile of even more paperwork intended to tick boxes that really had nothing to do with the day-to-day teaching in the classroom.

I would like to spend a little time addressing the issue of excess workload, or as I prefer to call it, toxic workload.  How do we define it?  What are the consequences?  Who is responsible and what must be done?

Excess workload is when a teacher's responsibilities and tasks extend beyond the contractual 35hr week.

Do you recognise any of points below?

  • Long working hours: Teachers may work significantly more than the contractual 35hr week, including evenings and weekends, to complete tasks such as planning and preparation, marking, homework assignments, and administrative tasks.
  • High Pupil-to-teacher ratio: Managing large number of students in a classroom can increase the workload for teachers, as it requires more effort to provide differentiated lessons, individualized attention and support.
  • Extensive administrative tasks:  Multiple reports such as tracking, emails and data entry for certificated courses including evidence gathering.
  • Lack of support staff: Taking on tasks performed by support staff (e.g., counselling, mentoring, or special education support).
  • Additional responsibilities: Pressure to take on extracurricular activities, committee work, mentoring, all in the name of enhancing your opportunities for promotion or even a permanent contract.
  • Complex curriculum changes: Frequent changes to the curriculum or educational standards require teachers to spend extra time adapting lesson plans and materials. CfE, SQA?
  • High stakes testing and accountability: Pressure from multiple testing requiring more time for preparing students and subsequent data analysis.
  • Lack of resources: Teaching materials or technology can make tasks more time-consuming e.g. poor Wi-Fi.

Excess workload can lead to:

  • Stress
  • Burnout
  • Decreased job satisfaction impacting teaching effectiveness and students' learning outcomes.

Addressing excessive workload involves providing adequate support and resources to help teachers manage their responsibilities effectively, NOT a program of systematic budget cuts! Neither should the threat of cutting the number of teachers in schools be used as a political weapon.

I am certain that many, if not all of you, recognise the sources of work that increase our workload from normal to excessive or toxic.  This is by no means exhaustive, but merely a flavour of what teachers face, and we have not even touched on faculty heads and Senior Management teams who face a quantum leap in the data required by Local Authorities and the consequential excess workload that they face too.

To recap, excess workload leads to:

  • Stress
  • Burnout
  • Decreased job satisfaction impacting teaching effectiveness and students, learning outcomes

We must now ask ourselves the question: If excess workload leads to stress, burnout and job dissatisfaction, what are these in the real lives of teachers?

There have been several surveys and studies carried out by a number of teacher organisation, including the SSTA.  What follows is a brief overview of some of those statistics on teacher stress and mental health challenges collated from articles in TES.

  • One survey found that 70% of teachers in Scotland feel stressed frequently (48%) or all the time (22%).  Most teachers attempt to manage stress on their own (73%) without seeking help from their school or local authority​.
  • A second survey found that very few teachers believe national support for the wellbeing of the profession is positive, with 81% disagreeing that government policies support schools to respond to mental health and wellbeing issues that affect teachers​.
  • A third survey found that 75% of all education staff reported feeling stressed, with 78% experiencing mental health symptoms due to their work​.
  • Additionally, a report indicated a rise in the number of teachers signed off with stress in Scotland.  The pandemic has exacerbated existing pressures on teachers, including excessive workloads and challenges related to the additional support needs of students.

(All sources collated from TES)

To be frank, these statistics do not tell us anything that we did not already know.  Alas, the results repeatedly fall on deaf ears whilst offering patronising appreciation for what teachers do in schools.

What the articles in TES highlight is that Scotland’s teachers experience high levels of stress on a daily basis. It further highlights the serious concerns how these stress levels impact on teacher wellbeing, mental and physical health. Not only are teachers suffering, the quality of education, despite extraordinary efforts by teachers, is too.

To look at the survey outcomes more closely, we now need to ask: What are the stress related issues and their links to job of teaching?

Stress related symptoms experienced by Scotland’s teachers.

Do any sound familiar to you?

  • Mental health issues: Anxiety, depression, and emotional exhaustion due to work-related stress. It is common for teachers to identify these symptoms with excess workload as the causal link.
  • Physical health problems: Symptoms such as headaches, fatigue, disturbed sleeping patterns, and other health issues.
  • Burnout: Prolonged stress leads to burnout, emotional exhaustion, reduced personal accomplishment, and depersonalization.
  • Reduced job satisfaction: Stress leads to a decrease in job satisfaction and motivation, which can affect teaching performance and student outcomes.
  • Work-life imbalance: Many teachers struggle with maintaining a healthy work-life balance due to high levels of stress and workload​.

The symptoms of stress can, and do have, a significant impact on teachers' overall wellbeing and their ability to perform effectively in the classroom.

An important factor highlighted in the Stress Related Symptoms is the hidden issue of the damage to physical health.

Do you think teaching under the present conditions of service should come with a health warning?

Stress can have a significant impact on teachers' short and long-term health.

  • Sleep disturbances: Stress leads to difficulty falling asleep or staying asleep, resulting in sleep deprivation or poor-quality sleep.  The long-term affect for teachers' can be a drop in energy levels and ability to focus during the day.
  • Musculoskeletal problems: Prolonged stress can contribute to muscle tension, particularly in the neck, shoulders, and back.  Teachers may experience headaches or body pain due to tense muscles.
  • Gastrointestinal issues: Chronic stress can cause digestive problems such as upset stomach, indigestion, or irritable bowel syndrome.
  • Cardiovascular problems: High levels of stress can increase the risk of developing heart-related issues such as hypertension (high blood pressure) and heart disease.
  • Immune system suppression: Chronic stress can weaken the immune system, making teachers more susceptible to illnesses and infections.
  • Fatigue: Prolonged stress can lead to physical exhaustion and fatigue, impacting teachers' ability to perform their duties effectively.
  • Weight changes: Stress can lead to changes in appetite and eating habits, resulting in weight gain or loss.

Physical health issues can negatively impact teachers' overall well-being and ability to perform their job effectively.  The best stress management strategy is blatantly obvious:

Reduce workload!


However, there is our friend the Elephant.  You know the one I mean.  That Elephant that is so large that we just ignore it and pretend that it is not there!  Nonetheless, there comes a point we must confront what we avoid.  There is an uncomfortable truth that we must face and that is we can be our own worst enemies!  No matter how we feel, no matter how exhausted we are, we simply find it impossible to say “No.”

How many times do we hear the voice in our heads telling us that we cannot let the students down?  We feel compelled to take on additional workload even though we are exhausted and on our knees.  Was it not the reason that many of us came into teaching as a career: To make a difference to the life chances of our students by providing good education?  Many would call teaching a vocation, a calling and many would concur.

The teaching profession is one of self-reflection.  We should reflect on an issue connected to excess or toxic workload. In the past, we have voted in favour of Action short of Strike Action, Working to Contract.  Despite voting for this action to reduce our workload, it very quickly collapses as a means in achieving the intended goal.  Why is this?  The answer is simple: We do not want to let our students down!

We become conflicted. We know only too well what excess workload is doing to us physically and mentally, but we cannot, in all good conscience, let our students down.

This is the conundrum. How do we reduce our workload back to our contractually agreed 35hr working week without having a detrimental impact on our students?  Why do we allow ourselves to be emotionally blackmailed to the point we damage our own mental health to do the job we love: to making a positive difference through education to the lives of every student we teach?

Therefore, to tackle excess workload, it is incumbent on us to identify the root cause.  Only then can we begin the task of making genuine and honest efforts to reduce excess workload, to improve the mental and physical wellbeing of every teacher in the profession.

Colleagues, I ask you to consider and reflect on what is the foundation of our spiralling workload:

Institutional Controlling or Coercive Behaviour.

Institutional Controlling or Coercive Behaviour is similar in many ways to the more commonly known domestic form of abuse. Nonetheless, all forms of abusive behaviour impact negatively on the victims of the abuse.  As already discussed, there are consequences of mental and physical health of victims.  Whilst many schools and Education Authorities have policies and procedures to address controlling and/or coercive behaviour, the truth is that far too often these policies, albeit well-meaning, often end up in a filing cabinet and rarely see the light of day.

Institutional control or coercive behaviour in Scottish schools can manifest as policies and practice that limit, intentional or otherwise, the autonomy and well-being of school staff.  The result can often be a potentially harmful environment in the workplace.

  1. Lack of Autonomy for Teachers: Imposing strict curriculum guidelines and teaching methods without allowing teachers the flexibility to adapt to their students' needs.
  1. Limiting Freedom of Expression: Suppressing or teachers' opinions or views on various topics, including academic, social, or political issues.
  1. Bullying and Harassment: Allowing or participating in bullying or harassment of staff by other teachers, or administrators can create a coercive environment.
  1. Controlling Student Choices: Unduly influencing or restricting students' choices regarding courses, extracurricular activities, or personal interests.
  1. Pressure on Performance: Applying extreme pressure on students to achieve high grades or on teachers to meet certain performance metrics can lead to an unhealthy environment.
  1. Lack of Support for Students and Staff: Failing to provide adequate support for those who are struggling, such as students with special educational needs or staff facing challenges.
  1. Punitive Attendance Policies: Enforcing rigid attendance policies without considering individual circumstances can be coercive.

Top of Form Scottish schools, like educational institutions in other parts of the world, are expected to follow guidelines and policies set by the government and education authorities to ensure a safe, supportive, and inclusive environment for students and staff.  This includes addressing and preventing any forms of controlling or coercive behaviour.

However, the very nature of some policies and educational initiatives deriving from these policies, create the very issues being described.  The drive to close the attainment gap has led to a high stakes exam results driven system that fails to take into consideration all students and sets them up for failure. Persistent changes and requirements by SQA unload an impossible burden on both staff and students. Schools are measured by exam results.  Absolutely no consideration is given to the numerous students who have given their absolute best yet do not meet the magic targets.  The truth is that there are students who are far more suited to achieve success in vocational studies than the academic.

Whilst a number of reviews are taking place, none address the cuts in education and elsewhere.  The likes of social work and Educational Psychology, not to mention the severe lack of mental health support for students.  So, who must fill the void? Teachers!  Teachers are Not social workers.  Teachers are Not Educational Psychologists.  Teachers are Not Mental Health Workers.  Yet this is where Controlling and Coercive behaviour comes in as a direct result of the policy decisions.  Teachers are expected to fill the void, even though we are not trained to provide this service.  Brutal truth?  IT REQUIRES FREE OVERTIME TO ACCOMMODATE ALL OF THESE ADDITIONAL TASKS.  WHY PAY QUALIFIED STAFF WHEN TEACHERS WILL DO IT FOR NOTHING!  It becomes an expectation because teachers ‘will go the extra mile’ for their students.  It will look good on the CV if you are looking for a permanent contract.  We have normalised the exceptional.

We have created a culture whereby, teachers cannot say “no” because it will not look good for them, after all, “It’s for the sake of the kids.”

We have been conditioned over the years by moral blackmail to take on more and more work. We have been very subtly controlled and coerced into believing that we are letting our students down if we do not take on the additional work for which we are not trained.  And I have not even touched on endless reams of data we must process to satisfy those who are nowhere near a classroom, that we are doing an excellent job!

Colleagues. It is our altruistic desire to do the best for our students.  It is our desire not to let a single student down that has become a tool of exploitation and manipulation.

It is Controlling or Coercive Behaviour.

The most effective way to begin the process of ending Controlling and Coercive behaviour is to first to acknowledge that it is happening.  The next step is to unite and with one voice clearly state that magic word: No.

We are part of the toxic culture that has created excess workload that damages our health.  The toxic culture of excess workload means we become less effective to carry out our primary function: To Teach. Let us re-channel out energy to build a culture that encourages and supports us to do what we have been trained to do: To be teachers!

I thank you for your indulgence and patience for listening to this address.