• logo
  • logo

Susan Flocken explains what makes teachers' work so stressful – "Trade unions must take lead in improving teacher wellbeing"

24.01.2020 - 18:27 News
Illustration
Susan Flocken attended OAJ's seminar in Finland.

Let's get on thing straight: a teacher’s job does not stop when the classes are over. Teaching entails a constant interaction with students, parents or carers, and psychosocial risks are widespread among the profession. Education trade unions are a powerful and democratic voice for teachers, so we must take the lead in improving teacher wellbeing, says Susan Flocken, European Director of ETUCE.

What are the main things today challenging teachers’ wellbeing?

What kind of problems should be solved regarding their working conditions?

Before answering these questions, Susan Flocken, European Director of ETUCE (European Trade Union Committee for Education), wants to reflect on teachers' role in society.

– Teachers educate students of all ages to become critical thinkers, active citizens, and to prepare them enter the labour market, but what does this look like in the daily reality? Of course, teachers are experts in their subjects, but they do so much more than delivering lessons: they plan their classes, manage their classrooms, cater to students’ individual needs, interact with parents and carers, prepare study trips, deal with administrative burdens, and so much more. 

It is an undeniable truth that a teacher’s job does not stop when the classes are over, and their work requires constant and intense intellectual, emotional and psychological engagement.

It is an undeniable truth that a teacher’s job does not stop when the classes are over, and their work requires constant and intense intellectual, emotional and psychological engagement.

What is more, in recent years the education sector has been a victim of budget cuts, privatisation and commercialisation across Europe – including in Finland.
 
– Meanwhile, stressful and counterproductive measures such as performance-based pay and precarious contracts have put further strain on teachers. I also think of colleagues who work in private and higher education institutions, where this precariousness is especially widespread, Flocken says. 

Teachers are at risk of ‘third-party violence’

Teaching entails a constant interaction with students, parents or carers. This can leave teachers at risk of so called ‘third-party violence’.

– In fact, we witness a rise in verbal, online, and physical violence and harassment against teachers, which makes the teaching profession less attractive to potential recruits. Many colleagues also report a loss of agency and control in their professional practice, largely due to new reforms which are implemented with little to no consultation. On this topic I salute the inspiring practice of participatory leadership, a tradition in Finnish schools which was shared by OAJ colleagues. This can really help ensure that teachers have a leading role in improvements to how their workplaces function.

We witness a rise in verbal, online, and physical violence and harassment against teachers, which makes the teaching profession less attractive to potential recruits.

These circumstances, one on top of another, can lead to grave and long-lasting consequences for the health and wellbeing of teachers.

– In particular, psychosocial risks are widespread among the profession: cases of sustained work-related stress, burn-out and depression are real expressions of the general decline in the working conditions of our colleagues, with sometimes tragic outcomes, Flocken says.

According to her it is now increasingly common that teachers feel discouraged or, in the worst cases, see no other option than leaving the profession they love.

– Education systems across Europe are facing teacher shortages, which are a real danger for the future of the sector. Governments must face this challenge head on. A failure to do so will jeopardise the quality of education in our continent, with long-term consequences for our societies.

Trade unions must take the lead in improving teacher wellbeing

When it comes to education policy, the education trade unions across Europe have been raising the alarm for years. 

– Education trade unions are a powerful and democratic voice for teachers, so we must take the lead in improving teacher wellbeing, Susan Flocken says.

Education trade unions are a powerful and democratic voice for teachers, so we must take the lead in improving teacher wellbeing

At local, national and European level, trade unions advocate for sustained investment in public education and meaningful social dialogue where teachers and their unions are involved, consulted and have an impact.

– These are the essential prerequisites if we want to reverse the negative trends and win better working conditions for teachers and all education staff.

In a more practical sense, education trade unions take action to support teacher wellbeing, for example by providing training on psychosocial hazards to their affiliates and carrying out research on new ways to prevent and tackle these hazards.

At European level ETUCE brings teachers’ perspectives into political initiatives and debates while offering their member organisations a platform to share good practices.

ETUCE’s projects directly related to teacher wellbeing include two Online Interactive Risk Assessment (OiRa) tools for early childhood and secondary education, released last year.

These tools, referring to EU health and safety rules, help occupational health and safety services within schools to assess occupational hazards for education personnel related to the working environment, and then develop an action plan to prevent and combat them.

ETUCE has also undertaken research into third-party violence and harassment in education and prepared an implementation guide to help transpose the multi-sectoral guidelines created by trade unions and employers’ organisations into the education sector.

– I am always inspired by the hard and relentless work of ETUCE member organisations like OAJ. Education trade unions participate in European projects and political advocacy alongside their national responsibilities and offer remarkable displays of solidarity among sister organisations. This is a sign that, even in adverse situations, education trade unions stay true to their values and play their central role in improving working conditions and teacher wellness.

Even in adverse situations, education trade unions stay true to their values and play their central role in improving working conditions and teacher wellness.

 

Text and photo: Heikki Pölönen