What if I asked you to guess the profession that faces the highest level of stress? You may have guessed a soldier, a doctor, a policeman or an investment banker and I have done this short experiment with a lot of people and no has guessed the right answer. The profession that faces more stress than any other profession is that of teachers. While this data point may not have been believed by many a few months ago, with the COVID situation and millions of parents being forced to home-school their kids and dealing with the stress of educating just 1-2 children, more and more people are waking up to the stressful nature of teaching and educating children.
Teachers suffer from stress and burnout and the reasons for burnout span a range of personal and professional areas. In school, teachers face stress because of lack of support, stress of syllabus completion, stress of managing student behavior, poor training and mentoring, poor working conditions and a hostile school culture. Teaching is also seen as a very lonely job where teachers have very few interactions with other teachers to share and discuss problems and brainstorm solutions.
Teacher attrition: a global perspective
Not surprisingly, teaching is also the profession that has one of the highest attrition rates with studies showing that 33% of teachers leave the profession in the first three years and 46% leave after five years. This attrition coupled with the fact that in order to meet our Sustainable Development Goals of quality and inclusive education for all, India needs 1 million teachers and is currently facing massive teacher shortage is extremely worrying. India is heading towards some sort of an education emergency where while the number of school going children grows exponentially thanks to increasing access to school, the teachers needed to teach these children are in short supply.
Cut to the chase: Teaching in rural India
In rural India all of these challenges are compounded multiple times for teachers. Apart from the stress of syllabus, student behavior, poor infrastructure and lack of support ,teachers in rural India face challenges in dealing with children who come from extremely poor socio-economic backgrounds and parents who are illiterate. Specifically female teachers in rural India also face multiple personal challenges at home and juggle responsibilities both at home and school and are more prone to stress
In this context it becomes highly pertinent for us to study and understand the factors that contribute to teacher well-being in rural India and what are some ways to ensure physical and mental well-being of teachers in schools.
It was with this aim in mind that I set out to explore the role that social support groups and teacher networks play in promoting teacher well-being in rural India as the topic of my dissertation and research.
From London to Cuddalore
Through Kanavu, I had the wonderful opportunity of working with teachers of five affordable private schools set up by the ASSEFA foundation in Cuddalore, Tamilnadu. The idea was to study the peer learning spaces and teacher networks that teachers in these five schools are part of and understand the importance of those networks in enabling teacher well-being and increasing teacher retention particularly in rural India. Through surveys, one-on-one interviews and focus group interviews, teachers would be asked to rate their well-being on a bunch of factors based on Martin Seligman’s theory of well-being and also comment on the role that teacher networks have played in enabling this.
As part of this study, I was supposed to travel to Cuddalore to do my study but because of COVID-19, the study is now being conducted online. At the first initial meeting with the teachers over Skype to explain the study and their role in it, I met the enthusiastic bunch of 12 teachers who would be part of this study and explained the purpose of the study and their role in it. I was nervous about how meeting the teachers for the first time would work especially in an online setting when I can’t really see all of them and they are talking to a screen instead of a person. All my fears were put to rest as soon as the meeting started as the teachers were not just highly enthusiastic about being part of the research but also friendly, open and shared small details of their life with me, a veritable stranger. Despite being at completely different ends of the socio-economic spectrum with me being a highly privileged, upper caste and upper class woman getting a masters in a foreign country and with them mostly coming from most vulnerable class and caste backgrounds and struggling to make ends meet, we bonded over tea and biriyani. From small things like learning how Radha miss makes the best biriyani to Bhagya miss who liked singing and said she would sing a song for me when I came to their village, I realised that barriers exist in our minds and not in our hearts.
When we perceive someone as not the same us, our mind automatically categorise them as someone different from us because our minds seek consensual validation. It’s one of the main reasons we are drawn towards people who are similar to us and share our tastes and attitudes and that approach seems rational to us. But in our hearts we are looking for affection, empathy, kindness and a connection and these emotions don’t care about your similarities and differences but just let you connect as humans. And on that day I connected to the teachers not as a researcher with a participant, not as a privileged person with an underprivileged person but just as teachers, mothers and human beings. Grateful for this connection and look forward to this strengthening over the course of study, which I hope to pursue through phone and internet, through this month.
Revathi Ramanan – a teacher, now pursuing her masters in education at institute of education in university college London who believes that the excellent education is a fundamental right and where you come from should not determine where you go in life.