Monday, 17 December 2012

Psychobabble, the deep malaise in the French teaching profession, and the doctor's advice

No pupils....and no teacher
I read an article on L'Express a few days ago which related the recently-released results of a study carried out by a research team from Bordeaux into the incidence of work-related "burnout" among young French teachers. The article included statistics on the phenomenon as well as an analysis of its psychological characteristics and how they manifest themselves.

Here is an extract which describes the three symptoms of burnout identified by the study;
"Emotional exhaustion, depersonalisation of relations with pupils - the teacher can no longer express empathy and can even express cynicism and rejection vis-à-vis pupils - and an absence of a sense of accomplishment in his or her work. [...] The evolution of depersonalisation and emotional exhaustion demonstrates an upward tendency. [...] Burnout increases or at best remains constant over time and teachers are not able to break the downward spiral of the resources they need to teach."
To be perfectly honest I thought all that was totally over the top, psychobabble, pseudo-scientific, call it what you will.

After all, not all teachers suffer from burnout, far from it, so what this study reveals in simple and non-psychobabble terms is that some young teachers discover after beginning their career that they are not suited to teaching after all for reasons such as a) some children are extremely unruly, disrepectful, even violent and the teacher can't handle it, b) the teacher is frustrated at the lack of teaching facilities which hinder the progress of pupils, c) The job is more time-consuming (marking homework after work, extra-curricular events etc) than had been anticipated, d) (and I know someone in this position) the teacher is appalled by the negative opinions expressed by senior colleagues about pupils and children in general as well as their penchant for taking days off under pretexts they admit to be false in teachers' room conversation, e) other, and f) any combination of them.

In other words, my reaction was "Let's call a spade a spade here. If you don't like teaching or aren't suited to it well resign then and do something else godssakes!"

I almost put up a post here to that effect but something stopped me from doing so. I felt uneasy about what I had read. I was bothered by something I couldn't put my finger on. So I bookmarked the article in my 'may come in useful one day' file.

And it came in very useful three hours ago after I read that a French teacher hung herself today in her classroom during the lunchtime break. She had recently restarted work after being off sick for a year and had been off work sporadically before that. The reason for these absences was said by the state investigator to be her "excessive tendencies."

Needless to say I was horrified by the news, particularly as this is not an isolated case. I can recall reading about several similar cases over the last year in which teachers have committed suicide at work. One particularly terrifying incident involved a teacher who poured petrol over herself in front of her pupils and others in the playground and set herself alight. She died where she fell.

It would be safe to say that many of those who commit suicide must be in deep emotional distress, and in even deeper distress to be driven to the point of doing so in front of children.

So I reread the survey conclusion I quoted from above to see if it would help me to understand what was going on and that reminded me of the recent (ongoing?) two-year spate of suicides at France Telecom which began after the company imposed a highly aggressive market-oriented marketing policy and more demanding working conditions upon its employees. The press has published details of every suicide and each time it has done so it has added a slew of 'analytical' articles by/interviews of psychologists, psychiatrists and other 'experts', many of whom use the same kind of jargon-ridden language as that used in the Bordeaux study.

Then I reread this post I wrote a while back about the exceptionally high suicide rates in France.

I have no definite conclusions to draw from all this but I can't help thinking that there is something very unhealthy going on here. Okay, the world of work is getting harder, and okay, it's hard to change jobs these days, but at the risk of appearing insensitive isn't all this obsession with concepts such as "depersonalisation", "emotional exhaustion", "inability to express empathy" and "cynicism and the rejection of pupils" to describe job dissatisfaction rather overdone, fatalist, negative and apt to foster in teachers and others feelings of psychological/psychiatric inadequacy or failure which may lead to depression?

Researchers and mental health specialists have valuable insights to offer into why people find their working conditions difficult of course, and their data is valuable. But where is the positive counseling support? Why are teachers so cynical about their work? Where is the research which offers ways of combating depression in the workplace? Why do we only talk about the downside and never about how to improve things?

The answer to those questions are to be found in French hospitals. I did some research on pain management in French hospitals a few years back after meeting a French pain management specialist who informed me that France only started implementing the concept in a serious manner about 15 years ago, many years after its adoption by Northern European and Anglosaxon countries.

His opinion was that Latin and Catholic mindsets and what he called their "inherent acceptance of the inevitability of pain, suffering and guilt" had hindered progress in this field of medecine for decades.

He may be right, and if he is his words may offer some insights into why so many teachers seem to accept the 'inevitability' of what ails them.

And from there on in, suicide becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy...


  1. Evening Frip,
    So sad to learn about this happening-in any profession but teaching especially.İ followed your reasoning with interest.Yes many are not cut out for teaching.Many years ago i tried teaching children and teenagers-in Turkey-and i was awful at it! Came home every day feeling totally demoralised by the rudeness of the students,all spoilt rich i went back to teaching adults after a few months.
    More recently i taught Turkish children from the state sector and they were a dream to be with as they wanted to learn.
    Suicide is a drastic 'solution' but i wonder how much the job contributes to those who take their life?As you suggest the culture of inevitability seems far more to blame.
    How terribly sad-to kill yourself at school where children are likely to be witnesses seems too selfish.But who am i to judge-if some one is so desperate i guess such things are not considered.
    Er.. have a good and happy evening! Ruth.

    1. Hi Ruth, and hooo have I been busy this last few days! I've got more work than I can easily handle. Not that I'm complaining of course but phew, bring on the weekend.

      I imagine that teaching spoilt kids must be awful and I'd be very tempted to box their ears, which is why it's a good job I'm not an English teacher for children. :)

      Seriously though, I agree that teaching must be a hard job and, let's face it, not everyone who isn't really suited to it has the courage and wherewithal to change career, particularly in France, where career change is still a relatively minor phenomenon. And yes, that someone would commit suicide in front of children is a measure of just how desperate they must be....

      Hope you're well and looking forward to Christmas.