Exploring the link between teaching and alcohol consumption
by Anna Gregory
‘I need a glass of wine to help me get through all the marking!’
‘The kids in my class are such hard work, I need a beer when I get home!’
These are just two of the comments I have heard during my time as a personal and professional coach in schools. And whilst there is alarmingly little research into alcohol consumption amongst teachers, I can tell you, anecdotally, that many of the teachers I have come across in my 25+ years in education are drinking more than ever before. From newly-qualified graduates to more experienced staff, alcohol is almost always a feature of their lives outside school. The question is: why?
Anyone who is a teacher, or who knows a teacher, will testify that teaching is an incredibly rewarding but hugely challenging career – and things have never been tougher. The daily pressures are relentless: from Ofsted inspections and external moderation visits to lesson observations and performance management targets, teaching is one of the most over-scrutinised professions there is. And then there is the legacy of the pandemic, which has left many pupils ‘behind’ and has also had a significant impact on in-school behaviour. All of these factors undoubtedly play a part in the ongoing recruitment and retention crisis, which shows no signs of abating. In a nutshell, teachers (like many of us) are having a tough time of it.
According to NASUWT’s Teacher Wellbeing Survey 2022, 90% of teachers have experienced more work-related stress in the last 12 months, and 91% report that their mental health has been adversely affected. Key underlying factors include workload, the consequences of the pandemic, worries about pupil behaviour, pupil academic performance, and finances.
When asked about the impact stress has had on their lives, after an increase in anxiousness (87%) and loss of sleep (82%), almost a third (28%) said they had increased their alcohol use. This should be cause for alarm.
Schools, of course, need to be held accountable for pupil performance, and every parent has the right to demand the highest-quality education for their child. Every teacher I work with knows that, and virtually every one strives to deliver their best every single day, but with expectations higher than ever, many teachers are struggling to cope. As a result, many are turning to alcohol as a coping mechanism, albeit a maladaptive one.
When I talk to teachers about self-care and the importance of looking after their physical, mental and emotional health, I am continually shocked by how many mention using alcohol as a way to feel better or ‘numb out’ the stress. It’s usually a throw-away comment (Who doesn’t like a large glass of Sauvignon Blanc after a long day in the classroom?) and most teachers, when pressed, don’t view it as a big problem. Rather, they regard it as a quick and easy way to escape the pressures of classroom life. A form of self-medication, if you like.
It could be argued that many professions are stressful (especially given the current climate) and that teaching is no different. But there are several factors which might explain why more and more teachers are using alcohol. Because they work with children and young people, teachers are required to be role models all day long, and potentially temper how they might behave outside the classroom. Quite rightly, they have a responsibility to talk and act in a way that is appropriate in front of children. Drinking, then, whether to cope or just have fun and let their hair down, may be a way to separate their ‘sensible’ teacher selves from their more authentic, adult selves outside of school.
Moreover, many teachers I know and support are die-hard people-pleasers who don’t like to let people down. They are not always effective at setting boundaries and, as a result, are more likely to suffer from burnout by taking on too much. The environments in which they work tend to be highly structured with little room for flexibility, so autonomy is often limited. Drinking alcohol after long days in these sorts of settings can be a way to assert independence and freedom, unshackled from the classroom desk.
Whatever the reasons for the increase in teachers drinking, the issue needs to be addressed, and urgently. In the same NASUWT well-being survey, 78% of teachers said that their school does not provide staff with a workplace that promotes well-being and over half (53%) strongly disagree that their school prioritises staff mental health. In light of this information, surely it is time for school leaders and, indeed, the government to lift the lid on alcohol consumption amongst teachers and address the underlying causes of stress across the sector. This is not something that can be solved solely at school level; it needs attention and action at a systemic level.
Teachers are people first, and we need to ensure they are equipped with the tools they need to manage the stresses and strains of the job, using healthy coping mechanisms, so that they can thrive both inside and beyond the classroom.
About Anna Gregory
A former teacher and primary school leader, Anna Gregory is the founder of The Nest Coaching, an organisation that offers personal and professional coaching to teachers and young people. She is also a freelance content writer across the education and family wellness sectors.