Mental toughness: its relevance to teaching

Fiona Earle and Peter Clough

Is mental toughness useful in the world of education? Obviously we feel that is. In this chapter we will discuss some of the challenges in the real world and how an understanding of mental toughness

might help. It is not meant to suggest that mental toughness is the answer. It is one tool in a vast array of useful options.

Areas that relate to mental toughness include:

• Dealing with stress

• Optimising and understanding the learning environment

• Dealing with change.

Dealing with stress

I am a teacher, working in higher education. I think therefore that I have some understanding of the demands of this role. Through my research work I have discovered that in all the teaching related professions there is a shared set of challenges and rewards that impact on us all.

Teaching is widely recognised as being one of the most stressful jobs. HSE research in 2000 found teaching to be the most stressful profession in the UK, with forty-one and a half per cent of teachers reporting

themselves as “highly stressed”. However, that is not the whole story. Many are attracted to the profession precisely because it is challenging. The demands are matched by the potential rewards. Many professional people would choose “burnout” against “brown out” any day. Mental toughness offers one way of hopefully avoiding both!

The stressors for teachers are many and varied, but include:

• Workload

• The behaviour of students

• Parents

• Lack of control over their work

• Role conflict and role ambiguity

• Lack of support

• Organisational change

• Poor resources.

It is important that these issues are addressed rather than simply trying to toughen the teachers. However, it is unlikely that all of these will be reduced in the foreseeable future. It will remain a challenging, and potentially rewarding, environment.

The stressful nature of the role is clearly recognised by the UK government who have insisted that a measure of resilience is included in the selection systems for those entering teacher training. At the University of Hull we are working with Peter Wiiliams and other teacher training colleagues at the Scarborough campus. We are trialling the MTQ48 as a selection tool. We are not using it to select, rather we run it in parallel to establish its potential usefulness. Only preliminary evidence is available at the moment but it is certainly interesting. The sensitive candidates do not, on the whole, pass the selection procedure. The very tough are very positively perceived by the existing teachers and are viewed as acceptable by the children. Those candidates, who had average toughness scores, are viewed as competent by the teachers and are often viewed very positively by the children. Whilst this project is in its very early days, it clearly suggests that the relationship between mental toughness and teaching is a rather complex one.

Obviously the students may also have issues dealing with stress. This could be viewed as creating a “perfect storm” with a stressed teacher dealing with a stressed cohort under the leadership of a stressed manager. Again stressors should be minimised wherever possible. However the stresses related to assessments cannot be removed completely. Some students deal with these better than others. This provides educators with a real problem. In assessments we are really interested in the “true” ability of the student, but this is contaminated by test anxiety. Mental toughness assessment and development can certainly help. It is useful to know which students might be “underperforming” and also provide these vulnerable individuals with tools and techniques to keep their anxieties in check. In the UK we are moving towards a more exam-based system that will surely increase the problem. We would suggest that a child with average intellectual abilities with sound mental toughness will achieve their potential; a child with stronger abilities but with less mental toughness may not.

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