99 teachers investigated over 'psychological state' in six years

Figures released by the Education Council show that 16 teachers a year, on average, are investigated because of concerns ...
Quentin Jones

Figures released by the Education Council show that 16 teachers a year, on average, are investigated because of concerns about their psychological state possibly influencing their work.

Nearly 100 teachers have been investigated by their professional watchdog in the past six years for possible misconduct or incompetence in which their psychological state may have been a factor.

It included incidents of aggressive, violent or threatening behaviour toward children, drug and alcohol use at work, theft, bullying, harassment and falsifying grades, according to information released to Fairfax under the Official Information Act.

Since 2009, 99 teachers referred for investigation by the Education Council over concerns about their practice were found to have a range of psychological, mental health or neurological/genetic disorders, including depression, anxiety, bipolar disorder, substance abuse or addiction, post-traumatic stress disorder, ADHD and Asperger's syndrome.

Most cases were resolved through rehabilitative support, but four teachers had their registration cancelled, one was suspended, and conditions of work were enforced on six teachers, including further training or medical treatment. Seven other investigations were yet to be completed.

Others teachers could have voluntarily left the profession because of impairment, but figures were not kept on them.

The council's teacher practice manager, Andrew Greig, said the cases represented a very small fraction of more than 100,000 registered teachers in the country.

"That's not to downplay the individual matters. We do take it seriously... but it's not something we are concerned about in the profession as a whole."

Mental Health Foundation chief executive Judi Clementssaid studies showed around half of all Kiwis would suffer a psychological problem at some stage in their lives, but that did not preclude them from being responsible for others, including children.

Teachers needed support, not stigmatisation, to manage their mental health.

She encouraged parents who were concerned about their child's teacher to talk to the school principal first.

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"Don't jump to conclusions." 

Victoria University's Faculty of Education associate dean for teacher education, Robin Averill, said extensive "pracs", or practical classroom experience, ensured prospective teachers were well enough mentally at that point. 

"We don't shy away from them seeing how it is and saying, 'Is this too stressful for me?'," she said.

Masterton's Lakeview primary school principal, Ed Hodgkinson, said he believed teachers' mental health was not a problem for schools.

School boards employed people "fit for the job in every sense", and people with psychological challenges could still be good teachers with the right support.

President of the teachers' union, New Zealand Educational Institute, Louise Green, said teaching was a rewarding, but also very demanding profession.

No school board would knowingly allow a teacher with psychological issues to remain in the classroom if their teaching or behaviour was impaired, she said.

"While most school boards and principals are extremely supportive of their staff, the children come first."

For information about mental health visit the Mental Health Foundation's website. If you need help, phone Lifeline: 0800 543 354

MENTAL CHALLENGE

A spokeswoman for the primary teachers' union NZEI said an example of teaching's psychological challenges was one teacher who could no longer cope with the workload and challenging student behaviour because of the stress of a marriage breakdown.

She left teaching and retrained as a designer, and was now thriving.

Several teacher aides were former teachers who decided they were unable to cope with the mental and emotional demands of fulltime teaching, the spokeswoman said.

However, they had been able to adapt and stay in education, a profession that they loved.

FOUR STEPS TO KEEP KIDS SAFE

1. Entry to Victoria University and other postgraduate teaching courses is via two referees, asked in confidence about the candidate's fitness to teach, and face-to-face candidate interviews.

Police vetting of whether candidates are safe to work with children is also now mandatory under the new Vulnerable Children's Act.

2. Trainees have at least two seven-week blocks of practical classroom teaching, during which they are assessed for their suitability for the profession.

3. Once they pass they have to convince a school board of trustees to employ them, again via interviews, police vetting and referees. After working for two years full-time they must fulfil academic, character and health requirements to be fully registered.

4. They must be endorsed by their principal every three years to remain registered.

BY THE NUMBERS

Most mental health-related teacher investigations since 2009: Auckland, 38, then Wellington, 12.

Problems (some reported multiple): Substance abuse or addiction, 43, depression, 41, anxiety, 18, other issues such as ADHD or Asperger's Syndrome, 14, bipolar disorder, 9 and post-traumatic stress disorder, 5.

Reasons for investigation (including): Notification of a criminal conviction, 32; incompetence, 25, alcohol or drug abuse, 8; aggressive, violent or rough behaviour, 7; harassment or bullying, 2; theft or dishonesty, 4.

Most incidents: 2010 (25).

Fewest: 2014 (4); 14 so far this year. 

* An earlier version of this story referred to teachers suffering 'mental illness'. This was incorrect, and has been amended to an investigation of misconduct or incompetence in which psychological, mental health or neurological/genetic disorders may have been a factor. 

 - Stuff

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