lärare med handen på axeln på en elev i en skolkorridor

School staff experience conflicting demands in their work with students who have drug or alcohol problems

Staff in upper secondary schools increasingly find themselves acting like police officers rather than focusing on teaching and guidance. A new study reveals how they, in their daily lives, face a lack of guidelines, emotionally challenging situations, and a conflict between care and control.

The past decades have seen a shift in the perception of crime, punishment, and surveillance in Sweden; for instance, regarding informal social control exercised outside the legal system. Not least, this has impacted the world of education.

"We see that staff experience conflicting demands regarding their tasks and emotional engagement. On one hand, they are expected to provide emotional support and ensure a positive educational environment for all students. On the other hand, they act as informal police or supervisors for students struggling with alcohol or drugs. It's more policing than teaching", says associate professor Goran Basic at Linnaeus University.

Policing rather than teaching

Together with senior lecturer Sophia Yakhlef at Kristianstad University, he studied how 36 employees at upper secondary schools who work with students using alcohol or drugs perceive their situation. They describe how the staff's work exceeds the demands traditionally associated with the school environment, such as having to act as police rather than focusing on teaching and guidance.

"The study provides in-depth knowledge about the contradictions and emotional strains that can arise in this work. We see a lack of clear guidelines for crime prevention in the school environment, a conflict between care and control, as well as high workloads and emotionally challenging situations", Basic continues.

Different emotional responses

The researchers identified four primary types of emotional responses to unclear situations among the staff:

  1. Feelings of frustration, responsibility, and inadequacy stemming from a perceived lack of relevant training or the feeling of "failing" to help students.
  2. Feelings of stress and irritation were associated with their ambiguous work identity, leading to emotional strains.
  3. Feelings of exhaustion arose from their commitment to helping students, often resulting in empathetic fatigue.
  4. Feelings of satisfaction were experienced when they successfully helped students.

"Upper secondary school staff used various techniques to handle their tasks and to compensate for the lack of training and time to help their students. Some established informal networks of professionals and others – family, neighbours, or friends – to keep an eye on the students. Others worked on being approachable, building trust, and establishing close relationships with the students", says Goran Basic.

More information

From the study

To assist the pedagogues and teachers, some schools hired school hosts, a kind of "youth worker", who socialised with the students during breaks and then reported back to the principal. One teacher described a school host as a "spy" who befriended the students and gathered gossip about parties, bullying, or conflicts.

In a conversation with a school host named Robin, he described his job as "strange" in that students knew he was staff but often confided in him as a friend. It was important for him to learn the students' "jargon" and to "act" as if he was "on their level", unlike the teachers. Robin referred to his ambiguous role by explaining how students treated him neither as a member of the school staff nor as a friend.

"Students are friendlier to me than to the teachers; they see me as someone who just hangs around making sure no fights happen or other issues arise. If there are parties or someone is planning to have a party, there's always gossip about other students, who drank too much, whether there will be drugs involved, and so on. But they know I'm staff, so I never get to know them that well. If I hear something interesting, I report it to the teachers and the principal".