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Be the Change You Want to See

This Mental Health Awareness Day be aware of just how strong and valuable you are! Cate Knight shares a time that she flourished in school.

I started mainstream teaching with a full understanding of the challenges of the job. My parents were teachers as were aunties, uncles, family friends. I had worked in HE/FE & independent & international schools. I was not a naive or “green” teacher. I have always had to manage my mental health. There is a family history of depression &, as a teenager, I tackled things head on and sought help. I have been medicating, having therapy, using mindfulness and multiple other self care strategies for two decades now. Teaching did not cause my depression. In fact, the actually time spent in the classroom with learners is the time when I’m least prone to bouts of low mood or anxiety. The energy that learners exude is contagious. I usually end lessons feeling , at worst, pleasantly exhausted. Often I find myself invigorated and inspired.

There is, however, no doubt whatsoever that being a teacher has damaged my mental health. Not the classroom contact time.

The oppressive expectations that permeate schools. The constant need to squeeze more from already empty professionals. The lack of human empathy and compassion. The rigid, inhuman systems that squash and drain that joy that makes being in a classroom so refreshing.

Not in every school, I’m sure, but in many. Children who are not allowed to be children. Teachers who are not allowed to be fallible. It is the nature of most depression sufferers to over think, self critique and negative scan. We do not require any prompting to assume culpability for every wrong doing. We do not need anyone to encourage us to self flagellate. We are experts at spotting our own flaws and punishing ourselves with them. In the current system, such people may end up struggling to swim with the current, let alone challenge it by swimming against.
The best my mental health has ever been was working in a school where I was valued by staff, parents and students. Where everyone was valued. For who they were and all that they could bring to the table. The school focused on what each individual did best. The strengths of each person.

I learned to talk in optimistic terms. I shared smiles, jokes and relaxing but interesting conversations with my colleagues.

I had FUN with my learners.

You may be surprised to learn that they did not “fail” horrifically. Nor were they “below expectation” (whoever’s expectations we are actually measuring against!). They were successful, brave, happy and enthusiastic. They cared about me as a teacher in the same way that they knew I cared about them.

I was trusted, given autonomy, allowed to make mistakes and grow and learn. In other words, it was acknowledged that we were all learners. We shared our resources and knowledge freely with no petty jealousies. Our doors remained open because we were proud of what happened within our classes and because “a bad day” would not be met with condemnation. Instead we would be brought a cup of tea and asked if we needed anything. If we were OK.

By someone who meant it.

-Not lip service.
-Not a mental well-being policy to tick boxes
-Not a committee to satisfy Ofsted
-Not a singular empty gesture never to be repeated

An Ethos. A workplace with its core values firmly established: RESPECT, LOVE, KINDNESS, FORGIVENESS

These were lived and breathed by every person there. Every individual in the community.

It took years for me to realize the unique value of that place. Unfortunately my mistaken belief that “progress” meant “upwards” had already prompted me to leave to find another promotion.

Why don’t we start to make a difference using the biggest and most valuable leverage we can? Ourselves.

Refuse to work for inhuman expectations. Refuse to put up with unreasonable demands. When we are asked to sacrifice our own well-being, and subsequently that of our learners, we should be able to say “I choose not to do this. I choose to find somewhere that knows my worth”.

Leaders – choose to be the vehicle for good. For change. It is hard and frightening to be the first to turn and face down the storm but you will find others beside you. Soon the best and the bravest will join you because you value them. You will gain strength. You will succeed. You will be a good human making the right kind of difference.

If we continue to accept the pressure, drudgery, unfair accountability and lack of decency then we are saying we do not expect change.

Teachers are not going to be rescued. They need to rescue themselves and each other. The time has come to stop saying “I’m so broken/tired/overwhelmed/busy” and instead say “I’m choosing a different way”.

This Mental Health Awareness Day be aware of just how strong and valuable you are!

Change is possible. Our job is PHENOMENAL. We just need to redefine the boundaries.

Good Luck!! #bethechange

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The author

Cate has been a teacher for 20 years. She has worked internationally and across all key stages in the UK. Her secondary specialism is Performing Arts with a keen interest in PSHE/RSE. Cate is recently married with two cats who keep her busy and an allotment that requires more time than she can give it!

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