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Mental Health Awareness Month: the end of my teaching career

According to Wikipedia, ‘mental health encompasses emotional, psychological, and social wellbeing, influencing cognition, perception and behaviour. It likewise determines how an individual handles stress, interpersonal relationships and decision-making.’  

Having spent 18 months lapping the village with my lockdown baby, I returned to work as a full-time class teacher and acting headteacher. It was all very exciting at first – but the bubble burst quite quickly!

The expectation was that I would slip back into my life and continue as I had never been away. Unfortunately, I was struggling in silence and no one noticed changes in my behaviour. The term started as per usual: staff meeting, safeguarding training, Ofsted updates etc. But the push-back from staff started the moment I returned and day-by-day, I felt like I was losing control of my mind.

Reflecting back, everything was heightened for me: I had not been around any adult for 18 months and then all of a sudden, I had everyone ‘at me.’ Every snap would appear a million times worse in my head and within 7 weeks, I could feel my body wanting to escape the school. With a huge adrenaline rush in my system and being so upset, I applied and secured another job. My heart wanted to stay but my body was just reacting to emotions that I could not seem to regulate. I later realised it was my body’s natural reaction to danger: the fight-flight-freeze response. Obviously, I chose flight.

The new term started, and I wasn’t quite sure how I ended up in a new school. All of a sudden, my body began to breathe and I realised how exhausted I actually was. When the mental strain lifted, my mind was all over the place and I started vomiting. I was experiencing burnout. I was overwhelmed, emotionally drained and unable to keep up with the demands. The workload was fine; the unfair treatment at work was not. My heart would race and I could feel the tension in my body and muscles. Every time certain people came close, my body would clench, and I would start to panic. I was told that the toxic environment was the norm and I just had to ‘put up’ with it.

Months went by and I would wake up at night with my body trembling and my head spinning. I could hear their voices in my head. I longed for peace and quiet and I couldn’t find it anymore. I didn’t realise until then how much the pandemic impacted my mind and health. I needed fresh air, peace, quiet and calmness. But I was getting a busy environment and every noise was irritating and suffocating me.

My body was screaming for help, and no one was listening. I wasn’t the same; I just needed peace. I confided in my beautiful family and friends and a plan was made. I was resigning with no intention of going back. A huge weight was lifted off my shoulders and the countdown began.

It took 7 weeks to break me; those 7 weeks were intense. My workload was huge but I didn’t mind; it was the staff drama – someone always in my ear, the gossiping and lies about me that took its toll on my mental health. Having experienced mental health first hand, I can truly say that it is real. For me, the first term was traumatic and I couldn’t understand why – especially because I had been at the school a very long time. But things had changed; people had changed and their behaviours had become unbearable for me. Though mild, it seemed severe and I’m not surprised that many people find an escape through suicide.

I wish I was able to tell my headteacher what was really going on but I could not understand it myself back then – my body was not able to react and suddenly I had the inability to communicate. I could hear him but I couldn’t react. But the assumption that I would be able to return to ‘normal life’ and be ‘normal’ was not something I could do. I was not quite sure why my body was not settling – I was trying so hard to fit in to my old life but I suppose it was not something I wanted anymore. I am looking forward to starting a new chapter away from the classroom.

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The author

Sheetal Smith

Sheetal is an experienced senior leader in the Primary education sector. She has worked in a variety of settings in London in different leadership roles and has completed programmes such as the National Qualification for Headship. She has been responsible for many curriculum areas including English, RSE and Assessment and has recently been appointed to SENCo in the hope to improve the provision for pupils with SEND. As well as promoting diversity, equality and mental health, she has always been invested and successful at driving school improvement, curriculum design and achieving the best pupil outcomes through Carol Dweck’s growth mindset approach. She now lives and teaches in Oxfordshire.

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