It has now been a year since I left teaching after spending 12 or more years in Primary Education. My journey from TA to teacher, subject lead and SLT to finally throwing my hat into the ring for deputy headship came to end (for now at least) – all with a bit of a whimper.
At the time of changing my job, I was on leave due to my mental health (and yes, the Headteacher knew about it every step of the way). There was no real contact with my former employers from that moment; I didn’t visit, simply wrote a long ‘thank you’ and ‘goodbye’ message from myself in the Whatsapp group and fielded replies from colleagues. That was it, I was done! That was my last contact with the majority of SLT, some with whom I worked with for over 10 years.
Am I bitter? No. Do I feel hard done by? Not really. Was I expecting a little bit more in non-professional terms? Most probably.
I can overthink it for many different and unfavourable reasons but, the truth is, I was never one who formed close bonds with colleagues. I got on really well with them, had great working relationships with most and took a genuine interest in them as people but ultimately, my time with them was always spent in work. Life goes on, people get replaced and the world keeps turning.
Let’s focus on the here and now for a moment…
I currently work for the Local Authority in a support officer role based in a secondary school. We support learners who are at risk of disengaging and leaving school for many reasons. The vast majority of the work is emotional – developing emotional awareness and intelligence, helping them to understand themselves and their triggers and how to cope with overwhelming feelings and emotions. Often, we are seen as the emotionally available adult, the constant in the learner’s lives. This role has given me a work/life balance unlike previously. There is no expectation at all to work outside of your hours and certainly no work on the weekend! The notion in teaching is that when you enter the profession you should expect to have high a workload and working in the evenings and on weekends is the norm (this was said to me about ECTs when the workload was brought up). The extra time has not only allowed me to spend invaluable time with my young family but also allowed me to explore other avenues of interest like starting a mental health podcast and gaining different qualifications – Mental Health First Aid (Adult and Youth) and a Diploma in Digital Marketing to name a few.
The biggest difference though, and fundamentally the reason for leaving teaching…is my improved mental health. Having lived with depression for around 3 years now, this is the first time I feel I have it under control (well, most of the time anyway). Yes, I have days/weeks where I know my mental health isn’t great and yes, I still have difficulty expressing what it is that is affecting me at that very moment in time. But these episodes are few and far between.
I’m very easy to read I’ve been told (horrendous poker player) so when I’m off, people know. I’ve worked with my boss now for a year and she knows me and gets me. Not only that, but she is also incredibly understanding and easy to talk to. In general, I find it much, much easier to talk about me having depression than talk about how I’m feeling. I messaged her about a month ago that I wasn’t feeling great and explained how I was at that moment in time. For me, that was huge! A real breakthrough moment that took a lot of bravery for me to do. I’m glad I did though as it was so important for both of us and was a very positive episode. This shows the relationship we have already in a short space of time.
Talking about someone who ‘gets you’…my wife. Patient, caring, loving, all of the above on the list of describing words you want in a person. If it wasn’t for her, I wouldn’t have been able to see the wood for the trees. I spent the first 18 months or so adamant that I could make my depression and mental health better on my own. I had the mindset that ‘now I know I have depression I can sort myself out easily!’ Not the best thought process when in lockdown with a then 4-year-old and a baby on the way!!! But there was no pressure from her, no judgment, just support. When I finally came to the conclusion that I needed professional help, there was a simple “I’m proud of you!” For me that was, and very much still is, so powerful. This extended to my deciding to leave teaching – there was never money talk, leaving a profession, ‘downgrading’ from positions held previously. It was all about my wellbeing. I’m very lucky to have individuals who are so understanding at home and at work.
‘But why did you leave teaching?’ you’re probably wondering. Well firstly, there wasn’t one reason, and I wouldn’t say there was one major event either. More like my emotional backpack being full, not emptying my emotional bucket, however you prefer to describe it really! I understand a lot more now through reading, research and immersing myself and the topic of mental health hence I now know how different facets of my life both presently and in the past have contributed to and impacted my mental health.
From a professional perspective though, there were things that I was struggling with that were out of my control. I know, I know, I shouldn’t worry about what I can’t control but back then I didn’t know that!!! These were cultural/environmental aspects that were griding me down that I had no answer to. I also found myself on a career path toward headship without any idea how I really got there! From early on it seemed to be a path that was expected of me (and maybe men in general). This was reinforced at every step along the way. At no point did I ever pause and evaluate where I was and where I wanted to go. I was never actually asked what I wanted from my career either. I suppose I just go swept away by teaching and the pace of it, becoming blinkered in some respects to what I was doing and the journey I was on. My job always came before myself and my wellbeing.
In hindsight, I was struggling 6 months prior to having my ‘breakdown’ moment and taking sick leave – I didn’t care about personal appearance, was isolating myself in my room and would leave work as early as possible. For the first time, I felt sick going to work and really didn’t want to be a teacher anymore. This wasn’t me! At this point, I felt (rightly or wrongly) that I didn’t have the relationships with certain colleagues that I previously had and couldn’t speak to them about what I was experiencing. When I did eventually discuss certain issues (on returning to work), I was told that I needed to ‘find ways to deal with things.’ Not overly helpful looking back. I returned to work for the 2020-2021 academic year, leaving my role in November 2021 to start my current job.
Some of you may be wondering why I didn’t just change schools. I was in such a negative mindset that I would catastrophise. What if I change schools and I still don’t want to teach? What if I’m not a good teacher anymore? What if I can’t get a job because I’m too expensive? And being totally honest, by the time of looking to find another job, I had become completely disillusioned with my role as a teacher there was no way I could be convinced of staying in it. I had simply concluded that if I feel like this here, I’d feel like it at any school I go to. I’ve always said that I may return to teaching at some point though.
Was it teaching or was it the environment I found myself in? What is it combination of both? I can honestly say right now though, I don’t miss it at all. Yes, that does make me a little sad when I ponder over it for too long – I loved it and was damn good at it, but in terms of my health, for the first time, it was about me and my family and what was best for us. This is something I should have done much earlier in that regard. But we live and we learn. What this whole episode has done though is given me a fresh perspective. It has clarified what’s important and what’s not. It has shown me the importance of self-care, prioritising yourself, how important positivity is (not always easy I know) and the impact good connections can have on you. It has also given me a new passion – mental health and wellbeing! This is an area I genuinely feel I can make a difference, especially in Education.
Are we doing enough?
I do think that there are expectations that males should progress into leadership roles, that it’s the ‘thing to do’. An unwritten rule of the profession if you will. Yes, I understand if people want to do it. But what about those who feel they must? Sometimes, even to the detriment of their health? Do we take enough time to find out what people want from their jobs and careers? What’s wrong with focussing on being the best classroom practitioner you can be? There are so many teachers who have honed their craft over their careers and have an incredible impact.
I believe it’s the perceptions and stigmas associated with the profession – best teachers work in year 6, you’re gay if you want to work in early years, you aren’t a good teacher if you’ve stayed as a teacher all of your career – all absolute nonsense! I feel society still defines success by how high up the leadership ladder we go and puts pressure on males to seek value through their status. I’m sure this extends to females too and them experiencing this kind of pressure.
How much of this culture still exists, and does it need to change to help mental health and teacher retention? We know that teaching is an incredibly rewarding job, but also an incredibly stressful one. Are our school cultures conducive to supporting teachers’ mental health and reducing stress as much as possible? I’ve seen some wonderful threads of great practice in terms of looking after staff wellbeing and it’s so important to share the amazing work going on. But are these more isolated cases or is it now a more common occurrence?
We know the biggest stressors in teaching are workload and work-life balance. Are the policies and procedures that we have in place adding to this stress or reducing it? Seeing school staff as people first and foremost is a start: knowing what works for them and what doesn’t, their needs (both professionally and personally), and how best to support them! Safe spaces for learners are a ‘non-negotiable’ (sorry, many don’t like this term), and rightly so, but what about staff? A culture and environment to allow stakeholders to talk openly and not be judged, with systems in place to support those struggling. Systems that ease the burden on them before their mental health spirals into a mental illness. Could we provide all staff with a toolkit that enables them to cope with the daily rigours of working in education – resilience is key to coping with stress but are we actively developing this in teachers, giving them the tools to develop this key attribute?
There are so many questions to answer – some creating more challenges than solutions maybe. But school staff are our most important resource and need to be looked after as well as them knowing how to look after themselves. How can we expect the best for our learners if we can’t offer them the best version of ourselves?
According to the Teacher Wellbeing Index (2021), 77% of all staff experienced symptoms of poor mental health linked to their work last year, an increase on previous data. It really isn’t surprising though. We all know the impact the profession can have on us, which is why, in my opinion, more needs to be done to safeguard mental health: raising awareness of it, how to look after our own and others, and the importance of having a culture whereby talking about mental health is the norm. Don’t get me wrong, I see incredible work going on in schools all over both first hand and through social media – places that could twist my arm to get back into teaching. There is also wonderful work being done in terms of supporting schools too, individuals I am lucky enough to have connected with via Twitter (won’t list them as I’m guaranteed to leave some out).
This really isn’t meant to be a doom and gloom rip into the culture of mental health in education blog. Far from it. This is me, hoping whoever is reading this, knows they aren’t alone. A blog that I hope helps those who may find themselves in the position I found myself in. One that highlights the fact that it isn’t the end and the importance of putting yourself first. A blog that encourages you to reach out – it really is the best thing you’ll ever do. Support is there whether you’re an individual, school or organisation. Take it and start your own positive mental health journey!