Take care of yourself – seriously

I remember the first lesson I ever taught. It was in a typical 1950’s-built school in the suburbs of Norwich. Monday period 1: 3rd year (as it then was) French – and I wasn’t even a French specialist. The Head of Department had approved my plan with his habitual phrase, remembered to this day: “It’s all grist to the mill…!”

The lesson was, in what I suspect is a fairly common experience, a hammer blow. My preparation hadn’t been half thorough enough; there was a flaw in one of the activities, and I hadn’t reckoned seriously enough with the gratuitous bait-the-student-teacher disruption… I guess that’s why we have teacher training.

It took quite a few years for feelings of confidence to emerge; I remember my father saying it took him about ten to be reasonably satisfied with his teaching. I don’t think there was ever anything wrong – indeed on several occasions more experienced colleagues told me in no uncertain terms not to be so hard on myself. By the time I reached last year, I was even reasonably comfortable with describing myself as unconsciously competent in the classroom – if that isn’t a contradiction in terms.

But in the light of experience, I can’t help reflecting on the several posts I wrote on the subject of introversion, most relevantly here:

https://ijstock.wordpress.com/2013/12/07/groucho-was-right/

Also here https://ijstock.wordpress.com/2013/11/15/shhh/ and here https://ijstock.wordpress.com/2017/01/06/feeling-nervous/

If you happen to be a sensitive and not outgoing or gregarious individual, the damage the rough and tumble of teaching does can be particularly serious. A colleague of thirty years expressed incredulity that I felt such characteristics applied to me, so effectively had I masked my inner self for all that time. I was always my own harshest critic – but, I reasoned,  how many teachers would say the same? It must be in the tens of thousands….Still, I did the day-job week in, week out, swallowing the pressure, trying to reconcile the irreconcilable, doing the things I was told to even when I had deep reservations about them – without any serious thought that it was storing up harm…

My point is this: everyone who does it knows that teaching is a high pressure game – but we still don’t know it – in the sense of being aware of the impact it can (or should that be does?) have. We become so habituated to its demands – the pressurised day-to-day working life, the pressure from managers and politicians, the fact that our evenings and weekends are barely our own – that we treat it as normal. It is not.

As the years went by, I became dimly aware that other people did not experience the same relentless pressure as I did, such that my waking life was utterly dominated by my work; theirs weren’t. Which is not to say that other jobs are not pressurised – but few somehow seem to consume people like teaching does.

As more years went by, the cumulative impact on my health increased – but so gradually that I barely noticed: each little niggle was simply a little niggle, that happened to be a bit bigger than it had been before. When the gloom that was the early signs of depression started appearing, it was just that I was having a bad day. Except it wasn’t.

It is probably true that these things have a harsher impact on the quieter, more introverted people – but just read Bottomsbray’s latest post here https://bottomsbray.wordpress.com/2017/11/25/anatomy-of-a-breakdown/  to show that it can happen to anyone.  He and I are roughly of an age; our careers have tracked each other. If anything, he has had a narrower escape than I did. But looking back, it is clearer than ever before, just how significant the impact of teaching over those last thirty years of constant, turbulent change in the profession has been. I wonder how many more people there are out there who are nursing the same scars, and who may (heaven forbid) be heading in the same direction. If you are, as Bottomsbray says, seek help and don’t be proud about it.

I said it numerous times, but even I didn’t believe it until I saw it: the effect of putting intelligent, conscientious people under that amount of pressure for that amount of time is not pretty. In effect throwing them on the scrapheap to fend for themselves at the end of it is worse – a lot worse, and that still hurts.

But after a year without teaching, I now have a life that more closely resembles those of other people: work is work – and the rest of life is my own. Around the home, many things that had been neglected for years have gradually been put in order; I have time to spend with my wife and friends, and just to cook nice things for dinner. I have time to engage in projects in our community, that I just didn’t have the time or energy for before. I have a more balanced life – and if it weren’t for the remaining ‘head’ issues, it would be great.

It is not inevitable that a career in teaching destroys all that: my parents managed a better balance in their day – and my Swiss friend Alfred always retained a better work-life balance even while he was still teaching. It is just the utter madness that the British education system has become that is doing the damage; a madness that is making a few executive head teachers rich and powerful, delivering a sterile, hollowed-out ‘education’ to the next generation – and burning this one out in the process. It cannot continue.

I have been doing plenty of ‘work’ during the past year, not least finishing a book expanding many of the above ideas much further, developing much else that I have covered over the years in this blog, and examining ways in which a different, more sustainable model could achieve benefits all round. It is currently in production with John Catt Publishers and should be out in the New Year. More details in due course.

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7 thoughts on “Take care of yourself – seriously

  1. Thank you for this post! I am introverted and a perfectionist, neither of which are qualities that are helpful when you’re a teacher. I love teaching, but I do find that a teacher is who I am almost all the time, even when I’m not in school. It is such a part of my identity and working all hours of the day and night have become so normalised, that I beat myself up whenever something goes wrong or I inevitably fall behind. There are so many things to be done and teachers are pulled in so many different directions with lesson preparation, data, pastoral issues, etc…the job truly is never done. I don’t want this to force me out of a profession I love.

    • Christina, thanks for your comment, and glad you found the post useful. At least you seem aware of the pitfalls of the situation, but I would strongly recommend not allowing your love of teaching to crowd out your love of life completely! Easier said than done, I know – but the long-term cost of a fall is in no-one’s interest. Might I suggest that the point when you feel the job is taking over your life, and where you are beating yourself up about it, is precisely the point to stop and think. I found mindfulness helpful, despite the hype – see https://www.headspace.com

      • That is really helpful advice, thank you! I think there are always highs and lows in the job, as well as various ‘crunch’ points throughout the year when it feels tough. But I am trying my best to distance myself from beating myself up if something doesn’t go entirely to plan. I was talking with a group of teachers (NQT, NQT + 2, NQT + 1 and one with 6 years in teaching) today and we were all thinking longingly of traveling abroad and seeing the world – perhaps teachers would stay a lot longer if they could take a long sabbatical every few years!

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