I’m back at work.
No-one is more surprised about this than me. If you had told me in November/December that I would be back teaching I would have probably retreated further into my hermit’s cave, panicked, felt a toxic combination of guilt, fear and despair, and inwardly seethed at you for even daring to mention school.
At my worst I could not bear to hear anything about education. This made watching the news particularly difficult, but also meant I lost interest in my own son’s schooling, could not socialise with fellow teachers for fear of hearing about their work and had to be shielded from anything even vaguely related to the topic.
This was not an irrational fear brought on by my mental health problems. Well, actually, it was…of course it was. I was (and am) suffering from anxiety and depression which, by its very nature, distorts your thought processes so even the most benign of situations can seem terrifying.
In this instance though, the fear was not entirely irrational. The circumstances I found myself in as a teacher were enough to cause stress and ill health in the most rational of people. I had already watched a stream of good teachers lose the battle of survival and, as I gradually started to unravel at the seams, others were doing the same. The reasons for this were complex and tawdry, and I don’t really want to go into too many details here (if you want to know the truth, you’ll have to buy my book – which may or may not be finished within the decade). Needless to say though, I found myself in a dysfunctional school, operating on a culture of fear that broke teachers and helped no-one, least of all the students.
So my return to work was pretty brave. As I’ve said before, I did not think I would be able to do it; even in the initial meeting with the Headteacher, I thought I was about to hand in the towel. “Another one bites the dust” I thought, as I joined the long line of teachers (and friends) that had been pushed to breaking point. But, as a colleague pointed out to me the other day, I’m stronger than that (apparently) and I have refused to let it beat me.
However, the return has been made possible, even enjoyable, due to the changes that have happened at the school in my absence. Gone is the hierachical culture of bullying and competing, to be replaced by a workplace where people are starting to realise that good education is not about pushing teachers to breaking point, but about working together to provide a service for the children. I couldn’t give a damn whether my current grading is better or worse than anyone else’s, I just want to do my job – no gold stars are required! Sanity appears to have been injected into this dysfunctional fear factory so that management actually look after, and try to retain staff. There is still work to be done but there is already a tangible difference to the feel of the school as you walk around it. Instead of looking over their shoulder, for fear of being stabbed in the back, people are starting to walk towards each other, to share ideas. Furthermore, people are starting to admit to each other when they are struggling because they know that what they will recieve is not judgement, but support.
My own personal situation is a bit different to most people’s, as I am being treated extra carefully, like a fragile wine glass on a high and narrow shelf. My employers have offered me phased return, slowly getting myself back up to speed, rather than diving in head first. This is being carefully monitored, with spies reminding me not to work too late and intermittantly checking in on me with jokes and hugs and cups of tea. I feel valued, I feel appreciated, I feel like I am NOT a failure who can’t teach even though I spend every waking moment trying to do my best, but that I AM a human being who is doing my best at a fairly tough job. I feel quite proud of myself.
And grateful, so grateful, to everyone who has made that possible. Grateful to the family and friends and GP who saw me at my worst, when I was more of a husk than a woman, and who stuck with me. Grateful to the colleagues who have welcomed me back with open arms and true friendship. Grateful to the new management structure (and an outstandingly human new head teacher) for extending differentiation to staff as well as children, in order to meet my health needs, and for investing in their staff rather than constantly criticising them. Grateful to the students who have listened respectfully when I have spoken to them about depression, and come to me with similar experiences from their own lives and families. So grateful to the students who are so happy to have me back, the students who make this job what it should be – an enjoyable experience of learning with children.
I’m sorry the atmosphere didn’t change earlier, before the rot of stress and anxiety pushed me into the pit of depression. I wish I hadn’t had to go through that, I wish my family didn’t have to see that. I wish the good staff who had been broken before me did not have to suffer what they did. There are people who are no longer here who should be here, and who have gone through some terrible times unecessarily.
But I am happy that things are improving and if, in some small way, my suffering has led to the realisation that change was required, then I’m happy that suffering wasn’t in vain. I’m happy to take one for the team – especially as it’s a team I’m now so happy and proud to be part of.
I’m going back to work.
I’ve packed my emotional lunch box and am taking in a dollop of guilt for leaving students and staff in the mire, a scoop of fear that I won’t remember how to teach, a spoonful of dread that I’ll get sick again, and a pinch of embarrassment for being off with an illness I know not everyone will be able to understand.
In the spirit of maintaining a healthy diet though (it being January and all, when even the normally sedentary gluttons are detox-ing and clamouring for the gym) I’ve also packed a few other ingredients.
A massive bottle of gratitude, to all those who have helped me reach this point, a slab of honesty, with which I plan to use to explain to everyone, staff and students alike, what I have been through, and even, astonishingly, a little piece of optimism that the future will bring brightness. This precious gem is wrapped in sparkling tin foil, like a tiny square of chocolate that might be allowed by slimming world, “to get you through those difficult days”.
I went in to school yesterday, filled with trepidation, to meet with 2 members of the senior leadership team. Due to recent, necessary, changes in the school regime, I did not really know either of these women, so it was a bit of an unknown quantity. It was also an opportunity to be very honest, something which is often, perversely, easier with strangers, and to establish a fresh start.
After a sleepless night that I’m sure was shared with many returning to work/school after the Christmas holidays, my mindset on entering the meeting was open-minded, but heavily tinged with a notion that the purpose of the meeting would be to deliver my resignation. After all, teaching is you, it’s no place for someone with a fragile mental state. I’d even typed a letter, securely popped in my bag in case it were needed, stating how I had to put my family first and that the students deserved a stronger teacher. It was a short letter, but a good one, I was pleased with its emphatic but neutral tone, and the fact that it was actually pretty succinct (you may have noticed I have a tendency to be verbose).
So there I was, considering what my new life would be like, what I would do for money, what new chapter I could begin. I was starting to look forward to it, almost demob happy.
Then, I walked into the school and the first person I saw was the worst person I could have seen. Not the badly behaved child, who swore at me, not the poor teachers who’d had to cover my lessons, not the school gossip; the first person I saw was THAT girl, that year 11 who struggled with school, but somehow connected with me, who enjoyed my lessons, and, on getting the first C grade she’d had in her secondary school education, waved it around like an Olympic gold medal to all who would listen.
I knew I’d abandoned her, it stuck in my throat that I’d left these kids, particularly kids like her.
So when I saw her I was defenceless. As she exclaimed “Miss! I’ve missed you soooooo much, I’ve not being going to class since you’ve been off!” she may as well have been a starving African toddler, wiping flies off her eyelashes and offering me a begging bowl. Whilst I knew I couldn’t go back to where I was, giving everything to my students, and keeping nothing back for myself or my loved ones, I also knew I had to give it another chance, that I wouldn’t be able to forgive myself if I turned my back on these kids without at least putting up a fight.
So I went into the meeting and laid my cards squarely on the table. I still don’t know whether me and teaching are a good match,or if teaching is what’s right for me and my family. I was clear on this, I may still bail out, but if I do, it will be a conscious, rational decision, based on what’s best for all concerned, it will not be because this bastard illness forced me out.
I refuse to let it beat me.
That said, my return to work will not be about turning in 100% outstanding lessons, or building a glittering career, or the best RE department in the area, or any of that ladder climbing nonsense Gove and want teachers to aspire to (like classroom bankers). My return to work will be, has to be, about surviving and, crucially, sustaining a balance whereby my students get a reasonably good level of education and I (and my family) get a decent quality of life.
If that doesn’t pan out I shall change course and do something different, this time before I end up making the sacrifices I made in the past. If that makes me a ‘failed teacher’ then I embrace failure, because I’d rather be successful at being a mother, daughter, sister and friend.
But who knows, maybe with the continued love and support of my treasured confidantes, I can have all of the above? It’s got to be worth a try, after all, when you’ve reached rock bottom, you really have nothing to lose!
So, after weeks of walking, talking, crafting and medicating myself back to some semblance of mental well-being, I spent a lovely Christmas and New Year with my wonderful family.
Now, faced with the prospect of a meeting with my head teacher on Monday to discuss my return to work, coupled with apocalyptic weather and a weekend without my 8 year old live in comedian, my stomach knots, nausea returns and I fear I find myself back, once again, on the highway to the anxiety danger zone.
I have a sneaking suspicion that this blog may gradually morph from a discussion on depression to an account of my walking addiction.
It’s been bucketing down all day; driving winds and black, foreboding clouds; relentlessly miserable weather. Yet I have grown so needy for my daily trot that I ignored all of that and strode out anyway. I must be even crazier than I thought. Staggering along, windswept and bedraggled, I must have looked a wretched sight, like one of those mysterious legends of Basingstoke crazy that so intrigued me in my childhood. I’ll be clapping at the traffic next.
Still, as addictions go, it could be worse. I do have a bit of an obsessive personality, and some of my previous (and current) addictions have been far less healthy. Wine, coffee, chewing gum, work…I’m basically an “Omni-holic”.
At least walking provides some exercise, some fresh air and the tiniest chance of getting some vitamin D on the shortest, darkest (and this year wettest) day of the year. Even if it does make you look a bit of a pillock.
P.S. thanks to the black A-Team van that seemed to deliberately swerve into the curb to drench my entire left side with muddy, car fume infused puddle water. That was pretty special.
Today has been a series of surprising and positive events. It’s been so long since I experienced such things I’m finding it all a bit confusing. I’m almost feeling *gulp*…..happy…
The anthem to my recent walking therapy which, along with quite a lot of anti depressants, has put me well on the way to recovery. I’m basically channelling Ian Botham. Big thanks to walking companions: Mum, Dad, Archie, Becky, Amy, Neil, Teresa and John. If anyone else fancies joining me for a ramble, give me a shout!
You’re no good to anyone unless you take care of yourself. Take note, workaholic friends!
Went out today without my duffle coat on! Strange the things that count as markers of progress in this funny old game of recovery.
I saw a friend today who remarked that I looked like I was starting to “get my twinkle back”. It occurred to me that I’d forgotten I ever had one.
That made me think about how long I had been a bit wonky of brain, and the conclusion was frightening. My Mum, who, like the rest of my wonderful family and friends, has been relentlessly brilliant in her support through this time, corrected me when I said I thought I was getting much better than I was a couple of weeks ago. “Tori, you’re better now than you were 18 months ago”, she stated, emphatically. I drew breath sharply, considering the alarming truth to what she was saying. “Really, do you think so?” I asked, unsure of the answer I was wanting or expecting.
She went on to recount to me an incident that happened earlier in the year. At the time, I knew I was under pressure at work and home, but then again, who isn’t? you almost feel guilty if you’re not stressed, like you’re gloating to the rest of the struggling population. I was busy doing that thing people do, keeping going, distracting myself, to blank out how I was really feeling. I feared nothing more than time alone with my thoughts. So I figured that, if I kept running on the treadmill, then I’d be okay, I wouldn’t fall off. Rollo May, the existential psychologist sums this up beautifully: “It is an ironic habit of human beings to run faster when they have lost their way.”
What I failed to comprehend was a) that you can’t keep running indefinitely without collapsing and possibly doing yourself lasting damage and b) the emotional abuse you hurl from your treadmill to those innocent bystanders around you, as they try to gently coax you down, can be devastating to them.
My own outbursts had for a long time, I know, been targeted mainly at my poor mother. Without a partner to offload to during times of turmoil, she became my foil, the pillow into which I should have cried, but instead threw punches at. She reminded me, yesterday, over the phone, of a time during the summer where I had been stood on the street outside my house, screaming at her “BUT WHY DO YOU LOVE ME?” in desperate, pleading tones, unable to see for myself a reason why anyone possibly would or could. I shuddered at the memory. I know it happened, I do recall it, but it feels like it happened to someone else, like Mum was describing a film we’d watched together. Appalled, I pictured her, shaking as I demanded she gave an answer before I would let her leave, attacking her for approval, while Archie stood in the street crying at his manic mother. Christ on a bike! Who does that shit! Me, apparently. She says I tied her in emotional knots and that she was unable to convince me that she just loved me because she did, not because I was clever, or pretty, or for any kind of achievement, she just loves me, unconditionally, as I do my own son. It seems strange to me now that I could not make sense of this utterly reasonable sentiment, not let her, or anyone else, love me.
I felt, for a long time, that love had to be earned, worked for. Maybe that’s true, but I was going totally the wrong way about it. You earn love simply by being open to it, by accepting it and reciprocating it, NOT by climbing career ladders or winning brownie points for superficial nonsense.
Don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying people should not strive to be the best they can be, I don’t think it’s particularly healthy to be totally devoid of ambition. It should be recognised though, that ambition can cause pride and/or alienation in varying measures, and that, sometimes, losers are more loveable.
My Mum thinks I’m better now than I’ve been in at least 18 months. When I think about it rationally (which is hard for someone who is currently a bit off kilter emotionally) I realise I’m actually on my way to becoming better than I have ever been, partly because I have finally realised that success doesn’t make you happy; happiness IS success.