I think I first noticed a decline in my mental health when the new academic year started – September 2022. I’d just had a series of exam results that were not great – not terrible either, but not the standards I was used to. I felt that I was being judged on these results, when this was a group who had started during the COVID-19 pandemic, and it felt extraordinarily unfair. More and more, I felt I was doing a job that I could not make ‘better’ and that I would ultimately fail at, not because of lack of effort, but because the conditions of the job make it so difficult to succeed. For example, conditions such as a lack of time away from the students to plan or mark, but then falling behind in these areas, or initiatives taken by management to ensure ‘quality’ that result in a greater amount of paperwork for staff and show little evidence of real quality. Educational institutions and the bodies that govern them like to say a great deal about staff well–being, but from my perspective, there is ultimately very little action being taken to make this situation better. This, coupled with difficulties at home, meant that it was a perfect storm of factors that led to me having a breakdown in the staff room one day.
I remember, at its worst, I went out of my classroom to the staff room mid-lesson, and I had what I can only describe as a panic attack. There was nobody else there to witness it, and it lasted around about 20 minutes – time that I do not remember at all. I do remember coming back to being aware of my surroundings while sat at my desk in the staff room. At that exact moment, I realised that I just did not want to stay in teaching any more, that it was unhealthy for me, and I could not cope with that level of pressure. I went home and never actually came back to that institution. The next day, I went straight to my GP and had a very tearful conversation in his office about everything that was going on in my life, and he was extremely good in terms of understanding, providing resources for me to use, and explaining the ways forward.
To any teacher who is struggling mentally: There are so many of us out there. When I look back on my career in teaching now, I think about conversations I have had with colleagues and genuinely believe that a majority of staff are, in some way, struggling with these issues. Please do not be afraid to open up and talk to someone. It does not matter who – a trusted colleague, a partner, a family member – as long as you talk to somebody about what is going on inside your head. Take that first step and realise that, if it is making you unhappy, you can quit and it can work out. There are loads of ways people can help you, but that cannot occur until you make that step and tell people that you are genuinely having a real problem. That was so hard for me, but I am so much better for it now. There are also lots of online groups for people who are struggling with their mental health within education, which in turn can not only help you by showing you what support is available, but also, should it come to it, how you can get out of the classroom and go into another career with the skills you already have.
I am still, to some degree, living with depression, and perhaps I always will be, but I know now that I can manage and control it thanks to the medication I am on, and more importantly the support of family and friends (without whom I would not be writing this). I am now working in education, but not in a student-facing role, and my work-life balance is so much better as a consequence. It has really made me take stock of what is important. Flogging a dead horse in impossible conditions, as it seemed to me at the time, is just not worth it. I would not teach again until the conditions of the job – the marking you have to take home, the lack of time during the day to do anything other than face a class, the constant evidencing of everything you ever do for management or for OFSTED – have been changed into something more manageable. There must become something that facilitates your development for the sake of the students, and something that allows you to actually have a life outside of the classroom. I feel much more like me again, and that is the greatest victory of my life.
If you’re an educator struggling with your mental health, or you need advice as a professional in the sector on how to support your teaching staff with their wellbeing, take a look at our support page.
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