Last year, I quit teaching. I had completed my NQT induction, and despite the years of self-doubt and tears I’d finally come to recognise that I was a competent teacher, and had started to believe my positive feedback.
I had also come to realise, however, that teaching was an unhealthy career choice for me. I am a perfectionist – or now, I hope, a recovering perfectionist – who is prone to anxiety. Unfortunately, I could not reconcile these aspects of my mentality with the never-ending pressures of being a teacher.
My health was poor while I was in the classroom. I was on medication, undergoing therapy and had to twice take time off sick when I couldn’t leave my house without breaking down. As the end of the year approached, I knew I would be leaving teaching.
But as the end of term loomed, I wondered: “What will I tell my students?” I remember standing in front of my lovely class, with whom I had developed an extremely good relationship, trying to find the words to explain why I was leaving them in the middle of their GCSEs.
They were a wonderful bunch – curious, energetic and high-achieving. But many were also anxious and stressed. I saw myself in so many of them. Their perfectionism and ridiculously high standards were a mirror of myself. I stood before them, without having learned to deal with those issues, about to give up on my dream career after two years of mental anguish.
And so, on my last lesson I stopped, looked them in the eye, and said:
Guys, I am leaving because I have never tackled my perfectionism – that same perfectionism that you think will get you A*s and make you happy.
I am leaving because I have not yet learned how to cope with failure or deal with negative emotions. I have not yet worked out how to tackle my faulty thinking. I have achieved so much academically and have a wonderful social life, but I have been suffering with poor mental health. I am anxious and depressed, and so I can’t carry on being your teacher at this moment in time.
But that’s OK. Our lives will go on. I am already receiving help, both through medication and therapy. I’ve talked to my family and my friends and it’s helping. I’m taking small steps to manage my lifestyle, to make sure I’m getting enough sleep. Mindfulness helps. Exercise helps. For me, music helps. There are so many ways you can mend yourself.
I am a not a doctor. I cannot tell you how to recover if you are suffering from poor mental health – not now or in the future. This is just my experience, but I think you should be aware of it.
Mental health issues are not something to be ashamed of. They are not always obvious. They can express themselves in many different ways. I think there is a scale; some mental health issues are life-threatening and totally debilitating. Mine, fortunately, are not. But had I carried on without talking and reaching for help, they may well have become so.
There is little that’s more important than your own health – physical and mental. Look after yourself, look after each other and talk. Build yourself a support network when times are good, just in case things get harder. Work on challenging negative thought patterns and disputing irrational thinking. Research what makes your brain work, investigate mindfulness, work on yourself.
And if you ever find yourself tempted to lie about a natural, normal period of ill health because you are ashamed, stop and think: “What would you tell a class of 15-year-olds? What would your 15-year-old self have benefitted from hearing?” Don’t be ashamed, use your journey to help others.
But I didn’t say that. Of course I didn’t.
I made up a different illness, in the same way I tell friends that I can’t come to their party because I have a migraine, when the truth is that I cannot see past the tears to make it out the front door.
Even in 2017, mental health stigma still exists and few people are brave enough to talk about it out loud to those kids who need to hear it. I certainly wasn’t. I passed up on perhaps the most “teachable moment” of all.
And so, I’m sorry I lied. I’m sorry we are not yet in a time or place where it is acceptable for me to have shown such weakness. I hope you do not suffer from mental health issues, but the reality is that many of you will. And I hope, if you do, you are brave enough to share your story when you can.
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