I used to think that being busy, or people seeing me as busy, meant that I was showing how capable I was. I would literally work myself to breaking point; never being able to say no and taking on much more than I could handle set me on a course towards self destruction, a cycle I would go through more times than I care to count. There is something fundamentally wrong within the culture of teaching, and I will be the first to put my hand up and say that I did wear my stress like a badge of honour. Complaining about how busy I was and how many hours I was doing in my personal time seemed to be my way of showing people around me that, even though I was extremely busy, I could handle it. But what I wasn’t showing people were the tears that would fall while I drove home from school, or the fuzziness in my head from anxiety and overwhelm that would stifle my ability to be a happy wife, mother, friend – or person for that matter. I had to show the world that I was more than capable of running a team, a classroom and a be new mother. I wore stress and overwhelm like a badge because it meant I was hard working. It meant I was progressing in my career. It meant I could handle anything that was thrown at me. I would arrive at school at 7am just to be seen as committed, work through all my breaks because my work load was so insane that I had no other option, only to cry on my way home from school (and sometimes on the way to school) from the stress and overwhelm that had permanently taken space in my body. I liked people commenting on my ability to step up and organise countless trips, appraise a team, coordinate school plays and be a new mother all while holding down a classroom. It made me feel special – like superwoman. For a moment. Only for a moment because I knew what people saw and thought was not the truth. It took me took long to realise that other people’s perception of what we do does not matter a tiny bit, not if we don’t value ourselves enough to stop for a second and put ourselves first. Teacher burnout is all too real – and it is the culture of the environment we are working in that is causing it. We are the only ones who can really stop it. While we look outside to the external factors we have little control over – large class sizes, over-assessed children, behaviour issues, poverty, high workload, bullying (both children and workplace), and so much more, our ability to handle these situations becomes much easier when we are in a clear head space – when we are happy and feel valued, when we get enough sleep, when take a moment to recharge and live as a person, we become better teachers.
This year I took a stand to put my own health and wellbeing first. After facing my fears and accepting that I needed to take a mental health day earlier this year, before I actually lost my shit, I began my journey into teacher wellbeing. Over the past few months, I have been reflecting on my career and I have identified a pattern in my behaviour, and the behaviour of teachers all over the world – I know I am not alone in this. I have observed the culture of teaching from a far through facebook, watching my colleagues and being really observant of my own thoughts and feelings – I know, not really academic research, but I have come to see a common theme. What I have come to realise is that teachers, in general, are plagued by a toxic culture that includes wearing stress as a badge of honour and an overwhelming feeling of being powerless to change our environment. Our work demands are high but how much of these demands are made worse by our own self affliction? We may not have control over what senior management, or society, expect of us when we are quiet, but we do have a voice and when we speak together our voice becomes much louder – and eventually the powers that be will have to take notice. We can control our actions, how we feel and what we think. We can choose to take off that ‘badge of honour’ and face the fact that a teacher’s job is never done, but that does not mean a teacher never has to stop working. We can choose to take the pressure off ourselves. The pressure to be perfect grabs at the ankles of so many teachers and infects the mind with negative and self-sabotaging thoughts – we must have a perfect, pinterest worthy classroom with colour coded headings, amazing examples of student learning and be exceptionally organised; plan immaculate, exciting new lessons for our 5 reading groups, 4 writing groups and 6 maths groups, that cater for the kids with dyslexia, second language learners, the kid who refuses to do anything – but might do something if it is dinosaur themed, the three kids in your class who need to have a TA but don’t, the kid who swears at you and tells you he’s bored – all the time, the girls who asked for something harder and the boy who is working several levels above the rest of the class – and plan these lessons EVERY DAY; we put pressure on ourselves to make sure every student in our class feels valued and loved, even when you hear them whisper about you behind your back, even when they have no respect for you or what you do for them – and neither do their parents; we put pressure on ourselves to to do more in a day than is physically possible and then beat ourselves up at the end of the day for not getting it all done, for feeling physically and mentally drained and for taking the pain, sadness, exhaustion and overwhelm out on our families when we get home.
All of this we actually have control over. We do not have to have pinterest worthy classrooms – the work on the wall does not have to be fit for an art gallery – it needs to reflect the students in your class and should be a celebration of their learning, it can even have spelling mistakes and messy handwriting – you do not need to spend hours laminating and changing wall displays – I promise you, you class will not like you more if you have a Harry Potter themed classroom with a reading corner that looks like you have walked into the library at Hogwarts. You do not, and I repeat, you do not need to plan 15 different mini lessons or differentiated learning experiences a day – think of ways to share the load and collaborate with another teacher in your team, take turns planning for specific learning intentions and groups, share resources and when you are not in a great head space, for whatever reason, or when you are balls deep in report writing that you don’t have the time, its ok to veer off the plan – you need to look for ways to make life easier for yourself and you do not need to beat yourself up for not being able to live up to the high standards you set for yourself. You can control your thoughts, you can control your actions and you can control your feelings.
What I have learned this year, as I choose to shower myself with love and self-compassion, is that when I am happy within myself – when I have time to be me, and do the things I love, I am a better teacher. I am a better wife, I am a better mother and I am a better friend. It has taken me years to release that self-imposed pressure from myself, to take things day by day, to collaborate and plan with my colleagues, and to put myself first. I am not perfect, and I no longer strive for perfection – I strive for happiness. I have taught my students to value my personal life, I teach them about the importance of balance, about leaving work at home and encourage them to spend their time being kids, doing things they enjoy, just like we, as adults, should be doing once we drive out those school gates. What I have learned this year is that work can wait, the world will not collapse if my lesson plans are not typed up, my classroom will not fall apart if I take a day off sick, my kids will understand if their assessments are a day or two late. I have learned that my happiness determines the happiness of my students because when I am happy I am much more equipped to deal with the times in the term that are a lot busier, I am able to deal with challenging behaviour in a calmer manner, and I do not need to yell at my kids. When I am happy, I am more enthusiastic about teaching which means I don’t actually mind going that extra length to plan a lesson I know my kids will enjoy and light them up. When I am happy, my kids are happy and my kids learn – in fact, they thrive – and they have no idea their lesson plan wasn’t typed up, or that I threw it together in my head, while driving to work.
Together, as teachers, we need to work to change the culture of teaching – only we have the power to do this. Stop putting yourself down for not being able to get it all done in a day – leave your computer at work and go home to your family and friends – meditate – journal – go to the gym – learn to knit – do what sets your soul on fire. Don’t judge other teachers who appear to be struggling either, maybe they don’t know how to ask for help, maybe they think what they are feeling is normal for a teacher – maybe it is normal, but that doesn’t mean it is right. We need to look out for each other, especially when there seems to be no one looking out for us. Choose to put yourself first, choose to make yourself happy – imagine what our schools would look like if they were filled with happy teachers who show children what it means to love yourself, to value yourself and to live a life you love.
We don’t expect our students to be perfect, so why are you expecting perfection from yourself?
Do what you can, go day by day and support the teachers in your team, and let them support you. Even when it seems you have everything against you and the work on your to-do-list is piling up, don’t let yourself drown in a sea of overwhelm – get up from your desk and breathe – remind yourself you are doing your best, prioritise and drop anything that is not essential and ask for help.
Choose self-love as a badge of honour.