Being a teacher is a bit like your favourite celebrity’s Instagram page: we always want to celebrate, show off and promote the highs, but hide the lows.
I’m writing this because this week, for the first time in three years, my self-belief as an English teacher in the further education sector collapsed; it crumbled like a house of sand. I sat on the train home on Wednesday evening feeling tired and overwhelmed, and made a mental note that it was time for me to start thinking about an alternative career.
Shortly after updating my status on social media, I received comments from my teacher friends. Some shared similar sentiments, others offered either pick-me-ups or their own frustrations with bureaucracy. I appreciated their comments but, sadly, I was still drowning in deep despair.
And things didn’t get better for me; they got significantly worse. Deadlines were fast approaching but my spirit, confidence and positive energy were leaving. As clichéd as it sounds, I was surrounded by people but still felt alone.
I did not ask for help because I had the ingrained belief that asking for help would show a sign of weakness, failure and an inability to perform my administrative duties. I was not about to lose face in front of my colleagues and admit defeat. I wore my pearly smile, complemented with red lipstick, and continued my dramatic performance called “A Destructive Path of Denial”.
It was not until early Friday afternoon that the darkness surfaced to the light. I sat in the office with my manager and knew that it was going to be a difficult conversation. The patience, confidence and trust in our relationship had been tested.
I cannot detail the events of that discussion but it did end in the emotional response of tears. The floodgates had opened. I had finally cracked and crumbled. I cried in her office and then at regular intervals throughout the rest of the afternoon. I am not a huge advocate of showing emotions to that extent at work, but it hit me that I am human and I am not able to control my emotions at all times.
On reflection, it was not the difficult conversation that had resulted in my meltdown. Neither was it the feeling of being weak or intimidated, as I usually survive, defend and thrive in high-pressure environments. It was the feeling of being too strong for too long that had got to me. I was disappointed in myself for not having achieved what I was supposed to. I was embarrassed that I had lost decorum and appearance.
I cannot really say much more than that, but the experience of the past week brought to mind a few things.
1. Don’t quit when things get rough
I quickly learned that quitting is the easy way out. Instead, it is better to adopt a growth mindset by reminding yourself that hitting rock bottom does not have to be the end.
My line manager informally supported and assisted with the management of my workload and things did improve. Had I quit at the first opportunity, I would not have benefited from the golden opportunity to develop in areas of struggle.
2. Make time for life’s guilty pleasures
It is so easy to be consumed with the demands of the workplace that we can sometimes forget to make time for our pleasures. Whether it’s taking the time to read a book, planning a night out with friends or spending much needed time with our families, it is those little satisfactions in our personal life that get us through the tough times at work.
3. Talk it out with someone you trust
I reminded myself of how important it is to talk. The best bit of advice I’ve ever given is to confide in a trusted colleague when you notice that your passion, enthusiasm or drive is dipping. More often than not, a reliable staffroom buddy and confidant will know the right things to say.
4. Get some exercise
Taking part in exercise is great for our mental being. It helps with the relief of stress and tension and improves confidence. I had not been making time for this and it had really affected me. Since making exercise an integral part of my week, I’ve noticed a massive improvement in my mental health.
5. Remind yourself of the good times
It is so easy to get caught up in the stresses of the present and forget the distance travelled in our teaching journey. I learned that whenever things get too much, one of the best forms of remedial action is to relish in my favourite teaching memories. Reflecting on the impact I’ve had on the students who walk through my classroom doors on a daily basis can make a difference to my emotional wellbeing.
Patrice Miller is a specialist English teacher at Ealing, Hammersmith and West London College.