On the second day of the new school year, I broke. Again. It has happened before, about five years ago. Back then, I woke up one morning and just couldn’t get out of bed. My body refused. It ignored the requests from my head to get up and get dressed.
This time it was different, this time I was at work. Suddenly I couldn’t go to a meeting. An overwhelming feeling of dread crashed over me and I felt trapped and couldn't breathe. I cried. Proper uncontrollable, chest heaving sobbing. I don’t cry often, even after listening to tales of abuse after abuse which I have done for many years.
I used to be tough and solid.
Suddenly, I was sitting in the meeting room and my boss had the same conversation that I have had with numerous staff: that I should go and see a doctor and take time off. That if I was feeling like this, then something was seriously wrong; that life and my wellbeing was more important. Working in an SEMH (social, emotional and mental health) school can be tough at times.
Many years ago, I saw a teacher being led out of class by the head after he had broken in front of the group. He was sobbing and shaking – just like I was. It was awful. Luckily I was spared that. I stood unnoticed in the playground, in the cold, and I cried.
I spoke to some of the kids who had driven that teacher to nervous breakdown some time afterwards. They hated themselves for what they had done but said they couldn’t stop themselves. They knew he was on the point of breaking and they kept on at him until he did. They said they wanted him to stop them but he couldn’t. The whole thing just unravelled slowly in front of them, like a slow motion car crash. That memory has always been stuck firmly in my head. Kids can be brutal and can hone in on any weakness if allowed to.
In the end, it wasn’t the kids that broke me. It was more to do with politics than anything, and increasing pressures from lack of funding, caused by misspending of the special needs budget.
Last time I came back. I don’t think there is any coming back this time. My time in education is done. The thought of having to deal with the endless problems, made worse by constant changes, unrealistic expectations and lack of funding is too much.
It used to be a challenge. Now it was just unbearably hard work. We seemed to be fighting the world just to get a level playing field for our kids, and it shouldn’t be like that.
I made the choice to work in special education about 17 years ago. I knew it would be tough working with EBD (Emotional Behavioural Difficulties) students as it was then before it became BESD (Behavioural, Emotional and Social Difficulties) or SEMH as it is now, but I didn’t think it would end like this.
During the holiday, there had been a nagging anxiety the whole time. It had been really tough the previous year and I knew this year would be even tougher, starting off with a management of change and further budget restrictions. Each work related email caused anxiety and a tightening of my chest. The thought of doing another year just became unbearable.
We were understaffed and overworked which led to mistakes and delays and frustration. You can only squeeze so much before things start to fall apart. I understand the need for accountability but it has to be realistic. Everyone wanted their pound of flesh even when we were stripped to the bone. You can’t keep raising the bar while cutting back all the support systems and agencies. Something has to give. In this case, it was me. Collateral damage.
I am having counselling now. As I recount incident after incident: the assaults; the disclosures; the endless, horrific safeguarding incidents; the aggression; the broken staff; the deaths; I think it’s no wonder that I broke. My counsellor says I have experienced numerous trauma in my job; that the crippling numbness I get across the back of my head which stops me being able to think clearly when I think about work is common for post-traumatic experiences. I have been traumatised by teaching.
I don’t know what I will do now. I have taught for 20 years and been a senior leader for seven. Suddenly, it’s over. I just hope something will turn up. I feel angry, frustrated, sad, useless and pathetic. I feel that I’ve let my colleagues and the kids down.
The awful thing is, I know my absence is putting more pressure on our already stretched staff but I just couldn’t go on. Other days I just feel numb. Broken. Empty. Even on the medication. I have met numerous other teachers and SLT who have quit or who are on the point of quitting.
As I left, a senior leader colleague said: “It was only a matter of time before one of us broke.” Wellbeing is talked about constantly in the media at the moment but unless something drastic changes soon, we are looking at an increasing exodus and brain drain from education.
Counselling is helping. I don’t really understand how; it just seems to be me talking about stuff. I guess it helps put things in perspective; stops you bottling things up so you can explore and make sense of them in the light of day and for me it has made my head feel less cluttered. It isn’t rocket science though. The solution seems so simple – someone to talk to who knows how to listen and who has the time and the space to do so. It’s a shame I didn’t have this sooner. We need to take mental health much more seriously but this costs money and the money, sadly, isn’t available.
I hope I can get a sense of balance back and find a job that pays the bills without destroying my mental health. Sadly, as much as I believe in the power of education to improve lives, I just don’t think I can do it anymore.
The writer is a former teacher at a special school in England.