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'I had a choice: either be signed off sick again or leave'

After 34 years in the classroom, this teacher knew she had to leave for the sake of her own health – but hopefully, it's not for good

mental health, teacher mental health, teacher wellbeing, wellbeing, teacher retention

After 34 years in the classroom, this teacher knew she had to leave for the sake of her own health – but hopefully, it's not for good

There is a very well known "definition" of insanity:  “Insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results”. Not attributable to Einstein according to Google but Rita Mae Brown… apparently.

Either then, that’s me then. I stand with insanity guilty as charged.

Have you ever sat on a beach in Scotland on a glorious summer’s day grateful for the wonderful weather to then be woken in the night by a howling gale and torrential rain?

Well, my experience has been a bit like that.

To cut a very long story short, I am (was?) a secondary school teacher. Up until a couple of weeks ago I ran a provision for students with autism in a special school setting. Our provision had been running for over five years and I loved my job. I was just so proud of what we had created. But one day last year, I just couldn’t do it any longer. I was signed off work for eight weeks with work-related stress.

I was not in a good place. I had become unable to function and was experiencing fear then panic and then terror. I was unable to think or to even complete the everyday tasks that before I’d taken completely for granted. Any increased demand sent me into a total panic. I could not breathe, I felt permanently physically sick and could not sleep, or, if I did, then could not wake up. I was a total waste of space and was of no use to anyone.

In January I returned to work and with the support of a fantastic department and a wonderful headteacher (and a very understanding family), I got my act back together and "normal service" was resumed. For the most part, I was functioning as I had been pre my "funny five minutes".

Fast forward to the summer break. We were actually in Scotland on a beach…AND it was a glorious sunny day! All was right with the world and so, I had the "bright" idea of sharing my experiences through Tes. I penned and sent in an account of my "breakdown" and "recovery" with the aim of potentially helping others who might be feeling similarly. I had lived through it all and had come out the other end as a much wiser, rounded person…Oh yes, I knew what I was talking about!

My god, how naive was I.

That summer break, I did what I always do – spend a substantial amount of time at school (and home) doing all the things I needed to do to prepare our department for the coming year.

I timetabled all students and staff within an inch of their lives, not one second could be unaccounted for, I contacted parents, I planned the year ahead with military precision and even accomplished the annual task of clearing my desk of its mountain of "urgent" jobs.

Upon returning to school in September I faced our first Inset day with a spring in my step. I was full of energy and optimism for the coming year. I sat down, as virtually every single teacher up and down the country did, to a lengthy staff meeting.

And then it hit me. It was like hard and sustained punches to the stomach. Development plans…due in ASAP (KAPOW), standards reports…ditto (KTANG), Ofsted window… (ZAP), lesson observation schedule (WHAAM)…etc, etc.

I trudged out of that meeting feeling like I had been run over by a steam roller. To quote Stevie Smith, I was “not waving but drowning”. Already. And so the downward spiral of the previous year began all over again…

Four weeks later, having spent most weekends sorting out much of the above, I was virtually back to where I had been a year previously – stressed out, fearful and anxious, on the verge of not coping with any aspect of life and of no use to anyone – AGAIN.

I had a choice: it was either be signed off sick or leave. For the first time in 34 years of being a teacher I handed my notice in with no job to go to and placed a sodden letter of resignation on our head’s desk. The lovely kind guy that he is, he offered me a two week "cooling off period" but there was no need. The choice was Hobson’s.

The following weeks were focused on leaving everything as sorted and organised as it could possibly be. For me, it was totally traumatic and I sobbed my way through.

Not many fortunate people were spared my tears! Guilt, guilt and more guilt were (and are) the pervading feelings with a huge dollop of great sadness thrown in for good measure. All self-induced, I might add. I feel that I should have done better by our fantastic students, their amazing parents and our wonderful staff team. I let them all down by my inability to do the job I loved.

I don’t know what the future holds. I hope and believe that I have something left to offer and that I have not shelved my whiteboard pen quite yet.

Once the fog lifts from my head I will be keen to explore opportunities to make a difference to somebody, somewhere. Skulking off to Retirement Land in a Frank Spencer-esque manner – "Ooh Betty (insert any name), I’m a failure, a real failure…" – is not how I want all this to end.

Debbie Maher is a teacher – hopefully, between jobs – in the East Midlands

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