When we imagine wellbeing heroes, we might imagine the titans of the internet; the high-profile speakers and writers; the names most teachers have heard. Though many of these wonderful people have turned out to be just as fabulous in person, my own wellbeing heroes have come in many different shapes, sizes and colours, and this week, as the challenging month of February kicks in, I’d like to pay tribute to a few of them.
These are the individuals who’ve added colour and comfort to the fabric of my thousands of weeks in teaching; those who’ve provided humour and humility; a floor to sob on or a much-needed jolt of reality. During the best weeks, these people have shared in the delights of this marvellous job; during the darkest ones, they’ve, frankly, been, the stitches that have kept me in the job at all.
There are dozens of people I could mention here, but I have restricted myself to a selection. Names have been changed, but I am hopeful they will recognise themselves. These are all real accounts; the safe people and safe places I describe in my book.
Support from colleagues in school
My first "proper" teaching job saw Katherine; a couple of years my senior and, to me, unspeakably glamorous in the best sort of bohemian way, with her apparently effortless talent to charm and tame the most challenging of students. We’d go for drives around the countryside in her Mini Cooper and talk and talk about books and the value of a well-chosen duvet day, always with liberal swearing.
Then there was the work-hard, play-hard school where I cut my teeth in Camden. I have never laughed or cried so hard since. In those days which combined my innocent Home Counties upbringing with the true grit of central London, desks flew, and you could set your watch by being told to f*** off at least once a week by students who meant no malice, but just couldn’t cope. There I forged my long-term friendship with Tania. To this day, we have a secret set of codes. Just three letters on a text can signal from the distance of miles and months to one another that we’re having a rough day and need a dose of black humour. We have celebrated the successes of our old students and, together, mourned the tragic losses.
At Hendon, there was the boss who ran across the field one day to ask me what was wrong because some feral sense had told him I was struggling. A close friend had died the day before. And there was Tariq, from the other side of the school, the other side of the curriculum. Our friendship grew gradually, but by the time we’d worked together for a couple of years, I had the tremendous privilege of being one of the first colleagues to meet his wonderful wife and sobbed messily on his office sofa after I made the biggest dog’s dinner ever of an internal interview. There was the caretaker, James, with whom I struck up the best ever bond in our crusade against the seagulls and rats which came, as if on cue, to munch up the litter left by teenagers.
More difficult and lonely times came after a hasty, wounded-pride leap into the unknown. Somehow these heroes made one of the biggest marks despite only being colleagues for a matter of months. The person I line-managed who prided herself on appearing fierce and prickly but possessed the purest of integrity and kindness. She spotted me struggling and gave me a good old-fashioned talking-to. And the librarian, Lydia, with whom I was seek refuge where nobody else could find me. I’m not sure we ever really talked about what was troubling us, but our talk of books and life always soothed the biggest of stresses.
Another leap and a year of discombobulation, when my biggest hero was Lena, our barely 17-year-old admin assistant who quickly learned to make me laugh, who I was the first to hug when my doctorate was declared "ready for submission". She was the first to see me panic about some mislaid exam papers, and the first to have the sense to sort it out.
These days, I’m old and ugly enough to seek out my own wellbeing heroes – my safe places and safe people – but working in a school with a "buddy system" has been awesome. My buddy got me an elephant notebook when I started two and a half years ago, which sits on my window sill and never ceases to make me grin. My buddy checks in on me and we make time to share chocolate and tea when we spot, across a playground or meeting room, that the other is feeling a bit overwhelmed.
I’ve wondered, whilst writing this, what these people have in common, from the caretaker to the headteacher; the admin assistant to the librarian.
When it comes down to it, it’s quite simple: compassion, authenticity, humour and the purest form of kindness. They aren’t all people I’m in touch with every week – or even every month – but I am privileged to consider them friends, and when my phone beeps with a message from them, I always feel a little lighter.
For all the ups and downs, I’m a very lucky person to be so regularly reminded that I’m not alone. For all the frayed edges and growing holes and greying areas, they make this job worth sharing.
I would love to hear about your wellbeing heroes.
Dr Emma Kell is a secondary teacher in north-east London and author of How to Survive in Teaching