After 16 successful years in education as a teacher and a leader, in 2017 I had a serious breakdown.
The reasons were many and my road to recovery was long and painful. I wouldn’t have recovered without incredible support from my family, friends and school as well as a great deal of determination on my part.
Before falling sick, mental health was not on my radar. I thought mental illness happened to other people. How wrong I was. We all have mental health and we all need to take care of it – as new data from Tes shows.
Three years on, I am a Year 5 class teacher and a wellbeing and mental health curriculum leader. I love my roles and I am grateful I can apply many of the lessons I learned to help students and staff understand the value of wellbeing.
Tips for teacher wellbeing
Here are a few tips I wish I’d known before my breakdown. They might have helped me - perhaps they can help you, too.
For many of us, our instinct when we start to struggle with mental health is to shut down and distance ourselves. Yet maintaining connections with people is fundamental.
Make time for small talk with someone in your team; sit down and have a cuppa with your teaching assistant; go out for a walk with a friend in your lunch break.
Over time, seemingly superficial moments like these help to create deeper connections.
Connections make us feel part of a community, make school life more enjoyable and increase the chances that we’ll feel able to ask for support when we need it.
This may be an over-used term but good self-care is fundamental. The key is finding what works for you.
Maybe it’s hot baths and massages, or long walks and time with a pet. The key is to simply identify what helps you feel better and make time for it – a simple-sounding goal but one that can easily fall by the wayside in a busy working life.
I use my own acronym – SETA – to remind me about what I need. Seta means silk in Italian. Silk is soft, smooth and comforting; and I have identified that what I need to maintain good mental health is sleep, exercise and time alone. What could your acronym be?
Teachers are conscientious and tend to be perfectionists. We want to be supportive and helpful, and want to offer our best at all times. This is a great ideal – but we need to recognise our limits, too.
As such, setting boundaries is vital: saying no to one project too many, closing the classroom door for half an hour to complete a report without being disturbed or rescheduling a meeting because the day ahead seems unmanageable.
Taking control with these micro-decisions can help you feel more in control and thereby have a significant impact on mental wellbeing.
Find a hobby that gets you into a state of flow and is unrelated to teaching. Allowing your mind to switch off from education completely can be enormously beneficial, both for your mental health and for your productivity.
If you’re an overthinker who finds it hard to switch off, then finding an activity that requires both concentration and movement can force your thoughts to take a break. Karate, pottery or climbing are just a few examples.
Personally, I took up sea swimming, even in winter. Battling the waves and currents in The North Sea, as well coping with the cold, were the perfect distraction.
Know the signs that your mental health is deteriorating and look out for them. Sleeping problems, weight loss or gain, constantly feeling tired, apathy or being frequently overwhelmed are clear signs that all is not well.
But we can easily overlook them and see them as the traits of a busy life.
Indeed, it wasn’t until I returned to teaching, having recovered, that I realised I had been running on adrenaline to get through every single day and I had completely ignored the warning signs my body was giving me. So listen to what your body is telling you.
6. Ask for help
As teachers, we are used to being "the helpers", the strong ones, the ones who have all the answers. Yet it’s OK not to be that person sometimes. It’s OK to say that you are struggling, that you need help.
Hopefully, you work in an environment in which you feel you can reach out to colleagues and ask for their support. If you don’t, look beyond your school. Speak to a friend or a family member, call the Education Support helpline, text ‘Shout’ to 85258 or call the Samaritans.
There is always someone who can give you another perspective and offer support; and there is no shame in asking.
I recently saw a quote that really resonated with me. It was a reminder to listen to our mental health when it whispers, rather than waiting for it to shout.
Please listen. Listen when you’re distancing yourself from others. Listen when self-care is at the bottom of your to-do list. Listen when you need to set a boundary. Listen when you have time for everything but your hobby. Listen to the subtle signs. Listen when you are worried about asking for help.
Listen before it screams. I wish I had.
Rhiannon Phillips-Bianco is a Year 4 class teacher and wellbeing and mental health curriculum leader at Junior School Leidschenveen, British School in The Netherlands