How to keep depression at bay

10th January 1997 at 00:00
Mike Fielding offers practical advice to new teachers facing their first crisis of confidence.

There's almost bound to come a moment in your first year of teaching when you'll wonder why you ever came into the profession. You'll very probably have a cold, be facing a bagful of marking, lost your second free period of the week and had the umpteenth child say "Why should I ?" when asked to pick up a piece of litter.

It's at that point that you might wonder why you didn't take your degree into banking, public relations or some other activity that appears to pay more and demand less. And the really worrying thing is that you'll come across older colleagues who are still asking themselves the same question.

Teaching was once considered to be an easy option. No longer. Nobody these days seriously believes we actually have 12 weeks' holiday, nor that work finishes when the last bell rings. Surveys of teachers' working weeks vary in their detailed conclusions but always agree that, generally, it's above the industrial average.

So how can a new teacher combat the almost inevitable depression that will arise during their first year of teaching? Perhaps the first thing is to recognise that everyone has been there already. In facing your crisis of confidence you are by no means alone. It's a special feature of the dreaded winter months of damp coats and continual sniffing. But it can also happen in the summer when coursework has to be completed and exam students seem totally unmotivated. Even hardened practitioners who have seen it all before question whether they want to go through it again.

The second important thing is to realise that you'll almost certainly come out of it. There are teachers who don't, and end up leaving the profession, but they are a distinct minority. Most find the feeling passes and they discover new interest in the job.

There are practical steps you can take as well. The first is to do with your health. Almost everyone who works in a school gets colds; it is a condition of working with children. But, by taking whatever precautions work for you - vitamin C, patent medicines, herbal potions - you may be able to cut down their frequency and length. Exercise may also help to keep you fitter and ward off the more debilitating ills that teachers are heir to.

Then there's the marking. It can seem overwhelming and it's an aspect of work that must be done well. But well doesn't necessarily mean in detail every time. Older colleagues - not the few who still think all that's needed is a tick and a mark - will almost certainly share with you their strategies for keeping the marking load reasonable while still giving the best possible feedback to children.

Lesson planning is another area which the inexperienced teacher invariably spends too much time on, and again help from your seniors should be welcomed.

The aim of both these strategies should be to give you some free time in the evenings and weekends. The adage about "all work and no play" certainly applies to teachers. Those who reach regular burn-out through overconscientiousness are, in the end, much less effective than those with a more balanced approach.

Having time for yourself and to do the things you enjoy, whether it's an all-consuming hobby or just going shopping, is essential for the successful teacher. And it's something you have to be disciplined about, giving yourself specific times when work isn't allowed to intrude. If you're always in the "I'll go out when I've finished this" mode, you'll find yourself constantly working.

Teachers, of course, tend to socialise most with other teachers, which is all right as long as you put some kind of ban on how much you talk about school and how much moaning is allowed. Getting things off your chest on Friday night is probably therapeutic; to be still talking about it on Saturday can lead to neurosis.

It's not just getting away from the job, though, that can ease you through the difficult early stages of a teaching career. Being open to the pleasures is not something everyone is good at but is worth cultivating. If you can enjoy a child's unexpected achievement or recognise some important development in your own skills, then the warm glow it gives can carry you through several depressing hours.

Taking part, getting involved in school life, will also help. The biggest moaners in schools are the ones who hit the car park while the last bell's still ringing. They're simply coming in, doing a job and disappearing as fast as they can. They learn nothing about the after-school life which can be one of teaching's most enriching aspects. Whether it's training a team, helping with the school play, running a club or simply being at a disco, you'll gain from working with young people in a different context.

You'll find the same in meetings. Everyone decries the need for so many meetings and, frankly, some are intensely boring. But they can be a way of discussing important issues and learning from colleagues, often those with whom you're not normally in direct contact. If you look on meetings as one aspect of your professional development, you will gain more from them than if you think them a tedious necessity.

Perhaps the most important guard against depression, however, is to remind yourself constantly why you came into teaching.

Like virtually everyone else, you probably did so with high motives, and although these may not always be uppermost in your mind as you stand at the bus-stop with nose running and arms aching, you should never let them be too far away.

They are the anchor that will hold you firm during the most difficult times. If they don't, then perhaps it is time to look for a different way of life.

Mike Fielding is the principal of the Community College, Chulmleigh, North Devon.

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