Better mental health starts with a simple conversation

1st June 2018 at 00:00
It takes strength to support pupils, so teachers must start by promoting their own wellbeing

Teaching is a fantastic job. You can do amazing things for young people – but if you’re not at 100 per cent, then you can’t give the kids 100 per cent.

I’ve been trying to make staff aware of that, and last year I did something really simple: I organised cake in the staffroom and an opportunity to chat. We can all be guilty of staying in the classroom and not taking breaks. I wanted to make staff stop, sit down, have a cup of tea and talk.

It was a little moment of relaxation. Staff saw the benefits of taking 10 minutes to breathe – you’re more productive if you have time to stop.

I’ve had depression and post-traumatic stress disorder for most of my life, and have had to take time off work when it’s been particularly bad. The last time this happened, I realised I had to make changes to my life. Intensive therapy armed me with a mini crisis-management plan, a list of daily activities that can help me to relax – for example, taking my dog for walks, practising mindfulness, reading, drawing and, importantly, spending time with others.

I found that I was shutting myself away. Sometimes that’s what you want to do when you’re feeling really down – it’s easy to fall into this habit, but hard to get out of it. So I’ve been going to book groups, trying to get more involved in my community, getting to know my neighbours. That’s made a big difference.

Since returning to work, I’ve taken this attitude with me and now have a different approach. I’ve become more organised and don’t take work home. If I can’t get it done in the school day, it doesn’t get done. A colleague told me a really useful phrase: “Nature never hurries, but everything gets done.”

It’s true. I could take all the work in the world home, do it, and I’d just find more the next day. So it’s about prioritising what I need to do and can do, at school and at home. After all, I need to be well for my family as well as my students. It’s not about putting pressure on myself to create the world’s best lesson plans every single day, but rather being realistic about what I can do without making myself ill again.

Teachers tend to give themselves a hard time. If you think that a young person isn’t coping, or doing as well as they could, then you put pressure on yourself.

We’re in this job is to do the best we can for young people – but if you haven’t got the strength to support yourself, you’re not going to be able to support them either.

Jo Tindall is an English teacher at Drummond Community High School in Edinburgh, and is supporting the Scottish Association for Mental Health (SAMH) Going To Be campaign. See samh.org.uk/goingtobe

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