A couple of months ago, I read Lost Connections by Johann Hari.
It’s an incredibly thought-provoking book that’s had me rethinking my approach to mental health ever since.
Through a fascinating range of research and case studies from across the globe, Hari juxtaposes the rise in depression and anxiety with the changing way that we live today, including the sense of isolation and disconnection that many people increasingly feel.
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In short, the way we live and work seems to be making us miserable. And key to this is our lack of real connection with each other.
So how does this apply to teachers? Are we becoming disconnected from each other?
I’d say so, if only going by the number of vacant staff rooms.
Teacher wellbeing: tackling isolation
Let’s be honest: being a bog-standard teacher today puts a huge strain on all of your relationships.
Either we can’t spare the time to talk or can’t seem to pay attention when we do, with our minds drifting back to the ever-pressing “to-do” list.
Worse still, in some schools, a climate of “ambitious” expectations and accountability creates a sense of unhealthy competition, mistrust, jealousy and bitterness between staff.
But if there’s one thing I’ve taken from this book, it’s that real human connection can be a powerful anti-depressant; that we have a much greater chance of healing together than we do alone.
So if you are feeling disconnected from the staff or even students around you, the following strategies could help:
Initiate routines that support socialising
If you’ve got into a routine of working every lunchtime, choose at least one day a week when you always get to the staffroom/department room/friend’s room. Detentions and meetings can happen on another day – and this new routine doesn’t change for anything other than Ofsted.
Listen and respond with empathy
As a teacher, it’s easy to fall into the habit of listening through a viewpoint of judgement. Let’s say our colleague tells us about their marking nightmare.
Are we listening openly, with empathy? Or are we thinking. “Try marking when you have a toddler running about, like I have. Now that’s a nightmare!”
Strive to put yourself into their shoes and really hear what they’re saying. Resist the urge to immediately compare their problem with yours. Just be with them in their experience, hearing what they have to say.
Assume good intent
This is a tricky one, because most of us tend to naturally assume the worst in people or situations. For example, a leader doesn’t respond to your email within a day. Why? Because they’re rude/inconsiderate/don’t value you or anything you do?
We’re not mind-readers, but if we’re going to guess, surely it’s better to guess at something that won’t leave us stewing with rage.
Maybe they’re struggling with bigger problems, at home or school. Maybe they’re having the week from hell. Maybe they’ve put it to one side, thinking that it requires a fair bit of attention or discussion with another member of staff.
Try a befriending meditation
You may be sceptical, but go with me on this one, at least once. Practising this meditation has allowed me to let go of ill feelings towards others – feelings that were harming both me and my willingness to connect with others.
My favourite is from Dr Danny Penman and Mark Williams, available free here.
Jo Steer is an experienced teacher and Tes columnist