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Teacher wellbeing – Burnout, breakdowns and bad mental health are far too common

Something has gone very, very wrong in teaching, says Tom Starkey – and we need to talk about it...

  • Teacher wellbeing – Burnout, breakdowns and bad mental health are far too common

You may or may not know (I mean, I’m fascinating and all, but it’s sometimes difficult to keep up with all the hot gossip that surrounds me – celebrity trysts, beef with grime artists, that kind of thing) that I’m no longer a teacher.

Now, before you take to the streets in a mass public outpouring of grief, let me explain.

Teaching is one of the most difficult professions out there. Even more so if you teach challenging kids in challenging areas. Even even more so if you’re not getting the support you need.

But even during the best of times, when everything is going right, it’s a double-hard b*stard of a job.

Rewarding, like, but still, you wouldn’t want to come across it on a dark night in a rough part of town.

I’ve always tried to be as honest as possible when writing about it. I’ve actually come in for a fair bit of flak for doing that at times (usually from people who are primarily trying to sell things to schools, funny that) – but I’ve always felt you’ve got to try your best to let people know what’s actually occurring.

So here’s the thing, what occurred in my case was I had a breakdown, was diagnosed with depression and anxiety, went on medication and quit teaching for the sake of my mental health.

BOOM! HONESTY BOMB RIGHT THERE!

This isn’t an attempt to garner sympathy (although if you’d like to give me some in the form of chocolates and cash, I’m down with that).

In a lot of ways I’m very, very lucky. I had support, I was able to be diagnosed, the treatment that I was given was effective, and I’m now working in a job where, although I still teach a bit, there are not the constant pressures of before.

Also, 20 years in teaching isn’t a bad stretch, considering that the current professional expectancy of a teacher’s working life is around about three and a half minutes.

I’ve been lucky in other ways, too – the experiences, moments and sheer, unbridled joy that teaching have given me will be with me forever.

However, there are many, many others who aren’t so lucky.

Teaching can, and too often does, have a profoundly negative and long-lasting effect on the mental health of swathes of people.

People (whose only real error was to try and get into a job to help children to learn things) find themselves under debilitating conditions and insurmountable pressure, and suffer the loss of their health, their relationships and their wellbeing.

Sometimes it’s never recovered.

Mine’s not a special story, it’s not even unusual. And that’s the problem, right there.

When one of the most prominent narratives in relation to the career of a teacher is that of burnout, something has gone horribly, horribly wrong.

And considering what teachers achieve with what they’re given, it’s an absolute travesty.

I don’t really think I’m part of this epidemic – if I hadn’t started going a little bit wrong head-wise, I wouldn’t have lasted many more years anyway, as I was pretty much knackered.

But it angers me to see so many folk filled with expectation and the desire to do good in this job, those new in their careers or those full of energy and life, crumple and crawl away because there’s no other choice.

Mismanagement, behaviour, workload, forever doing more with less, these are the bullets that penetrate the teacher’s body, mind and spirit, and if there is to be any kind of improvement it’s these things that need to be challenged and changed.

There is no patching over things any more, there’s not enough teachers left to do the patching. It’s not up them to don armour against the slings and arrows, it’s time to take the weapons away.

But it’s not for me to pontificate on what or how it should be done *cough* strong union representation *cough*.

I only stopped teaching a few months ago and I already feel a little abstract, a little removed from it all (although that could also quite possibly be the meds).

It’s for those who are left to organise and stand, to keep shouting about their conditions.

To keep questioning. Not to put up with things for a greater good that will never happen unless there’s change.

To be a little stronger than I was able to be.

Thanks for reading.


Tom Starkey is a teacher and writer who blogs at stackofmarking.wordpress.com. Follow him on Twitter at @tstarkey1212.

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