I have been suffering with anxiety and work-related stress for several months – perhaps longer – and it has come to a head in the last week or so. In the very first week of term, I was physically ill with a nasty virus – nothing too serious, but enough to make me feel terrible for a week, and then feel sick at the thought of returning to the work piled up at school. I worried about the department jobs not done, I panicked about the impending school trip, I felt wrought with anxiety at facing the (not so kind) students and their comments about my absence.
Since I’ve faced up to my anxiety, and the fact that it’s more serious and more debilitating than any virus could be, I have felt pretty awful. I feel guilty for abandoning students with exams, for making extra work for colleagues, and for causing stress and worry for my husband (although he’s so supportive, it’s amazing). It’s a physical feeling in my stomach. Sometimes it rising up to my chest. Last night, it was one of the worst headaches I’ve ever had.
The worst thing is trying to explain it to someone else… especially my parents. I’ve spent thirty years trying to impress them and make them proud. I hate disappointing them. They mean to be supportive, but they don’t always say the right things. Sometimes it makes me feel worse. It’s in my nature to want to be honest and explain my situation to them, but it feels like they think I’m exaggerating, or that I’m not trying hard enough. That really hurts.
Sometimes I feel weak and useless, and that I really should be working harder (even though I’ve now ended up at the doctors twice over this). Teaching is known to be stressful, and perhaps I should just roll with it: as my headteacher oh so kindly reminded her staff on the first day of term, lots of careers are – answering 999 calls, fighting fires. (This, by the way, is not the most sympathetic thing to say to your staff when you’ve just been through two very serious inspections, and your school’s in so much debt, you have no books, a crippling photocopying allowance and you have to buy pens for the kids with your own money).
My job, in theory, sounds lovely: I teach children about great literature, and inspire the next generation! On the (now very rare) good days, my job feels like just that. So why am I complaining? Teachers are always complaining, right? We feel like our job is so much more difficult than yours, and we just don’t stop going on about it. Well, sorry for being so annoying. I know there isn’t a lot of sympathy in the wider world for the profession. After all, we have long holidays, and we can go home at 4pm – it’s easy, right? Politicians think we’re lazy and stuck in our ways. Parents and students, often influenced by the right-wing press, seem to have the general impression that we’re never doing enough, and we’re simply not up to the job.
Well, you know what? I don’t think I’m up to the job, either. There’s only so many times I’m prepared to be in tears before work before I can’t go any more. In the last few months, I’ve had to become familiar with several new exam specifications, I’ve planned lessons more rigorously than ever before, I’ve marked books and exam papers more frequently, I’ve given up more weekends and evenings (and early mornings) than I’ve ever needed to. Yet I feel I’m working harder to achieve less, with classes that are difficult contain, never mind teach. I’ve been insulted and threatened by young people, I’ve felt under pressure from pushy sixth formers and their parents. I’ve been observed by Ofsted (and spent an entire weekend marking every single book and checking every single spreadsheet, just in case). I’ve got up at 4.30am to mark coursework, on more than one occasion, because there was literally no other time I could have done it. I’ve been working with a department of great, conscientious teachers – but with no head of department to replace to one who walked out last year, and with extra responsibilities with no extra pay. They are all stressed and miserable, and as much as I admire and respect them as colleagues, I feel too fragile at the moment to be surrounded by their misery.
In May, I moved from one school with low morale to another, not knowing I was entering a department with no leader and no plans for the new exam specs. I’ve tried to stay positive, but the challenging students at my new school have made it so hard. I know these are the children who need good teachers most… but for the most difficult of them, I feel I can only ever make a minuscule impact in their chaotic lives. I’ve had more behaviour incidents in the last few months than in the entire seven years I worked at my last school. Refusal to work, leaving the classroom, swearing, shouting, a chair thrown, insults to my face, serious fights in the corridor. I know lots of teachers accept this as part of the job if you choose to work in a city school. If I hadn’t felt broken down by other aspects of the job, if I’d had more support, perhaps I could deal with it. Instead, I feel broken by it.
2016 is proving to be a very difficult year for me – but it needed to come to this, for me to make a positive change and lead a more fulfilling life. I need to take a break from teaching for a while. It’s the only career I’ve known, but I know it’s not the only thing I can do. I feel sure that this anxiety is limited to my work, and if I can find a happier balance in career path, I know I’ll feel better. I’m prepared to earn less. I’m prepared to give up my teacher holidays (for what good is a holiday, if all you can do is sleep and catch up on work?). I’ll do something else – anything else – for a break and space to breathe.