“If a member of staff in a school admits to stress/mental health issues they might as well be signing their resignation.”
This is a quote that I put on Twitter the weekend as a poll, asking people to say whether they agree or not.
- A friend who is a teacher in England and whom I really trust said that to me.
- I heard of a school leader who recently said that she had concerns over a prospective employee because she knows that she had suffered depression in the past.
- I think that the virtual community of which I am a part is something of an echo chamber. The amazing, positive, empathic, wonderful people whom I engage with through #teacher5day, “HealthyTeacherToolkit” and other forums do not represent the whole of our profession. And that bothers me.I have written a lot on this matter and about how I think it SHOULD be. Rather than say the same things again I have copied some of my blogposts below.
Of course the poll was somewhat unscientific and I am sure that the wonderful researchEd crew and Tom Bennett may be pretty unimpressed:
- For a start there was no definition of what I meant by mental health.
- I did not specify whether I wanted people with a medical diagnosis or the self-diagnosed to respond
- And I did not ask the same question relating to physical health in order to make a comparison.I am hugely thankful to those who engaged with this and showed a shared passion to make things better. In order to protect confidentiality, I will not mention any names but you know who you are.
Here is the final result:
Unscientific or not, there is a message here. Thank goodness for that 65%. But 35% agreeing?
Many people also tweeted thoughts and several sent me longer direct messages.
And the real value of this exercise was in these responses and stories:
- Some teachers and leaders answered with a definitive “I do not agree” and talked about schools where the mental wellbeing of staff is prioritised.
- Others talked of having experienced terrible treatment in one school only to find a sympathetic approach in another so that they could continue successfully in their careers.
- Some teachers talked of having been dismissed in defiance of equalities legislation but without the resilience or support to challenge this; the law is one thing but invisible prejudice that cannot be proven is another.
- Others spoke of being forced into early retirement having shown vulnerability or having asked for support or reasonable adaptations.
And so on.
It seems clear that there are some amazing schools out there doing an amazing job. There is a lot to be learnt from them. But there are schools where there is room for improvement.
The education of our children is not something to be taken lightly.
Having someone who is able to be nurturing, calm, positive, realistically optimistic and caring for children is vital.If you aren’t those things, you probably need to do some reflection on whether now is the right time for you to be working with young people.
But that is not to say that you can’t be all of those things and suffering from mental health issues. There are teachers who put on the act during the day but struggle out of school with stress. There are functioning, thriving depressives. There are those who experience anxiety but manage it.
Let’s be honest. If someone is suffering from a bout of severe depression, they will probably be incapable of putting everything needed into teaching a class of thirty adolescents.
But then again, so would someone suffering severe back pain.
Teaching is stressful and maybe those who are not mentally resilient are not best suited to be in a classroom under intense pressures.
But there are other options. Teaching adults. Teaching part time. A career break for recovery.
Absence in school through any type of illness is hard to manage. Getting quality supply can be difficult and absence can impact on teaching and learning. But school leaders can minimise absence through awareness of their staff members’ wellbeing, early intervention and by creating a culture where it is ok to ask for help.
The individual school context and ethos are key. If ethos is not right, it is this in itself that may lead to a person suffering mental ill health even if they had no issues previously.
If you hit me with a stick, I will suffer physical injury and distress. If you shout at me, bully me, exclude me, undermine me, I will suffer mental injury and distress.
In the long term, I (and others) would like to see the following implemented in order to ensure that moving forward, all schools are happy, healthy environments:
- The inclusion in all leadership and headship development courses of modules on staff wellbeing management.
- The inclusion in all initial teacher training courses of modules on managing emotional health and wellbeing in a high-challenge profession.
- Awareness raising around equalities legislation that tells us that it is illegal to discriminate against someone who has mental health issues (current or past).
- The development of education-specific occupational health teams.
In the short term, here’s what you can do, today, whether you are a head teacher or a dinner lady:
- Be reflective about your own assumptions and prejudices and learn about mental health, what it is and what it is not. Do a mental health first aid course or look at website like this: https://www.scottishrecovery.net/.
- Engage in all those behaviours and kindnesses that you teach your pupils about.
- Challenge gossip and rumour about others.
- Challenge bullying behaviour and cliques.
- Avoid repeating certain clichéd phrases – for example “she’s off her head”, “he’s a psychopath”.
- Watch out for each other and ask people how they are. Listen to the answer.
- Challenge stigma.
- Ask for help when you need it.
- Celebrate the wonderful diversity of your colleagues and embrace them for all they are, vulnerabilities and strengths.
- Love the ones you’re with. You never know when they may not be there.
Just my ramblings, but based on some amazing interactions over the weekend…..
Thank you all.
Previous relevant blog posts:
Update: I have continued to write on a weekly basis, both on staffrm where I am now doing the #44week challenge and here on my blog. A while back, a mentor of mine raised the question of whether my honesty within my blogs may work against me in terms of one day securing a headship. He suggested that if potential employers read that I have a ‘tendency to overdo it’ and that I ‘push myself to exhaustion’, they may put my application onto the ‘no pile’ and look for someone who is less driven.
I have thought long and hard about this. I appreciate what my friend is saying and also still wonder whether there is a sense of solipsistic self-indulgence in my writing. But I am also committed to the idea that as teachers and leaders we have to be honest and self-aware and acknowledge that life has its challenges and ups and downs. If I were to write a blog with just the positives and perpetuate the myth that life is easy then I would buy into the deceit that I believe contributes to a cultural sense of unease and mental ill-health. There is more on this here and here.
The leaders I admire have acknowledged that leadership and success are hard-earned and that there is often rough with the smooth. Certainly the choice of speakers for the Scottish ‘Into Headship’ Spring Conference gave delegates the impression that Scotland is looking for educational leaders who are driven and passionate but also human, reflective and fallible.
And the words allegedly spoken by Tom Hanks are always a guiding force in my life: “The only way you can truly control how you are seen is being honest all the time.”
Don’t get me wrong. My blog is not all of me. There are things you don’t and won’t ever know about me if you read it. And that is as it should be.
But we need to understand ourselves and our motivations if we are to take on the hugely responsible job of teaching children and young people. And still more so if we are to take on positions of power and leadership.
We need to acknowledge that life is about both dark and light, yin and yang, positive and negative feelings. We are animals and have it within us to act with fear, anger, jealousy and hate. But the human in us means that we can consciously acknowledge those impulses and find ways to address them so that they do not cause destruction and harm. Honesty around this is the key to the wellbeing of our society. Perhaps if we had allowed more honest and open debate around the fears and doubts related to membership of the EU, we would have reduced the numbers of those who felt the need to grasp a stubby pencil in an anonymous polling booth and write an angry X in the wrong box. Maybe Boris and David need to reflect on this.
So for now, I will continue to be honest and human.
Because I don’t think I can be anything else.
Recovery and Rainbows
This week I was lucky enough to attend training to become a mental health first aider for young people. It was a hugely informative and inspiring piece of training and chimed a lot with my thinking on optimism, love and solution focused approaches. Some of my previous ramblings can be found here:
We touched on the issue of stigma and discussed how important it is to help children and young people understand that periods of difficulty, mental distress and even mental illness are far more common than they may think. Recovery is very much about recognising that wellbeing can be achieved after and even within such periods.
As the World Health Organisation says: “Mental health is defined as a state of well-being in which every individual realizes his or her own potential, can cope with the normal stresses of life, can work productively and fruitfully, and is able to make a contribution to her or his community.”
When I first applied for teaching jobs, the stigma around mental ill health was huge, largely (as I believe) in the wake of the Beverly Allitt case. She had been a state registered nurse who had committed a series of attacks and four murders involving children and babies and was believed to be suffering from the psychiatric illness Munchausen Syndrome by Proxy. Understandably, medical and criminal checks were tightened up hugely in the wake of this case but it meant that anyone applying to work with children had to give information about any mental ill health dating back 10 years. Ticking a box and confessing to mild depression while at school resulted in a friend of mine almost being refused a permanent teaching contract.
Things seem to be different now, thank goodness. We still vet those who work with children and the most vulnerable carefully and sensibly. There appears to be widespread understanding today, however, that you can suffer from depression, anxiety or even more serious conditions but still cope with life, hold down a job and make a positive contribution. And there. is also recognition that you can feel happy in between the dark periods….and maybe even overcome them completely. Broken for a while is not broken for ever.
I heard the wonderful John Timpson on Desert Island Discs this week, talking about his own experiences of stress and how talking about its debilitating effects has helped both him and others. What an inspiration.
I am sure that stigma still exists in some areas but progress has been huge since my early days as a teacher. Follow the right people on social media and you will know you are not alone.
From rain there can come rainbows. Save a picture of a rainbow…. literally or in your mind…..to remind you of the beauty that has existed and can exist again.
I few things have got me thinking this week and have resulted in me writing this post. I recently wrote a wellbeing update (https://lenabellina.wordpress.com/2016/03/11/wellbeing-15-16-update/) and received some very helpful feedback from @jillberry which included a suggestion that I watch this by @jasonramasami: https://vimeo.com/130382402. I also read a very thought provoking post by Susan Ward ( http://www.pedagoo.org/any-questions/ ) and it all got me thinking about a lesson that my dad once taught me. It wasn’t one of those life lessons that takes place over a camp fire and stays etched in your memory for ever but rather a literal lesson; my dad served a double purpose in my life for a while as father and economics teacher. I had a brief flirtation with economics in sixth form. I started off doing A Level EPA (economic and political affairs) but being hopeless at maths sent the economics the same way as both physics and a career in medicine had gone a year previously. I decided to settle with an O level in economics and went on to do straight A level politics. However, I remember that dad …or rather Mr Bell…talked in an economics lesson about the fact that within our lifetime we would experience a shift in working patterns as technology created efficiencies that would result in more leisure time. The leisure industry would grow and people would work less because tech and IT would make it possible to achieve tasks in less time.
I do remember wondering about the subtle difference between having more leisure time and being unemployed…..however, there was clearly an economic model underpinning the ideas.
So, where has that Generation Leisure gone? It sadly seems to have become what the Guardian this week referred to as Generation K? http://www.theguardian.com/world/2016/mar/19/think-millennials-have-it-tough-for-generation-k-life-is-even-harsher. What on earth is going on here? The article cites: “Life for us is hard. A struggle,” says Jake, 16, “I think we’ve got it much tougher than our parents’ generation. But we can’t give up.” Seemingly “British teenagers are among the most troubled in the world”: of the 42 nationalities surveyed, only Macedonian and Polish teens are less happy with their lot.” It reports that we have teenagers crippled by anxiety; about debt, about terrorism, about social relationships. But in fact the article does go on to give some hope, pointing out that teenagers generally value authenticity, connection and friendship.
There is no doubt that we live in a society that should have more free-time and where technology has created efficiency. Take a practical example. I am studying for the Scottish ‘Into Headship’ course which requires me to read a lot of academic literature. Twenty years ago, this would have probably required me driving to Glasgow (2 hours each way), going to a library, checking out each and every book and article (because they would have been the type that you could not take home), sitting and reading each one and taking copious notes. I cannot begin to calculate the time that this would have taken; time away from family, dead time travelling, time finding parking, time stuck in traffic. Today, I can click on a link in a virtual library and the book is here, on my laptop. I can read parts of it, go and put on a load of washing, come back to it, add notes electronically, spend an hour on a family walk, come back to it again.
Hours of my life have been saved in this way. I have hours more time that I can spend on leisure, with my friends and family, relaxing, meditating, right?
But actually, no. Because those hours that I have gained have somehow been hi-jacked by other things; learning Spanish, exercising, cleaning the house, trying once again to sort the finances. Doing, doing, doing……worrying, worrying, worrying.
Because the reality is that free time is SCARY. And space and quietness are times where the mind can ask those disturbing questions:
Who am I?
What is life all about?
Who do I want to be?
I would argue (and I know that others have done it more eloquently) that these questions are particularly disturbing in our now largely secular society where God, the church and the state no longer provide the majority with answers to questions about the meaning of life.
And so instead of trying to provide secular answers to the meaning of life and self, we have created a religion of busyness.
And it is not just an issue in the world of education. Read Ariana Huffington’s book ‘Thrive’. Read or watch ‘I Don’t Know How She Does It’ by Allison Pearson. And listen to John Lennon’ s ‘Beautiful Boy, written as long ago as 1981, where he said “Life is what happens to you while you’re busy making other plans.”
It is time to fight back. Because as educators, parents and people, we need to encourage Generation Leisure to learn how to live and be happy in the life they have. To know themselves and their minds. To self-regulate. To live with uncertainty and understand the things they can be certain of. To embrace the best in social media and to reject the rubbish.
There is a growing movement who are working hard to take this forward. They include the ‘#teacher5aday group, the #optimisticEd group, those who are fighting to raise the profile of PSHE (including Dr Pooky Knighstsmith @PookyH) and of course the man who now goes by the title ‘my favourite Doctor’, Dr Tim O’Brien and his book ‘Inner Story’; you can read my review here: http://staffrm.io/@lenabellina/LDzWUOXAjW.
Back to Mr Bell and economics. Another lesson led me to the work ‘Leviathan’, written by Thomas Hobbes in 1651 which referred to state of mankind when unregulated as “solitary, poore, nasty, brutish, and short.”
Over 300 hundred years later and our lives (at least in the Western world) are far from this. Yet, reading about Generation K, we might be led to believe that they are.
Let’s stop and see the wood amongst the trees. And let’s hold on to Jake’s optimism:
“…we can’t give up.”
Happy International Happiness Day.