Avoiding rock bottom | Education Support
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Teacher looking pensive

Avoiding rock bottom

8th December 2020

This year’s Teacher Wellbeing Index from Education Support makes for very sobering reading. Not only is there an increase in the symptoms of poor wellbeing but the stigma around reaching out and asking for help is still entrenched.

Anyone who’s been in teaching for more than about five minutes has seen good colleagues hit rock bottom. This can take a whole range of different forms. Just like wellbeing, its opposite is not one-size-fits all. Displays of manic energy, sudden unreliability, extreme distractedness, suddenly disappearing from school with no explanation, appearing withdrawn and closed… these are just some examples of behaviours displayed by people who are in, or approaching, the danger zone between the daily stress that we all expect and the dangerous stress which can make you very ill indeed.

There is lots of practical advice about looking after ourselves day-to-day. Fresh air, exercise, loud music, a cackle with an old friend – all the things many of us tend to neglect but we know will make us feel better.

The really tricky thing is that when we’re running on empty, it’s hard to cope with the most basic day-to-day survival, let alone try something new. But the messages are clear:

  1. Nobody is going to do it for us – we are each responsible for our own wellbeing.
  2. If you’re dealing with a serious challenge, there’s no way around it but to do something different in order to achieve a different outcome.
  3. In the words of Dr Karen Edge: “Rock bottom is not the place to come back from. You take your loved ones with you.”

Before our health, relationships and careers have the potential to be derailed by a wellbeing crisis, there are things we each of us can do. I asked fellow school staff what worked for them when they know they’re hitting the danger-zone before rock-bottom. Here are some of their ideas.

Adjust your perspective

Our wellbeing depends on what we pay attention to, says Dr Rick Hanson in his book Hardwiring Happiness. As human beings, our brains are conditions, from primitive fight or flight instincts, to be ‘teflon for the positive and Velcro for the positive’.

Whether it’s noting three good things that happen each day or keeping a more practical spreadsheet of your achievements each week, it takes conscious effort to refocus our minds away from the complaining parent or colleague and towards the child you made a real difference to this week.

Focus your mind

Lots of colleagues talk about the power of making a conscious effort to absorb yourself in something completely unrelated to work. I’m not talking about Netflix bingeing here but about something that actively focuses you on something completely different. It could be knitting, a jigsaw puzzle, learning a new language or trying out a new type of cookery.

Seek professional help

Education Support has trained counsellors at the end of phone lines who are experienced and qualified to work with educators in crisis: this is their job. You’re not causing an inconvenience by calling them; you’re certainly not weak to be doing so – in fact it takes a leap of strength to read out and ask for help.

Alternatively, your school may have an Employee Assistance programme they can put you in touch with. These organisations aren’t just about dealing with extreme stress, but can help with financial worries and family crises too. Turn to your GP – medication or counselling might help you get through this exceptionally challenging period. You certainly wouldn’t be alone.

Listen to and lean on your loved ones

When my professional wellbeing teetered alarmingly close to rock bottom a few years ago, I displayed levels of stubbornness that surprised even myself. It took months of badgering from loved ones to make me take action. Listen to your loved ones. They know you best. They want the best for you. One teacher writes of priming her husband to make sure she walked around the garden every day during Lockdown 1, because she knew her mental health was suffering from being inside.

Seek out stillness and silence

Whether it’s through structured meditation or a more basic act of daily mindfulness – staring at the wall, looking up at the sky, seeing out peace and silence - can really help you press the reset button when you’re feeling overwhelmed.

Finally, if you’re feeling overwhelmed, disorganised, lacking in creativity, bear in mind that this is a perfectly normal and understandable reaction to a global pandemic. It’s been tough. If you’re feeling a bit rubbish, that’s fine too. But please look after your most precious resource: yourself. Your students need you, your colleagues need you, but most importantly, your loved ones need you to remain as well as you can.

Dr Emma Kell is a teacher, researcher, speaker and author of How to Survive in Teaching and co-author with Adrian Bethune of A Little Guide for Teachers: Teacher Wellbeing and Self-care.

How we can help 

Teachers and education staff who are feeling stressed or anxious during these uncertain times can get confidential emotional support from our free and confidential helpline: 08000 562561.

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