How to calm the January blues | Education Support
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January blues - tips for teachers

How to calm the January blues

13th January 2021

What positive and proactive steps can we take this particularly difficult January to prevent the additional stresses and frustrations from overwhelming us asks Jamie Thom. 

There is no denying it: the January blues has an intensity about it that is unparalleled this year. The usual suspects of freezing cold temperatures and rigid self-imposed diets after festive over indulgence, are joined by a global pandemic and a requirement that our teaching is now all done from home.

The 2020 Teacher Wellbeing Index revealed some hugely concerning statistics about teacher depression. The fact that education professionals display much higher levels of depression (32%) than the general population (19%), should be a rallying call for making our schools more compassionate and determined to provide more mental health support. The fact that more than half (57%) of educational professionals do not feel they can share mental health issues or unmanageable stress with their employer is another shameful statistic.

What might be contributing to teacher rates of depression? My own experience and research would suggest that each case is complex and individual, but there are some commonalities. Teacher resilience (which without we are vulnerable to burn-out and depression) is often strained like very few other professions: inappropriate examination pressure; constant unruly behaviour and excessive feedback and data policies all contribute to heightening stress levels and lowering self-esteem. If this is combined with an environment of ‘sink-or-swim’, in which teachers are left to fend for themselves, there is a real danger of teachers falling into depression.

Powerful research like the 2020 Teacher Wellbeing Index is vital in helping to illuminate the need for systematic educational reviews and changes. Teaching is so interpersonally complex and energetic that it becomes hugely challenging to stand in front of young people unless we are at the best version of ourselves. Those of us who have tried to teach through the fog of depression know just how impossible it is. As a society we need to recognise just how vital teachers are for our young people, and that we do everything we can to protect their wellbeing.

We cannot, however, merely wait on the sidelines for these societal and systematic changes to occur. As the speaker in Nelson Mandela’s favourite poem ‘Invictus’ argues: “I am the captain of my soul.’ What can we take ownership over to take positive and proactive steps this particular January to prevent the additional stresses and frustrations from overwhelming us? 

Reach out

Our imposed isolations this month are making social connections much more challenging. The temptation is to go into a prolonged hibernation from the world. To do so, however, unfortunately leads to a vicious cycle of loneliness and unhappiness. Making sure that we use whatever means that works best for us to contact others around us, and discuss how we are feeling, is so important. If, like me, you can’t face another Zoom call or Teams chat, a simple phone call with a friend (remember those days?) can make us feel much better. Alternatively, Education Support's wonderful helpline, can provide a compassionate ear that is without judgement.

Find positives

Our negativity bias is in overdrive at the moment: nourished by months of endless news consumption and lockdown misery. It can seem impossible to find any light in the prevailing darkness. Yet even in the worst of days there can be things to hold on to, that can remind us of things we can look forward to. It might be the online lesson in which finally something seemed to (metaphorically) click, or the oblivious pet who seems to know exactly when to provide some comfort. Stepping away from the online feeds for a part of our day, and even writing some positive things down, can be immensely comforting.

Self-compassion

As a stereotypical male (a Highland one at that) I have had an uneasy relationship with this in the past. Yet, as I grow older I realise just how useless my endlessly negative internal monologue is. It has raised its ugly head in my feeble attempts to facilitate online learning this week. Yet if there has ever been a time to be kinder, and indeed softer with ourselves, in the teaching profession -  it is now.

We profoundly care about the welfare of young people, so of course we will invest huge amounts of emotional and physical energy to do the best we can in the current situation, but we are going to be very far from perfect at it. Recognising that, and pausing to challenge the torrent of internal criticism we are giving ourselves, will help to sustain our own mental health. It will also make us much more ready to provide the emotional support that others, particularly young people, will need from us. The question that I ask myself of the inner ramblings is always: Is this helpful? More often than not, it isn’t.

While applying these three strategies won’t defeat all that January has to offer us this year, it may just be enough to help us persevere through another challenging period. And, to embrace some of that positive thinking, eventually we will have the humble pleasure of teaching in our own classrooms again.

Jamie Thom is an English teacher and author of a new book 'Teacher Resilience: Managing stress and anxiety to thrive in the classroom'. 

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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