Teacher wellbeing: behind the headlines | Education Support
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Teacher wellbeing: behind the headlines

27th June 2019

After being off school for 5 weeks, drama teacher and senior leader Rebecca Tulloch, has realised that behind the headlines about teacher wellbeing, there is this one very simple but difficult rule: you have to look after yourself first.

I got ill this term. I worked through laryngitis and a cold for a week and a bit only to find myself with tonsillitis on a Sunday. I remember joking to the students in year 10 about a year 11 who had needed one on one support and had complained about his sore throat. Antibiotic scotches a bout of tonsillitis in a few days normally for me, but by Wednesday of the week before half term I was back at the GP, who gave me a longer course of penicillin, rather than the clarithromycin I had been taking. I resigned myself to being ill for half of half term, but making the most of it when I was well. Only nothing lifted, I was still ill.

The infection moved over to cover both tonsils and the roof of my mouth. I went back to the GP who gave me a different antibiotic for rare infections (acute tonsillitis) and was very clear that if it did not lift in a couple of days, I needed to come straight back to her and might be looking at a hospital stay. It lifted slowly by the middle of the week after half term. 20 days of tonsillitis left me with extreme fatigue and sky high blood pressure. The word that best described the state I was in was 'depleted'.

I am, consequently, just starting the fifth week of not being in. I haven't had this much time at home since maternity leave in 2008. My blood pressure is still cresting above 110 for the bottom figure regularly, the normal level is between 60-80. My GP is insisting on continued rest at home and my mum is threatening to come and get me from school, if I go in against medical advice, which is what I want to do. I am the only drama teacher in my school, I lead Oracy for year seven and all 225 of them are ready for their Oracy week where each student will give a speech on a theme that they are passionate about. I lead 'Solution Focused Coaching' within school and am conscious that there are students I want to be working with one on one...

There are many reasons why I would rather be in and only one reason that I am not: wellbeing.

With my 20:20 hindsight vision, I can see with crystal clear clarity that this has been coming for a while. I have been using work as a place to hide, seeking solace through being busy as my husband recovers from heart surgery following a small stroke, as he moves jobs to suit his new sense of self, as my mother recovers from a near fatal bout of meningococcal septicaemia, as she comes to terms with her debilitated right hand, as we provide the necessary care for my mother in law, who is progressing through the latter stages of dementia, as my children struggle with school, as my heel recovers from a severe bout of plantar fasciitis, as my ego recovers from a failed internal interview process, as I added copious assistant head role applications to my work load, almost punishing myself: throughout all this, school has been my constant. A place where I can have impact on young peoples' and professionals' lives, where I can be the super hero and rescue others, where I can feel good about my professional capacity. A place I really love, but where slowly, consistently I forgot about the need to look after myself.

I knew my work/life balance was completely off. I was eating my feelings at home and relentlessly working so there was no time to exercise. Where there was time out, I was so tired that it was as much as I could do just to sit and watch box sets of ER. My work trousers were getting very tight. I had no life: I ate, slept badly and returned to work the next day as quickly as I could. It was easier just to keep going, than it was to stop and make the necessary changes. I remember a friend asking me whether I was intending to keep the superwoman act up indefinitely? Another asking me whether I actually wanted any of the jobs I was applying for? I remember making a third hot water bottle one evening and wondering how long I could keep going for.

In the end, I kept going till my GCSE Drama year 11 class had sat their written exam on the afternoon of Friday 17th May.  I remember waiting for them to come up and tell me how it had gone as I supervised a year 10 rehearsal. I remember the jubilation that the biggest struggle for each of them was the time limit, trying to work again as they left and not being able to focus. I got up about 4.45pm, leaving my desk in a mess and thinking I could sort it all on Monday.  I remember my cleaner's surprise that I was leaving 'so early'. I remember the car park was pretty empty already, then getting home and telling my mum I was 'shredded', that I was going to have a 'zombie' weekend. I remember both of us laughing about how typical it is of me to be this tired the week before half term, my husband arriving and joining in.

I haven't been back into school since. It has been a salient reminder of the value of good health and the importance of doing all I can to make sure I am well first. Blood pressure is a silent killer; it took my paternal grandfather's life with a horrible stroke. A well balanced life is key to ensuring that my inherited essential hypertension (high blood pressure) remains under control. I have had time to reflect with friends on quite how 'much difficult stuff' I have contended with over a number of years, how the strain has silently accumulated and knocked me off my feet.  I am going to be OK; my health is salvageable, I will feel better and be better at managing again. I will work hard (!) to remember this lesson in looking after self first and hope sharing it helps some one out there to do the same.

Behind the headlines about wellbeing, there is this one very simple rule

It's that simple and that difficult: you have to look after yourself first. You have to, and whilst we do need to have a national conversation about the hours that teachers work, it will always be your responsibility to monitor how you work and how you live. According to Ed Dorrell in the TES we teachers work on average, 'a staggering and unsustainable 46.9 hours'; I can't be the only teacher that read that total and thought, is that all? Measures need to be instigated nationally to reduce teacher work load, but day to day at an individual level, we all need to be responsible for ourselves and model best practice for each other.

If my 21 years in the profession have taught me anything, its that the job is always bigger than us; there will always be more to do on the to do list! So, get savvy about what actually has impact, get good at prioritising tasks and be firm with yourself. That and you have to take time out with those you love on the evenings and at the weekends. You have to do things that you love, even in term time. Give yourself time to have a life and in doing so get ready to go again at school tomorrow, because by prioritising your own well being, you make sure there is a tomorrow.

It's a message I wish someone older and wiser had told me sooner.

Get support when you need it 

There may be times when your mental health and wellbeing is being negatively impacted by any work or personal issues. When this happens I urge you to get support when you need it 

The counsellors at the Education Support Partnership helpline are fantastic! Their free and confidential helpline is available 24/7 throughout the UK on 08000 562561.

Rebecca Tulloch is a drama teacher, Oracy teacher, senior leader, wife and mother and blogger