Why is it so hard to ask for help? | Education Support
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Asking for help - mental health and wellbeing

Why is it so hard to ask for help?

10th November 2020

For Men's Health Awareness Month, geography teacher, Fearghal O'Nuallain talks about why education staff, and men in particular, can find reaching out for help so difficult. 

On Twitter I scroll and scroll, whizzing past hundreds of tweets in a minute, 140 characters each, barely registering. Recently I’ve started to wonder why I bother with Twitter, as the ratio of useful resources and inspiration to noise drops each year, and it feels like panning for gold, sloshing for hours through silt then there it is, a little nugget sparkles in the pan. I was scrolling when my thumb stopped flicking on a tweet by @davidErogers.

“It’s harder to reach out for help than it is to go on pretending everything’s fine.”

A golden tweet!

That tweet brought me right back. A new teacher in a challenging school pretending everything’s fine. Not smiling until Christmas and not admitting that things aren’t going well. In the short term it is easier to close the classroom door than to admit that you really haven’t got 9E under control. Easier to cancel those evening plans - remember when we used to do things, go to the cinema, out for dinner, go to the theatre after work before the world changed? - than to admit that you’ve got too much on your plate. Easier to let your friends and family down than to fess up to your colleagues that you need help. Easier to sit in a meeting and just say “yes” to everything than admit that it’s not all possible and it can’t all get done.

I wish I’d seen that tweet when I was dragging myself out of bed each morning, putting on a sharp suit, tying a tight windsor knot in a silk tie around my neck and stretching a terse smile across my face.

Everything wasn’t fine, but I didn’t ask for help. Help wasn’t part of my lexicon. I didn’t think I was allowed. I didn’t know how. So I did the easy thing and soldiered on and pretended everything was fine.

Why is it so hard to ask for help?

I remember being silently jealous of colleagues who burst into tears in the staff room. They were able to be vulnerable, and they weren’t ashamed of it. Vulnerability means the ability to stand the effects of a hostile environment. Sometimes schools can be hostile environments. Sometimes the world can be hostile. Not admitting that is like denying that it rains occasionally. The same colleagues were ok admitting that they were behind on their marking, that they couldn’t control 9E, that the whole teaching thing was too much sometimes. At first their vulnerability appeared to be a weakness. I won’t cry, or admit defeat. I’ll keep shtum and carry on. But in the long run, it grinds you down. What doesn’t yield or bend or flexes eventually breaks.

The trees that are still standing after the storm are the ones that stand together and flex and bend not the ones that try to fight the wind, stay rigid in a gale. The teachers that weather storm after storm are the ones that do the difficult thing and ask for help when they need it. A little flex here and there, a little help from their friends and they bounce back as soon as the storm passes. Alone we’re exposed and vulnerable but together we are strong.

So why is it so hard to reach out and ask for help? Why is it that asking for support feels like admitting a weakness? Why do we close the classroom door, hide our vulnerabilities from our colleagues? How many great teachers have just left quietly without asking for help or knowing there it was at hand?

Why is it especially hard to ask for help as a man? It shouldn’t be. My idea of strength was all wrong; a lone teacher standing strong and unyielding against a blizzard of paperwork, admin, marking, long hours and stress. I’ve learned to be more realistic, acknowledge that sometimes I need a helping hand, that admitting vulnerability is not a weakness but a sensible strength that builds resilience, allowing me to bounce back from the inevitable knocks and setbacks.

I wish I saw that tweet when I started teaching, maybe if I did I wouldn’t have broken one January morning. I might have leaned on those around me. It would have been much easier in the long run. Saved a whole load of hassle.

So, do the hard thing. Don’t pretend everything’s fine, reach out and ask for help because strong things bend.

Fearghal O'Nuallain is a geography teacher, author and explorer and tweets @Re_Ferg.

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