4 years ago I had a what I can only call a mental breakdown. I was in Morrisons trying to work out what the cheapest option was for buying washing up liquid. I cannot remember what happened exactly, but I ended up in a heap sobbing on the floor. A member of staff helped me up and I ran out of the store, got in the car and drove home.
Two days later I went to the doctors and told her "I think I'm having a breakdown." When she found out my profession she told me the following: 1. If you ever need to go off, just self certify for 5 days and I will sign a note at the end of that time if you need it. 2. Don't go into work until you feel like you are ready. 3. Try to get some exercise. 4. Take these citalopram. That was it, a seemingly standard response.
At the time I had been working in a school in special measures on a (assumed) long-term supply placement. The behaviour of the kids was appalling, but that of the staff was worse. No one knew what they were doing and no one checked the behaviour of the children at all. One teacher felt the answer to all her problems was to display her enhanced breasts as often (and inappropriately) as possible. (n.b. no I didn't) SLT were a farce and morale was low. Even when I tried staying after work to catch up, I got kicked out at 5 because the cleaners wanted to lock up. Nobody stayed after that time. I left after two weeks, telling the supply agency that I couldn't work in such a farcical environment. It was the day after leaving that the breakdown incident occurred.
Coincidentally I didn't get offered work for a couple of days, which allowed for the doctors appointment, then I got the call to go into a school for an afternoon. I said I'd do it, then when I got in the car I just burst into tears and couldn't do it. I felt something had broken inside, my ability to knuckle down and fight through difficulty has been exhausted and I didn't think it was coming back.
I referred myself for CBT and did it, slowly things got back to normal. By September I was back in school working full time as an NQT in a year 6 class. Once again things started to go wrong, my headteacher was a bully, the SLT were incompetent and I wasn't getting the support I needed (or my NQT time). Eventually we filed a bullying and harassment case against the head and she ended up getting the boot, but in the meantime I didn't have my contract renewed. I ended up on fluoxetine for 9 months which continued in my current job. I stopped them myself when I realised I didn't need them, despite having the most challenging class of my short career. My resilience had returned, all I needed was time and support.
I openly talk about my experiences with other staff members, in doing so I am shocked at the amount of them that are on anti-depressants/anti-panic attack medication. Most say they take these pills because of the pressure of observations and/or behaviour issues. This is unacceptable and avoidable. I am thankful I was able to take time out from teaching because I was only doing supply, if I was in a full time job I might have left teaching for good.
I wonder how often this happens. Others on twitter have told me they have left full-time teaching because of precisely this pressure. Someone blogged that schools were the only workplace where employees crying was commonplace and happening on a daily basis. This is wrong and needs to change. It is not normal to be taking these happy pills on a regular basis.
If anything has come from this it is that I know when I am reaching my limit. Here is some practical advice.
1. If you feel you are are working too hard, leave everything at work and just go home as soon as you can.
2. If you have had a challenging day, tell someone else about it who understands, preferably another teacher or TA, anyone who understands.
3. Cut down your planning time to an absolute minimum. It is pointless planning lessons for hours and hours. If you do this you will be too tired to deliver it properly. Your time with your class is where you need to spend your time and energy.
4. Buy a punchbag. It will help. This is a good one: http://www.sksports.co.uk/category/boxing-accessories/free-standing-red-tube-trainer.html
5. Don't work through your lunchtime. You need this time to rest.
6. Take one whole evening off work a week. I recommend Friday. Again, you need this time to rest.
7. Don't obsess about observations. Carefully set your performance targets (as far as you can) at the start of the year. A well-know educational blogger posted a picture of signposts with one leading to outstanding and the other leading to somewhere else (inferred another school/career). This attitude of SLT stinks and promotes pressure. Take control of your performance management. Only have one target directly related to observations and make sure it is something that cannot be quantified in OFSTED-grading terms. Think things like: verbal feedback, questioning, relationships, rather than getting 3/3 good ratings or improving your marking.
8. Do something at school that is not academically related - run a school sport team, do an ICT club, art, whatever. Everyone has a skill that they enjoy transmitting to kids, sometimes your teaching content is dry and boring, this keeps it fresh.
9. If something goes wrong - and you will know when this is - DO NOT GO INTO WORK UNTIL YOU HAVE SORTED IT OUT. If you go back too soon you risk a full-blown breakdown episode you may not recover from. Doctors understand and schools cannot sack you if you are legitimately ill.
10. If you cannot do the above because you feel you are under too much pressure then you need to move schools. Not every workplace is the same. Find one that values you.
11. In times of crisis listen to this at full volume: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5vE308Bcs-g
Your brain is delicate. Even the most confident people are only a few steps from meltdown. Get to know your limits and protect yourself from disaster. If something seriously goes, it is a long, long road back. May people are leaving teaching because of this, make sure you are not one of them.