Friday, 13 December 2013

The Doctor's note

So, not even a full term in of this and I have been signed off 'unfit for work' by my GP due to depression, mainly to facilitate a change in my anti-depressant medication, but also, in my own words to the doctor, 'I am just not coping.'

If you ARE coping, I salute you, I do, really. *commences Wayne's World bowing'

There are many factors which have lead me to this less than brilliant state of remaining on anti-depressants and being signed off by my doctor.  I do not want to, and nor should I, discuss specifics of my school, which would be daft, foolish and idiotic.  I will have to be more general, I hope you appreciate why.

1. The GCSE Results fiasco of 2012 chain of events.

  • I had a gorgeous class of all girls and worked together like trojans, and the majority did get grades between A*-C, some didn't. This was due to the grade boundary shifts from the exam board.  The department overall came off badly due to this grade boundary shift, thus leaving all of us with an overhelming sense of disappointment. It was crushing.
  • This also had an affect on my progression to UPS2 (that's as much as I'm going to say about that).
  • Our dip in results could be what triggered our Ofsted inspection around this time last year, where our school came out as a Category 4 'Serious Weaknesses'.
  • I was  observed during the inspection and eventually found out my lesson was Requires Improvement. My previous year's lesson observation was Outstanding - so the 'down grade' was crushing.
  • Confidence crushed I struggled to get out of the RI grade for the rest of the academic year.
  • Working in a Category 4 school is highly pressured for everyone. Staff are constantly looking over respective shoulders wondering when the next visit will be. That's just how it is.
  • Working in a Category 4 school, in a department found wanting means increased level of scrutiny in many areas. This is common, I believe, in schools or departments in similar circumstances. Nevertheless, it is a difficult way in which to work, depression or not, it can create or feed paranoia in staff.
There are many more specific things that have contributed to me being here, but it would do me no favours to write about them on here.

2. Those pesky, meddling politicians

  • So, first body blow was the GCSE results fiasco of 2012
  • Policitians using the Press and broadcast news to vent their negative political rhetoric about schools, exam results, teachers and teaching.
  • Our pay-freeze and increase in pension contributions combined with the increased cost of living, which, for all of us, means a significant loss of income
  • Constant meddling with the English GCSE - e.g. changes to 'worth' of Speaking and Listening part-way through the course for Yr 10s.  It may have been necessary, but for it to occur part-way through the academic year was poor for pupils and a blow for teachers and their ability to do forward planning for the courses they teach.
  • The move to performance related pay - pay does not motivate me as a teacher, but rather recognition of a job well done.  I find this hugely demotivating, with the likely outcome being the Government getting an awful lot more work out of me, for much less money. 
  • The seemingly increased 'power' of Ofsted over schools, where the 'data is King' approach which, I think, leads to some morally suspect decision making over when pupils are entered for exams, the exam boards chosen in order to show 'X' levels of 'progress' in order to achieve the desired Ofsted grading. (This is a deliberate generalisation). Somewhere along the line, some humanity has got lost.
  • League tables - they have been nothing short of poisonous to schools since they were introduced and are the root cause of many difficulties and difficult decisions that school leaders are forced to make.

3. Work/life balance

  • I have been teaching English, a core subject, for 12 years.  The last three years have been the most difficult that I can remember in those 12 years. I think has always been notoriously difficult for English teachers to gain work/life balance, mainly due to the marking load, as with Humanities or  MFL teachers, I know we are not entirely alone on this.
  •  Despite trying to be stricter with myself with how much work I do outside of the classroom, as term progressed, I found myself working longer in the evenings, more hours on a Sunday and too exhausted to do anything enjoyable on a Saturday, my one day off work. On that Saturday, I had to do my 'domestic duties' but was also doing less and less of it as I was so utterly exhausted. My house was becoming more and more chaotic and hovel like.
  • I was having no time to speak to my family, spend any time with my friends (oh how that must test their patience) or eat properly.
  •  I was too busy to keep up my exercise regime which is my No. 1 defence against the old Black Dog, combined with parents' evenings falling on one of my circuit class nights, knocking out one of my few times to exercise and socialise outside of school hours.
  • For all those 12 years I have lived by myself and for much, (not all, but much) of that time I have been single. The 60-70 hour week and constant exhaustion has to be a factor here, I am not going with the 'I'm sub-normal' or 'unlovable' thing.
  • The combination of the long hours of teaching, living alone and singleness, I have realised, is an unhealthy combination. I have tried to make this 'work' for 12 years, but it hasn't worked. I've been on and off anti-depressants since my dad passed away in 2005.
  • Do I think this state of affairs is acceptable anymore? I don't think I do.
4. Health and well-being

I used to have the constitution of an ox, however, as time has gone by during those 12 years, I have an increasing range of persistent minor illnesses, some maybe not so minor.

  • An annual sinus infection, usually hitting me around November, if not then January or February. If you've never had one, just think yourself lucky!
  • Recurring ear infections
  • Eczema - this was particularly bad when I took the yr 11 girls group through legacy spec GCSE English and new Spec Lang/Lit in 2 years (3 courses in 2 years, yes!). I had constant allergic reactions on my skin over a period of 2-3 months leading me to eventually need a spell on steroids (I now know how The Hulk feels!) it now reccurs on my hand and legs and is tiggered by stress.
  • Plantar Faciitis - which is tendon damage to my feet, meaning acute foot pain in the mornings and consistent foot pain during the day. This weas initially triggered by my running habit and my naturally flat feet. The cure is 'rest' so I no longer, run, don't run in my circuit class, but I spend most of the day on my feet, so, it doesn't really get better.
Therefore,  as well as my current prescription for anti-depressants I have repeat prescriptions for eczema cream, anti-biotic ear drops and am never without ibuprofen handy for my mal-functioning feet.

5. Personal, one could say 'catastrophic' events since being in this school (I concede, few of these will be unique to me, but the combination might be!)

  • The psychopathic boyfriend - see my previous post 'In the presence of psychopathy'
  • The death of a dear colleague from my first teaching school, Marg, our wonderful tea lady
  • The sudden death of my friend Anthony Fairhurst in the same year as Marg going
  • Falling for a fella big style, and it going pear shaped - sounds minor but god did I do some crying, my self-esteem was battered by this
  • The burglary by my neighbours - meaning the Clogau Gold 'Cariad' ring my mum bought me when my dad died and my Clogau Cariad Cross my sister bought me from Aberaeron (dad's favourite place) were lost forever. I am still in mourning for them. I am still heartbroken about my 'dad ring' being lost forever.  I had to live next door to these neighbours for another 6 months (could be longer) after this burglary. A hateful and immensely stressful experience.
  • My grandmother, the last of my grandparents' died earlier this year. Now, this is terrible to confess to, but I can't remember the exact month. It was warm and sunny, so I think it could have been June or July. I am upset that I can't remember this.
  • A short but painful period of being stalked and harrassed by a Polish man at the start of this academic year. In the 'stalker-o-meter' scale it was relatively minor, however, I was genuinely disturbed and frightened by it.
So, when you average a 12 hr day, and between 60 -70 hrs a week, what you don't get time for is to 'process' these events, your feelings are put on the backburner, parked and boxed up while you plough on with your job. By 'you' I guess I mean 'me', that is what I have done. This is not good for my physical or emotional well-being.

6. Family stuff

  • My uncle got re-married in May 2012, I couldn't go because it was during the week in term time, down in Pembrokeshire  - exam season -so I didn't even bother for asking for time off to attend.
  • Three of my cousins have had children in the last 18 months, I have yet to meet my new family members due to work-load committments. I think this is rubbish, I'd grade myself at least as an RI family member due to this.
How did I know I was 'not-copng' and that the doctor's visit was necessary? Outwardly I can appear just fine, I can do a good job of acting 'fine' - but inside, it is very different.

  • Chronic insomnia
  • Barely eating or not eating at all
  • The monosyllabic communication and monotone voice
  • Some erratic behaviour
  • Not 'in control' of my emotions, sometimes in lessons
  • The 'black thoughts' entering my head again
  • Chronic exhaustion
  • Crawling into my shell or 'building a chrysallis' - wanting to hide from life
  • Sobbing in my classroom on my own at the end of a particularly awful day
  • A general massive dip in confidence in the classroom and my self-esteem
Worries attached to being signed off:
  • the extra pressure it puts on friends and colleagues back at school and the guilt that goes along with that
  • how this affects the pupils in my class
  • resentment that that could build up in colleagues and pupils
  • my future employability, quality of references I may get
  • how it will be when (or if) I manage to step back in a classroom
  • I don't want this to be a recurring cycle  - e.g in at 'full whack' - crack - signed off  and continuing to take anti-depressents. This is not what I want my life to be like.
How am I trying to get better?
  • I am actually sleeping; this is rather novel for a chronic insomniac
  • I am doing an awful lot of reading
  • not dwelling on the points above re. work
  • making sure I am not alone for long spells
  • exercise
  • Yes, using Twitter to keep in touch with fellow teacher friends in a similar position: @aknill, @LGolton, @bellale and @MrsRWood to name but a few. We check in on each other, bolster each other in low spells, hand out advice to each other, generally jolly each other along through the bleak moments
  • still need to sort out healthier eating, eating patterns are still quite erratic and appetite is variable

What next?

I have to make some big scary decisions about my future as a teacher, mainly if I want to continue to do so or not? I have sobbed over this very thought many, many times, as I never thought this was a place I would ever be. 'Teacher' has run through me like Blackpool Rock for 12 years, is it going to continue, and should it, if this is the mental and physical effect it has on me is this?


  1. I have had similar thoughts. Love you. x

  2. Such a resonant post with me and, I know, with so many more people... Thank you.

  3. So sorry to read this, Gwen, and wish I could help. I can only say:

    1. Try a change of school before you consider a change of profession, and
    2. Do all you can to reconnect with family and friends - otherwise you're in a vicious circle of needing them but cutting them out because you aren't able to give time to them.

    Hope the Christmas period is a better time for you.

  4. Hi Gwen

    Been just where you are and so have a good idea what you are going through. Currently applying for both teaching (PT) and non teaching jobs.Been teaching since 1995.

    Look after yourself. It looks as though you are doing the right things and asking the questions. Concentrate on enjoying xmas without the worry of having to go back in January.

    If you ever want to chat feel free to email me.

    Above all keep safe.

  5. Thank you for your kind and supportive comments. Hugely appreciated.

  6. With a quick change of gender this post could be my life over the past 18 months! I've moved schools by resigning as deputy head to return to class teacher, it's better but I have to be honest it's still exhausting and I'm not sure I'm into it 100% anymore. Try to live your life first and foremost and work has to take 2nd or even 3rd place. I'm sure the job we all loved has to return at some point or we'll all just stop doing it. Stay strong, live life and seek happiness. xxx

  7. Keep in there. I've walked the dog 3-4 times in my career. Eventually you notice the signs, but it doesn't make it any easier. I had thoughts of the best way to cut my wrists (as a man I have real razor blades, pen knives and the like). I have considered walking to see Mum - she lives 100 miles away. If I don't make it, who cares (family; but at 2 in the morning that slips your mind).

    Then you come out the other side and see what normal life is all about. It arrives and then you cope.

    I was sent to a life coach who gave me some brilliant advice - don't worry about what you can't change/control; ... it just makes you feel worse and you achieve nothing.

  8. A brave blog Gwen! Keep doing what you are doing to take care of yourself. Don't make any decisions for a while - try to block work out and reconnect with your 'other' life. It is only then that you start to feel better and then things start to make more sense. And keep on Twitter!!

  9. I've been off since March with the same illness for much the same reasons The guilt passes, the introspection continues. I realised that teaching is what I love doing, and so will be going back into the classroom at a lower grade but able to concentrate on simply working with the children. It does get better but that black dog is hard to tame and I know that he's going to be with me for life. My time off has caused me to realise what is important in my life and I'm going to try very hard not to fall back into the traps you so eloquently describe. God bless you for your bravery in publishing this and I hope that 2014 is a better year for you.

  10. Hi Gwen

    Just wanted to say how sorry I am to hear about the way you're feeling. This is a courageously honest blogpost and it resonates with so many people.

    I hope you begin to feel better soon.

  11. Thank you very much for taking the time to write such a brave and insightful blog post. It should be required reading for all at the Department for Education. Wen I was in a similar situation I found NUT very helpful. Whichever Union you are with they will be help you to negotiate your return to work, with less responsibility, less classes if those are things that would help you go back, should you want to. Your local Union secretaries will also be able to help you negotiate an agreed reference if you decide to move on. Good luck! Sending you strength.

  12. Anyone who can type up something like this is the best teacher ever. Your thoughtfulness, honesty and willingness to share is exactly what we need in education. Make the shortcuts you need to make, but stay in there.

    The real problem is the Category 4 school bit. I taught at a Category 4, or the equivalent of it in the States and I knew I'd only be able to handle it for about ten years. Luckily another job opened up and I took it in year five. My wife teaches at a Cat 4 and it's really taking its tool in year 17 for her and she's only part time right now.

    It's almost impossible to give what those students need, especially as you get older, have kids yourself, need to watch parents etc... you start cutting corners and feeling guilty about it. Console yourself with this fact: "well-off students need good teachers too."

    Good luck and best wishes.

  13. Hi David, wow, thank you for your kind words, comments and advice. Still think time out of the classroom is absolutely necessary, but hope it is not the very end for teaching and I.
    Thanks to all those comments above too.

  14. Ask your school to organise occupational health from local authority. They are completely impartial, can organise counseling that works (not what gp's give) and will help to liaise with school but only when you are ready. Done wonders for a friend of mine. My hubby came out of banking with depression and now better for 7 years, still taking the tablets and is now a teacher! He loves the interaction with kids and focusses on that most. Film your lessons, prove they are good and show them to all who will watch. Ask for feedback rather than waiting for it. When you are well, take charge of how you are going to tackle the situation and don't wait to have things handed out to you from the school. Be who you want to be nit who they want you to be. You can do it. Sort things bit by bit and don't try to view the bigger picture until you are well. Best wishes for a calm Christmas and a Happy Healthy New Year.

    1. The occupational health team in my LA was impartial when I saw them the first time but the second time this was not the case and their remit was to act in the interests of the authority:(

  15. So many similarities in your post to my experiences over the past twelve years. Well done for articulating them so clearly. Part time work is certainly worth considering as a means of coping with exhaustion and gaining time for self and family. Wishing you a better 2014.