Welcome to The Staff Room
7th March 2016
Pull up a chair, make a cuppa and get comfortable. Welcome to The Staff Room. This is going to be a place where teachers of every variety (pre-service, full-time, part-time, casual, retired, resigned and recovering) can be supported, share ideas, say their piece and have a laugh. Experience has shown me that not every staff room is a healthy place – I’ve been in some where you have to watch your back while you’re making your coffee. But I’ve also been fortunate enough to work in schools where the staff room was a safe place… somewhere you could ‘land’ on Friday arvo after a hard week of teaching, somewhere you could share the story of your disastrous lesson, somewhere you could ask for ideas without being judged and somewhere you could engage in robust conversation about topics ranging from Professional Teaching Standards right through to low-budget recipes. I hope this space becomes that kind of place. And I really hope you teachers out there reading this take the time to leave a comment, share an idea or start a discussion. You know and I know that good communication creates good staff rooms.
Best thing about this staff room is that there will be: no meetings, no rosters, no weekly plans, no requests for programmes, no hidden agendas, no Professional Development Days you must attend, no calendars, no assembly items, no school newsletters, no P & F requests and no extra work. I promise! (See you love it here already, don’t you?) And even better – I can guarantee no students will come knocking at the door to ask for Mr McGilercuddy to get the ball off the roof, no child will walk in with a spectacular bleeding nose, no Department of Ed. guy will sit in on a lunch break while trying to casually promote the latest hair-brained idea that’s going to revolutionise education. And no parent will come in requesting something that sounds good in theory but in practise will create hours and hours of extra work.
This is a safe place.
I wanted to launch the opening of The Staff Room
with a focus on teacher well-being.
What are the things you can do as a teacher to look after your well-being? Because – lets face it… teacher well-being isn’t high on any agenda that’s being thrown about as ‘educational discussion’. We have to look after ourselves and look after each other. In this first post of The Staff Room, I’m sharing my top five ideas for self-care and mental health specifically for teachers. Sound good? Here goes:
1. Don’t Ignore the Signs
I knew things were unravelling for me long before I collapsed in a heap. There were little warning bells that gradually built to huge alarm sirens. I think these will be different for every teacher but I’ll share my early warning signs to give you an idea:
- I wasn’t looking forward to school anymore. I still enjoyed my time with the kids but the thought of all the additional workload unrelated to teaching filled me with dread. I stopped saying “I’m going to school” and started saying “I’m going to work.” Subtle difference – big warning!
- I found it hard to relax at home. I always felt I should be doing more work in preparation for school.
- Things weren’t as funny or as sad as they were in the past – I guess I was a bit numb.
- I was too exhausted on the weekend to do anything with my friends or family. I just wanted to slouch on the lounge.
- I found it hard to put a good meal on the table. I remember leaving school at 5:30pm one Tuesday after a particularly harrowing staff meeting. I said to a friend/colleague “What am I going to give my kids for dinner?” And she said “Oh, have a night off. Just drive through Maccas.” And I said: “I did that last night.” My family were living on takeaway, oven-heated nuggets and chips, leftovers and “breakfast for dinner”. I never had the energy for grocery shopping so there was rarely good food in the cupboards. I was essentially neglecting my own kids for the sake of other people’s children. That’s not what teaching is all about.
- I didn’t want to participate in any optional extras at school. I was angry about the concerts, the meetings, the carnivals, the fundraisers, the discos, the excursions, the visiting guests… I was becoming a bitter and cynical lady. *eek*
- Late in November of 2014 I experienced what could only be described as a panic attack. My body took over because my brain was ignoring all the signs. I experienced shaking hands, sweats, fast breathing and a painful racing heart. I thought I was having a heart attack and my doctor ran tests just to be sure. The results? Stress. Simple as that.
At the risk of sounding like a self-help book, take a minute to do a quick inventory of where you’re at now. Have you got some ‘early warning signs’ going on? How’s your blood pressure? Are you happy to go to work? Are you still fulfilling your roles within your family? Do you relax? Sleep well? Check these things regularly.
2. Get Help
It’s okay to outsource some stuff. Our lives are huge. Teaching is huge. Pay people to help. Here’s how:
- Make use of an ironing lady or house cleaner or gardener or lawn mower kid or drive-through car wash… whatever is wearing you down on the home-front that could be outsourced…. just do it.
- Ask for help from friends or family – especially if they offer. Have them cook a meal or do a load of washing. Don’t be too proud peoples! You can always return the favour.
- Make use of those classroom parents who are always offering to help. Send home some stuff they can cut out or glue or fold. Send home books that need repairing, toys that need washing, resources that need filing…
- Have a classroom working bee one afternoon a fortnight/month where parents come in and take down displays and put up new ones.
- See your doctor. Talk to them. Tell them if you feel like you aren’t coping in the way you used to be able to.
- While you’re at it – talk to your Principal or co-ordinator if you feel like you can. Explain to them what’s going on for you and see if they can think of ways to lighten the load.
3. Don’t Be A Martyr
Don’t soldier on.
Take a day off if you need it. Take a week if it’ll help.
Don’t go to school when you are sick.
Stop committing to extra tasks that add to your workload.
Follow procedures instead of suffering through an extra duty or an extra workload as a favour for a friend.
Self-preservation is important for your health and well-being. You’re not a bad person to put your needs first.
During the year of 2014 my own children had school sores, head lice and I think gastro (I’ve blocked much of this from my memory!) all in the space of a few weeks. I can remember waking up one day, looking at my poor little scabby three-year-old who I was going to palm off to Nanna. Suddenly I imagined describing this situation to all the parents of the children in my class – I knew that the majority of them would say to me Gab – don’t come in today. Your kids need you. I also knew that the kids I taught would understand too.
We are called to teach not to suffer.
4. Have Some Non-Negotiables
Have a “quitting time” and stick to it. Don’t stay at school until all hours. Accept that a teacher’s job will never be complete and go home.
Get plenty of sleep or exercise or healthy food. Find the things that work for you to keep you in optimal health and refuse to relinquish them. Maybe it’s yoga or running or cooking soup on a Wednesday night. Whatever it is that keeps you healthy – never compromise it for teaching.
I always say “you need a reason to live”… you need something to look forward to, something to think of each morning that you feel excited about. Make sure you have those things set up and in place so that Monday Mornings are bearable. For example: book a holiday or a weekend away or a massage or a hair cut or a surfing trip or a fishing trip or a movie night or a dinner out. Have some little out-of-school adventure or indulgence that you can hug to yourself throughout the working day.
5. Get Yourself A Shrink
After my experience of burnout late in 2014, it became clear to me that teachers now – more than ever – are in need of a soft-spot to fall when (not if) their teaching load becomes too much. If I had a magic wand I’d kit out every school in Australia with an adequate number of counsellors and psychologists and make these professionals available for students and families but also – for teachers! Sadly, the magic wand just isn’t appearing.
As teachers we encounter so much in a day that we need to process, reflect on, evaluate and act upon. That kind of strain takes an enormous toll. Generally it can be manageable – but add on:
one rogue student who demands your attention with wild behaviour
a parent who is worried about their child and ‘needs’ to meet with you regularly
a student who makes a disclosure about abuse at home
a major school event such as a concert or carnival
a personal trauma such as marriage breakdown, kids leaving home, family loss or illness
6 trips to Professional Development days within the space of three weeks
(this list is endless, I’ve just itemised a few add ons)
Suddenly – the workload of teaching that was tight but achievable becomes insurmountable and depressing. It’s helpful to talk about these things to a professional. I know it might seem crazy to suggest a professional when we’re so used to chatting around the staff room table. But I have my reasons:
- as teachers we’re not trained to know how to deal with big emotional psychological ‘stuff’ that presents itself when students are abusive or are being abused. Psychologists are. They can give you tips, ideas and strategies but they also know how to listen and will pick up on how you’re travelling. In this way, problems and issues can be addressed when they’re small and manageable.
- talking to a trusted friend or your colleagues is helpful for you but it actually burdens them. Friends and colleagues are just that – your friend, your co-worker – it’s not their job to prop you up. And when you ask them to prop you up it takes time away from them. They become invested in your problems and start to feel a sense of responsibility for you. That’s not fair on them.
- psychologists understand the need for discretion, confidentiality and child-protection. You can speak freely with them knowing that you aren’t compromising your students, their families or your school. When you ‘off load’ to a friend or colleague you are running a huge confidentiality risk.
- talking to a psychologist or counsellor doesn’t make you ‘crazy’. It doesn’t mean you aren’t coping. In fact – quite the contrary. Being proactive and taking steps to arrange to speak with a professional shows that you are healthy, able to self-care, have good self-management and take responsibility for yourself.
To see a psychologist is easy – simply go to your GP and tell them that you’re a teacher and you’d like to have a Mental Health Care plan that enables you to speak to a psychologist. I reckon most doctors will nod and agree with minimal questioning – they understand the pressure teachers are under and they’re seeing it more and more. Be aware though that you may have to wait and wait and wait some more to see a psych – especially if you live in a regional or rural area.