My heart sank. I heard the familiar sobbing and sharp intake of breaths. I knew it even before I walked out into the corridor. It had happened again. I watched another teacher break down in the hallway, a good teacher, a fresh new second year out teacher. My heart broke for her. I saw so much of myself in that moment. I’m a passionate person, a perfectionist perhaps, wanting to do things properly otherwise not do it at all. I went into autopilot and instructed the teacher to go get a drink and find a quiet place to gather her thoughts. Meanwhile I raced away to organise a member of the executive staff to take her class (even though everything inside me said stay, I knew a stampede of 20 odd kids would only make it worse). Even in that moment of vulnerability I was unable to help her immediately because teaching is constant, persistent, unrelenting.
Sadly, these breakdowns are extremely common and becoming even more so as teachers struggle to keep up with all the added expectations that have been dumped on them over the years. We try so hard to do well for our students but we don’t know when to step back, say no, take time out.
You’ll be happy to know the following week I asked this teacher for a coffee (more like forced her to join me as I didn't give her a choice). I knew she would need it and I’m so glad I did. Turns out we get along great outside of school and I managed to make her feel better.
It got my mind working. Maybe I need to look into teacher mental health? Maybe I really do need to start looking at this seriously. Maybe I can make a difference after all, just not in the way I initially thought. Maybe, just maybe, there IS a silver lining? I’m not sure what the future holds for me but I have to start pursuing that which brings me joy. Acting as a mentor or guide, an emotional support, brought me great joy. An explosion of happiness that I find hard to explain. It speaks to my core values of compassion and kindness and treating others with respect igniting a passion in me that I’ve lost in teaching.
The Department spends so much time focusing on the wellbeing of students, parents and the wider community. They consistently overlook the key stakeholder that ties everything together. The teacher.
More and more, I have teachers complain to me about the unrealistic expectations we’ve come to consider as normal. Hours inputting data, ticking boxes, planning lessons. Unresolved behaviour issues that make it impossible to teach these lessons. Paper trails on everything we do, every phone call, every move we make. Documented to a tee. Meetings on code of conduct including how we can/cannot act outside of teaching hours. Reminders that social media means we have to be careful on what we post. As if we have to be teachers 24/7. Not enough support, both behaviourally and academically, chasing our tails to ensure students are learning something, anything in our lessons. Making sure students aren’t hitting, fighting, speaking meanly every time our back is turned. This all takes a toll.
So am I surprised to have heard this teacher breaking down in the corridor? Not at all. Not even a tiny bit. And I know it won’t be my last. Because at every school there are a handful feeling on the brink of a breakdown each day. No one is doing enough to lessen the load, to ease the burden. What do you expect is going to happen?