Recently, I have been reflecting on what has probably been my hardest year in teaching so far for a number of normal and then strange reasons. As everyone’s has been, it has been cut dramatically short so in a sort of new-year, new-me style, I’ve written a bit of a reflective piece that may have some pointers for our return to work – whenever that may be! If you’re in a slump at the end of all this then you may need to do some of the things listed below.
This blog is simply some advice from my personal perspective about how to get on with teaching when you aren’t really sure you can do it due to something going on in your life. I know that everyone has things they are going through and that has come more and more to the fore for me in recent years and in my current role as head of faculty. Everyone at some point has ‘a lot going on’. The most important thing is to try and understand that others always have a lot going on too so I am not saying for one moment that I am unique in this situation – in fact, totally the opposite especially as we try to navigate our way through such (wait for it…) unprecedented times. It is very likely that on our return to work, whenever that may be, people that previously seemed to sail through life actually find it quite difficult. Similarly, those that have always had a lot to deal with may have found their coping strategies can help in this situation – either way, I’ve learnt a little about how to cope when things are trickier than they’ve been previously.
“When you’re in a slump, you’re not in for much fun. Un-slumping yourself is not easily done.” Dr. Seuss
A bit of back story to try and explain may be necessary here so forgive me for the overview of my circumstance that leads on to my 9 pieces of advice for teaching in testing times.
In July 2019, just before our rearranged Sports’ Day, I fell a little under the weather. As was standard, when I got poorly my eczema began to flare a little. This wasn’t particularly unusual and usually happened every July, May and December to fit in with end of term-itus perfectly. But this time, although I felt a bit better after a much needed day off, my eczema didn’t go. Usually, sleep and antihistamines would help but over the following nights, things began to get worse – perhaps just hayfever I thought. I woke up with swollen eyes, swollen face and bright red. It wasn’t really like eczema at all anymore. I felt both in pain due to the swelling and pretty rubbish due to how I looked. Around 4 days later, it was so worrying and painful that I ended up in A&E; I could barely open my eyes to see. A&E staff were lovely, kind and supportive but they didn’t know what it was really – perhaps an allergy, eczema, hayfever. In other words, anyone of the magnificent trio that many people have. I knew it didn’t feel like any of these but I just wanted it gone and we were about to go on our honeymoon. I took the drugs they gave me and off I went. The drugs didn’t really change anything but about a week later it had gone down a bit. The sun made it worse so I stayed out of it but at least I could just pretend I was sunburnt over the hols! A lot of our honeymoon photos are of my back but thankfully the setting was far prettier than anything else.
My condition had other complications: swelling up at night means you don’t sleep very well. My temperature would vary hugely – from freezing cold to boiling hot in minutes, again especially at night. I couldn’t put anything on my skin without it burning and when the swelling was going down it would feel like it was bruised. Antihistamines would make me sleepy or drowsy (definitely took far too many) and I got a lot of infections too so I was on and off antibiotics. Overall, it was pretty tiring so the thought of returning to work in September didn’t really fill me with the usual joy. Throughout September, nothing really changed – some weeks would be better than others. It was painful, upsetting and undulating in ever way. It increased stress on many people around me and also created huge financial expenses trying to find solutions.
It was exhausting not knowing how you would look or feel in the morning. I usually fell asleep exasperated in the early hours and resorted to getting up about an hour earlier than previous wake up times so that I could put cold-compresses on my face, open my eyes and try to ‘face’ the day. This continued from July until about January. In this whole time, I saw 12 doctors, an allergist, an expensive nutritionist (lovely lady but if you’re in pain then giving up gluten and dairy for 3 months is another world of pain entirely – no chocolate!) and a very very expensive dermatologist over 35 miles away; I had to give up a lot of what I loved doing and it totally changed everything outside of work. I won’t go into details here about my exact issue and problem but in summary, it is something that can only truly be healed with time. The issues spread from my face to my neck, arms and wrists. Some days, I would be teaching with tissues stuffed up my sleeves to stop the bleeding from my scratching and choosing what to wear every day took forever. Other days, I would barely be able to look students in the eyes or have to pop out of the classroom for an unexplained reason. I hated not being on top of my game all the time although in a strange way I know I was teaching better than before as I didn’t want to let students down. It wasn’t exactly an easy time and continues to be tricky but much improved.
For some reason, in January my condition started to improve. I finally recognise myself again and don’t have the fear waking up in the morning as to who will be in the mirror. Thankfully, we are now in April and I’ve had about 3 days of swelling in the last 3 months. There are other side effects too but it’s much easier to currently deal with this on your arms/body than it is on your face as I’m sure you can imagine.
So, as I’m sure is clear by now, having an issue that makes you look and feel unlike yourself is exhausting, fairly traumatising and terrifying when you consider you have to talk to between 100-150 children per day let alone the adults you have to meet and meetings you have to run. In teaching, if there is an issue that you have, there is often no where to hide. So, if you can’t hide, you have to face up to it and that’s where these small nuggets of advice come from – things that I did or wish I had done because there was simply no where to hide at the time.
So, back to the point of the blog…whilst dealing with this issue that was so obvious and clear to everyone I met, I had to come up with some coping strategies. I also had to accept a few things as I simply could not control them. Trying to deal with a problem that is so obvious probably had the same issues as dealing with a problem that isn’t as obvious (for example mental health issues or less obvious physical problems). Of course, having this physical issue took its toll mentally as well, but the following things really helped and in hindsight, I wish I had done some of them sooner so I hope they help someone else too.
- Talk about the issue to your colleagues:
Whether the issue is obvious or not, I think this helped the most. I told some of my most trusted colleagues before I returned in the summer that I was still unwell. Some had to endure daily updates! Unlucky them. However, to be honest, this updating in advance helped. In an odd way, if I told people it was a bad day before I got to work then I didn’t have to tell them at work. Those people were also good at telling others for me which stopped everyone asking ‘are you burnt?’ ‘you look sick’, ‘shouldn’t you go home’ every five minutes. I also explained to my department very early on in the year that I wasn’t feeling great. My team were incredibly supportive and could tell very quickly when I wasn’t up for the usual discussions or whether it was a good time. They were extremely kind and supportive with how I had to change my leadership during this time but I had to be open with them about this in order for it to happen.
2. Talk to your senior leadership
I was very lucky in that a trusted colleague spoke to my leadership team about my issues in order to support me. I probably should have done this myself but I didn’t really know how. I didn’t know it at the time but my colleague explained the toll this seemed to be having on me and they put some supportive measures in place. I realise now that I should have done this sooner and I probably should have done it again when it seemed (to others) like I was getting better. I now appreciate that when an issue isn’t obvious (as I said, my face is now a lot better but I still suffer in other ways) that it is difficult for people to recognise you may be struggling. The support I was given allowed me just that little more flexibility so that I could do my job to the best of my ability without compromising my health. If you are the colleague of someone with an issue that means they are struggling, this might be something you could do but of course you would have to know them well and know you were doing the right thing.
3. Find the strength to say no
I said no to a lot of opportunities both in and out of school during this time. One of the hardest things I had to do this term was say no to the annual school ski trip – I adore being a member of staff on the ski trip more than anything at all and I’ve blogged about that before! Yet, I knew that I would be no good on that trip. I would only get more sick and exhausted and not be able to support my colleagues or students. I had to say no well in advance to ensure they were full staffed. It was the right thing to do even though it broke my heart to see them go.
4. Decide what to focus on and ignore other things – it can wait
It was very difficult to keep up the levels of work that I had been used to doing during this time but I had to find a way to do so. I am extremely proud of the work we did during the 2019 Winter term. I think we were in an incredibly strong position to do so well in the summer exams but during this time I had to decide on the best ways to get there. I simply did not have the energy or ability to do everything at once and I couldn’t delegate everything to my team who were already under a lot of pressure due to staffing issues. Therefore, I decided my focus would be on one thing only – Year 11. Unfortunately, along the way I had to deal with a couple of other things, things I wish I didn’t have to now but were necessary at the time. However, if things got too much and year 7 vocabulary words needed updating or there was a spelling mistake in a booklet for Year 9, I didn’t bother with it. Normally, I would be rushing to the photocopying room to press pause to go and fix that tiny issue. As the catchy song says, let it go.
5. Don’t forget – everyone else has something going on
Although most days, I hated meetings, briefings and discussions with colleagues as it meant I had to be face to face, I realised that most people didn’t really care about how I looked. Only a few adults ever said something that upset me and it was never on purpose (I hope). Most people have other things they are dealing with so although it might feel like they must think this or that, I am pretty sure they hardly ever noticed the changes that I did. However, if someone is suffering with something long term and visible, I can suggest that you don’t always feel the need to tell them they look worse than the other day or that you know something that will help cure them – as if they hadn’t ever thought of trying. But overall, the majority of adults aren’t fussed and just want to support you. Accept their support, ask them how they are and move on. Changing the topic of conversation really helps.
6. Remember, kids are amazing and have a different perspective
When I teach, I always feel at my happiest no matter how difficult a concept or day. On the few occasions that I was having a very bad day, I would explain this (briefly) to some of my classes and they were always kind, supportive and empathetic but then just got on with the work. I think my year 11s in particular really appreciated me being there even when I wasn’t at my best. Some would ask how I was and one or two, despite going through incredibly difficult times themselves, would come and say to me ‘you look really well today Miss’. In the whole 7 months of teaching with this, I’ve only ever had one nasty comment from a student and even that wasn’t to my face. That particular student was also fairly renowned for being a bit of a one and I followed it up immediately. I spoke to them and sanctioned them accordingly. It didn’t ever happen again. The kids were absolutely the reason I carried on going to work and they seemed to understand far more and cared far less than I thought they would.
7. Don’t apologise
It’s a trait of mine, and perhaps women in general, that I apologise too much. “Sorry for using the photocopier”, “sorry for being early to the meeting”, “sorry for being in the way”, “sorry for not asking how your day was”.
I think many people use this word too much. When suffering in some way, especially when we think that our presence isn’t improving someone’s experience, I think we jump to apologise and I found myself apologising for how I looked, when I had to leave a room or a meeting or having to take the odd day off. But actually, I needed to stop doing that. The apologies eventually felt like I was apologising for making a mistake but I wasn’t making mistakes. I just happened to find myself unwell for a prolonged period of time – that wasn’t a mistake really, it just happened. I think at times it is just best to say ‘afraid I need to leave the meeting for a minute, I’ll be back in two.’. That doesn’t mean you need to be rude but constant apologising takes its toll.
8. Keep going but take days off if needed
Again, I am lucky that my condition is improving for now, but it could return at any time. I learnt that I have to keep going but it is also important to know when to stop. Many people blamed my previously busy year for my illness – ‘oh you were busy last year so that’s why you’re ill’. Nope. I am ill because this is what happens. For me, keeping going kept me hopeful. Although work was the hardest thing to face every day, without it I am not sure where I would be. I had no idea when things would improve and being in isolation might have felt like the perfect thing I needed at the time (hiding from the world became the norm – thank goodness for pay at pump petrol stations!) but having a purpose really helped. In my whole time with this I only took off 3 days sick and 3 times at hospital appointments but to me it felt like I’d taken forever. Like many teachers I hate taking time off but when it’s necessary, take it. I should have taken more on a number of occasions.
9. Thank those who cared throughout and after
Just like at the moment, certain people will display incredible acts of kindness and support. Remember who they are and thank them every day and after. I couldn’t have got through the last year without family, my best friends and especially my incredible colleague and friend Siân Cumming (@siancumming1) who listened, sent me home when needed and supported my decisions throughout.
I really hope that the above 9 pieces of advice can help others in a variety of situations. I realise lots of people are going through far worse especially at the moment so this is simply a slightly cathartic way of saying you can do it. We will get through it and I think our saving grace will be returning to see our fantastic young people who will still want to learn and who will still need you – now more than ever.
Thank you for reading.