Today I read a blog by Kevin McLaughlin titled The depressed teacher. This blog is about a topic I think governors need to think about. With Kevin’s kind permission I’ve copied the blog below in order to raise awareness of this issue amongst governors. I will follow this blog with another one where I will pose some questions we should be asking ourselves about staff wellbeing.
For many years I have been recognised, in the main, as an ‘outstanding teacher’ by my peers, the LA and Ofsted. I learned from my errors, I listened to advice from those more experienced and I strove to improve my pedagogy through CPD and reading literature. In September 2012 I was recognised as an ‘outstanding’ teacher, one of only two in the school, by Ofsted yet only one month later I was deemed ‘requires improvement’ by the newly appointed headteacher. Why? What happened to my teaching? Where did I go wrong? How could I have let this happen? I questioned it yet found the reply insane- I didn’t meet the new observation checklist. A descent into ill health and depression followed with two emergency visits to A&E with suspected heart attacks.
It’s been a long time coming but I feel ready to tell this side of my teaching career so that others may recognise the signs and do something about it. My first visit to A&E happened during 2014. The atmosphere at school had taken a nose dive and staff, including myself, were teaching in fear; fear that we were not teaching well, fear that we wouldn’t meet our PM targets, fear that we had missed out the non-negotiables, fear that our displays wouldn’t meet the new standards. The warning signs were there. I woke up one night with what felt like a huge weight on my chest. I slid off the bed and crawled out to the bathroom but ended up sliding down the stairs calling for help. My partner rang the emergency services as I lay there on the stairs worrying about everyone I loved. Thankfully, after the various tests it was found I hadn’t had a heart attack and it was more than likely my condition was brought about by acute stress. I returned to work a few days later and everyone said I had to take it easy. That was it. Nothing else. No gradual easing back into teaching, not much support from management. The warning signs were there. I never read them. One term later I had another observation (part of my performance management) which resulted in requires improvement. I contested the outcome and got it changed to good. I knew I had to leave so started looking for a new job.
Job hunting was proving fruitless as nothing interested me. Another warning sign, I should have left no matter what but financial security tied me to this unhealthy post. The year ahead was spent meeting targets, doing what management expected to see rather than what I knew my class required. I was told to ‘keep my head down and just play the game’. But I couldn’t. I would not accept this. I should have read the signs. It was 2015 when I had another suspected heart attack, this time at school. I experienced the same symptoms again, a very heavy chest, pains in my side, rapid breathing. The office rang the ambulance and I was taken to hospital from school. A multitude of tests later and I was given the all clear. The relief brought me and my partner to tears. She demanded I leave the school. Once again it was stress related. I never sought my doctor’s advice, I never signed off sick, I never took time off. I felt ‘obliged’ to my job. Management expressed their feelings yet a couple of weeks later it was as if nothing had happened to me. I had gotten over it. I was back at work. I was expected to be outstanding all the time, nothing less.
I resigned from the school in 2016.
My health has improved considerably since then. Apart from a blip during my disastrous venture into Deputy Headship where I was shouted at by the headteacher (another story) I have been on the road to complete recovery and mental stability.
Now I point the finger of blame at myself. I should have recognised the warning signs. I should have acted sooner and shouted more loudly. I didn’t. The education system in England has become poisoned with data, ill conceived marking policies, fixations on passing tests at the expense of a wider and richer curriculum. Thankfully Ofsted have recognised this and have published their myth busting documents, changes to school inspections and recent speeches. But more needs to be done as the message is not sinking in. Too many schools are ignoring the advice and are continuing with a rule of fear. Too many schools are putting too much pressure on their staff. Too many schools are ignoring common sense.
Recognise the signs and act upon them. Your good health is more important than turning up for work as a quivering wreck. Your school needs to understand this. If your school doesn’t, resign. No school is worth ill health.