Back to School Blues
It’s that time of year again and my anxiety rears its head like clockwork. That might seem strange since I don’t have to get any children sorted for the new term, and I’m no longer getting myself sorted for a new term.
If only it were that easy. It’s eight years since I last started the new academic year as a teacher. Officially, I was still employed as a teacher until the end of October 2011, but I haven’t stepped foot in a classroom since March 2010.
Here we go again, picking apart another old wound to move on. This is the last one though I think. Well, there is one more, that won’t be picked apart in a blog post. I pick at that wound most days. I know I’ve probably come across as more than a little unhinged of late, but I promise I’m not. This is just how I deal with the big stuff and this last month or so I’ve felt the need to deal with stuff once and for all.
I knew when I went back to work in September 2009 that it would be a tough year. Stonelaughter was going to be living in Germany for a few months and work was going to be incredibly hard. Through hard work and good results, my department had lots of students opting to take Religious Studies at exam level. Altogether, we had seven exam groups taking five different courses and I taught five of those of classes. Due to lots of changes to the exam specs, most of those groups were sitting new courses that had never been taught before. That meant the courses had to be planned from scratch.
Since I was teaching every course, the bulk (though certainly not all) of the planning fell to me. I was Head of Department too, so that wasn’t unusual. You’d think that would be enough for anyone, but our Headteacher decided it would be a good idea to have every faculty overhaul their complete KS3 offering – all lessons for years 7, 8 and 9. I mentioned this to him in a meeting, where he seemed surprised that this fell at the same time that most of the school was contending with GCSE changes; his own subject wasn’t getting GCSE revisions for another year.
So it was stressful. And I did not cope well.
Anyone who has been a teacher will know what an immense amount of work that was. If you’ve never been a teacher, you might think it sounds reasonable, but all of that was on top of teaching 20 lessons a week, running a department, mentoring a student teacher (and this particular one took a lot of mentoring) and all of the marking, assessing and paperwork that came with those jobs.
As well as all of the above, I was battling with a wrist injury. Following a fracture I sustained at work, I had endless trouble with it, exacerbated by a student in a strop one day. I often couldn’t use my hand, and I had to wear a succession of splints, included thermoplastic custom moulded affairs.
In November, Stonelaughter cut short his time in Germany and came home to support me, since I wasn’t doing a very good job of keeping all the balls in the air. I struggled through the first term, but the stress was making me ill. I missed the end of term through Shingles and during the next term, I was getting physical symptoms of stress. Esophageal spasms, an increase in my fibromyalgia symptoms, acute anaemia. The Headteacher called me in to explain myself. I did. He suggested that my home life was stressful and I should sort it out. I suggested my workload was stressful and he should sort it out. My union rep suggested the next time I was ill, I should get my doctor to write a sick note saying “work related stress”, because then the Head would be forced to do something to help me.
In February, another student took her dislike of a new school rule out on me. More damage to the wrist. My pain killers increased until I was taking 360mg of codeine during the school day. Steroid injections didn’t help and surgery was discussed.
My last day was a Monday. It had been awful. Just a generally shitty day, which was finished off nicely with a very unpleasant call from an irate parent. It was just one more thing to deal with. I got home and burst into tears. And didn’t stop.
I saw my GP the next day and he signed me off work for a couple of weeks so the antidepressants he prescribed could take effect. He put “work-related depression” on my sick note. Four days later I found out I was pregnant with Plum. I had to stop taking the antidepressants and was signed off for the first trimester. In the end, I was signed off until Plum was born and then I went on maternity leave. At the end of that, I handed in my notice and was placed on gardening leave until I officially left 13 weeks later.
And that was the end of my teaching career. Every September since, I have had panic attacks as I read all the back to school posts – from teachers and parents. I feel myself getting anxious when I read about changes in the education system. It lessens each year but I can’t help but wonder why it still happens. I have no intention of going back to teaching – apart from anything else, I know my health would not allow it these days anyway.
What makes me most sad about all of this is that I know the situation I was in at school is not in any way unusual. Most teachers cope with it better than I did, but many don’t. All teachers are under this kind of stress a lot of the time. I can’t remember the number of times I got to the end of the school day and realised I hadn’t had chance for a drink that day, or to nip to the loo. Lunchtimes were often a time for gathering resources, working with students, having meetings … occasionally we had time to actually sit down to eat lunch.
So, if you’re a teacher reading this, please be kind to yourself this year. Better that not everything is done to perfection (or not even done), than you making yourself ill.
If you’re a parent of a child who goes to school, please be kind to the teachers. Know that they don’t arrive in time for registration and leave at 3.30pm. Know that they often sacrifice time with their own family to do their best for yours.
And if you’re embarking on another year at school in whatever position, have a good one.