Supporting school leadership with wellbeing.

Recently I started a Facebook group encouraging support and guidance for staff who work in schools. In the guidelines for the group I stressed the importance of not using personal or school names because it is not meant to be a venue for critics and negativity. Twice in a week two people have shared their view that we must not blame the leadership of our schools they are under pressure too.

This is a view I whole heartedly and completely agree with. The leaders of our school experience pressure and stress like their staff. They have targets and expectations that have to be met. Parents, stakeholders, governors, teachers and other staff to keep happy. I once thought I would like a leadership role. I’m not sure anymore. Do I really want their pressures?

As wellbeing of Staff begins to creep up the agenda of schools we should remember not to turn it into a blame culture. I think the majority of leaders want to improve wellbeing but perhaps part of the problem is a lack of knowledge as to how rather than a lack of interest or care for their employees.

Twice in my current school I have become seriously unwell with depression. My experiences of how others have supported me have been mixed.

I have had some awful experiences and comments from people who you would think would know better. I have been pushed deeper into depression by well meaning colleagues. Mental health is a hidden illness which is so hard to handle correctly.

But where leadership is involved there has always been a great sense of wanting to do the right thing. Caring greatly. Trying to help. The support hasn’t always been perfect but that isn’t down to a lack of care or interest.

I think we need to remember that employers perhaps don’t know much about mental health. Unless they have suffered themselves or had experience of a close family member who has. How are they to know how best to support their staff? When their personal experience is limited, this isn’t something they had training in. We can’t suddenly expect them to be experts just because they became a leader of a school. This is a different set of skills. Mental health perhaps requires its own training and education for everyone.

So let’s stop judging leadership so harshly. Let us instead change the culture of our workplaces to mutual support. Let us encourage our leaders to attend and open up training on mental health for all of their staff. Let us develop wellbeing ideas that we can share with them.

Yes they are the leaders of our school. They set policy. They set the rules. They set the culture. They set everything that teachers and pupils sign up for. But they have not necessarily had training in mental health. So perhaps we need to work with them to ensure staff wellbeing is protected. Perhaps those of us with personal experiences need to share. Perhaps forums like my new support group can help develop ideas for wellbeing that we can share with our leaders. Perhaps it is about mutual support of colleagues rather than expecting it all to come from the top.

Social anxiety

This is my life! I make arrangements. I look forward to them. I get to the day and I don’t want to go. My mind puts up an obstacle course. It plans every excuse. It makes me feel panicked. I feel physically sick with dread.

Why? I want to do these things. I look forward to them. I plan them. I am excited. So why does my brain play tricks on me?

Take tonight as an example. I have known about it for the last month or so. I am going out with my national childbirth trust (nct) friends.

We have been friends for over 4 years now (since before our children were first born). They are the group of people that when I am with them I feel most comfortable. We have shared a lot in our short time of knowing each other and there is lots of trust between us.

In the past I have been out with them for many meals and drinks. Each time the same has happened as tonight. Prior to the event I have dreaded it. I have build it up in my head to be something awful. Each time I have fought these emotions I have had a great time when I have been out.

I have smiled. I have relaxed. I have laughed until I have cried. I have enjoyed myself in every way possible. So why knowing this do I still turn something i am looking forward to into complete dread?

I hate the way the anxiety spikes. I hate the way it makes me feel. I hate the way it is so irrational. I hate the way I cannot control it. I hate what it turns me into.

No one realises what a battle it is just to get through the door each day. Sometimes it is a battle just to get out of bed. The arguments that go on in my head.

I never know which side of my brain will win the battle. If I cancel on you in the future or have in the past this may be/ may have been an element of it. I may have made up an excuse. It may have been true. But it might have just been my head playing tricks.

It’s 5pm. I have no idea which side will win the battle tonight. I am hopeful I will manage to overcome the anxiety. I can’t tell you what I am worried about. I don’t even know! I have counselling at 6:30pm as I do every Friday so I am hoping this will help! I am hoping talking through how I feel may allow me to win the war in my head this once.

Coping on a low mood day.

Things have been going well. It’s half term so I have been enjoying time with my boys and my husband. I have had opportunities to relax, chats to friends and even an afternoon on the sofa with the husband watching a film.

I have started a mental health support group on Facebook which in less than a week has over 300 members. I have hosted my first chat on the forum and had a really positive response.

But today has been a low day. Testament to the illness I suffer from. I have no real reason for it. Yes I was up a lot of last night with my youngest son who sounds like a seal when he coughs. It turns out after a visit to the doctors today that he has croup. My eldest son is also full of cold. He has been whinging all day and difficult. My husband is still poorly (he has had a virus since August) and is grumpy too. But nothing major is up.

But today I have struggled to keep a level head. It is so easy for me to switch between being fine to feeling on the floor. I was quite positive this morning but after lunch and a visit to Tesco I was finding it tough. I wanted to cry. I wanted to hide from the world. I wanted to crawl up in a ball and hibernate.

I did for a little while. I got into bed and closed my eyes. This is often my coping strategy. I often find a short nap or just space away from everything helps me. It was short lived today as we had to rush to take my youngest to the doctors. But even though it was short it helped a little.

It isn’t always practical to do this though! I can hardly say at work in the middle of the school day, sorry everyone no idea why but my head has just gone into meltdown I need a nap! It’s not possible. So I have to find other strategies.

A walk helps. Often if I feel like this way at work I will find a change of scene is a strategy. Getting up, doing a different job just to give my mind a break.

A chat with people helps. You will usually find me in the Staff room at break time or lunchtime. The reason for this is two fold. One I do believe it is important to be in the Staff room as it breeds a sense of community. Two it helps me clear my head. Off load any worries. Twist my negative brain back into positivity.

Time alone helps. Sometimes it is the opposite. Instead of people I need space. You may find me alone. Purposely finding a chance to offload to my own dump box in my brain.

And if all else fails…sleep or zoning out on the sofa with Netflix helps! Right back at the start. If I can’t sort it out. If it gets too deep to be managed other ways I wait till I can sleep. Either when I get home from work. Or till that evening.

The important thing is finding ways to cope when the low mood strikes. When the depression gets too deep these coping mechanisms fail to have any impact on me. Then I burrow my head further and further into the ground. It takes an almighty effort to dig myself out.

Positive steps for wellbeing

So on Friday my school had their annual wellbeing teacher training day. If I am honest I can be a little skeptical about it. Is it just a gimmick? A tick box activity to say we have done something.

So I was positively surprised. I was happy (especially after marking my year 7 books early before it started). It was nearly half term and I was looking forward to a week with my husband and my boys.

Department time was relaxed. Everyone was chilled out. I got a job done that had been needing to be completed for a while so I felt like I had accomplished something.

Then we had a speaker. His name was James ketchell @captainketch. Ocean rower, Everest summiteer and round the world cycler. To be honest I found him interesting. His stories entertaining.

However, there was also a part of me that wanted to scream. Just be positive he said. Yeah like it is that easy when you have a mental illness. Have a positive attitude and anything is possible. Hmmm. But something did stick with me. Follow your goals and your dreams whatever they maybe. That sounded like me of old.

Then in the afternoon a lovely walk in the countryside with colleagues. Lots of laughs were had. A strong sense of community was felt. Strength and support in numbers.

That evening it struck me. I want to do more. I have made a start on my journey to support people with their mental health but there must be more I can do. So what could it be? What are my areas of speciality? Teaching and mental health. Why not combine them?

I belong to a great Facebook group called time to talk. This group is amazing as it allows people with a mental health issue to share their current problems and people with listen and comment and help if they can. Was there a way of using this model to support those working in schools?

So I have developed a Facebook group called “mental health support group for teachers and those who work in schools”. It is meant to be a place to develop wellbeing strategies and offer support. I want to keep it professional so I have stressed there is to be no use of school or individuals names.

I have a great belief that teachers can help each other. Working in schools is very hard. It can drain our mental health. It can stint out wellbeing. Someone needs to do more. Why can’t we do it ourselves. If we want change. Maybe we need to lead the change.

If you work in a school please feel free to come and take a look and join the group: Facebook group mental health in schools

A letter for those who don’t “believe” depression.

Dear unbeliever,

Firstly I want to start by saying I’ve been where you are now. Before I became ill with depression at the age of 26 I had no clue what it was. If you had asked me I probably would have said people get sad and low sometimes but they can pull themselves out of it. It’s all about mindset! How wrong I was!

How far from the truth. Even now I would agree that unless you have suffered from a mental illness you can never really appreciate what it is like. Although to be fair either can someone who has! Each mental health issue is unique.

But that doesn’t mean I am giving up! Yes you maybe one of the lucky ones and never suffer from depression. You may never know how crippling it is. You may never know that it is as serious as cancer and claims many lives. I hope you don’t have to suffer. But I do hope you will try to understand what it is like for those that do.

I want you to know that I understand it is so difficult to know what it’s like. I want you to know it is hard to see the invisible. I want you to know I have been where you are now.

But I need you to trust me. I need you to believe me. I need you to realise that depression is an illness as serious as any other life long condition. I need you to know that no one would ever make up this hell.

I can’t just snap out of it. I can’t pull myself together. I can’t just be happy. It is not about a positive mindset. Depression is an illness.

I will probably live with this my whole life. I hope it will never attack me again like it has done over the past year. I hope I can keep it in control in the future.

You have not seen. You have not experienced it. But please believe. I am not sure there is any analogy that will really help you understand.

I know you are sceptical. But everyone has mental health. Everyone has a mind. Why does our brain not get as much respect as any other part of our body? I broke my arm and you understood. Someone you know has diabetes and you realise they have a life long condition that needs medication. Your family member has cancer and you do whatever you can to help.

Depression is an illness. It is real. It needs help. It needs understanding. It needs compassion. It needs treatment. Perhaps the problem is that it is different for every person. For some medication helps. For others it is counselling. For others a combination of different strategies.

So unbeliever I am not making this up. I cannot just have a positive mindset. I wish it was that simple. I have an illness which I live with. Sometimes I have it in control. Sometimes it overtakes my whole life. But it certainly is real.

Believe me. Listen to me. Try to understand me. I am 1 in 4 with a mental health condition. But I am 1 in 1 that has mental health. Yes all of us do! So take care of yours and respect other people’s.

Love from

Becky

What I gained from taking the biggest risk of my life (so far) part 3 of 3

So both back at our old school as teachers. Two friends. We hadn’t been in contact much over the past few years. The early months I was in complete denial that there was anything between us. A feeling of I’ve been there done that arose. He had asked me out 3 times in sixth form and each time I had turned him down.

Then it all started to change. Yes I have to admit it was his obvious love and affection for his nephew that did it. A family man he was. 5 months after we started going out we were engaged. A year later married. 2 years after that two children! The biggest risk of my life was worth it…I found love.

So reflecting back am I still happy about taking that risk? Going into the unknown was scary. I was always certain I would go back to primary. But after the latest bought of major depression I am not sure.

Whilst unwell and off work I went for and was offered 3 different teaching positions back in the primary classroom. I was drawn to those happy times in my memory. I am so glad I did because it made me realise I don’t want to go back at the moment. Never say never but it’s not an option right now.

Never make major decisions when you are ill with depression. I always advocate that. I was about to do that when my wise friend offered me some amazing advice. Go back to work first. See how it is before you make a decision to leave.

It wasn’t a smooth ride going back. The anxiety was through the roof but I knew I shouldn’t rush into another career move. I was too poorly.

I had always planned to go back to primary at some point. I certainly couldn’t see myself in leadership in a secondary school. I also couldn’t see me doing my current job much longer I needed a new challenge. But another wise friend said stop planning too far ahead and enjoy the now.

So where does the risk I took 9 years ago leave me now? I currently love my job. I love the people I work with. It’s stressful and hard work but it’s rewarding too. And it has taken nine years but for the first time I’ve come to accept I might even like it enough to stay longer. There may even be options to progress or look at new avenues in this job. But for now I’m just going to accept the present.

So think through every risk. But don’t be too afraid to give it a go. The rewards are unknown but they could be amazing!

What I gained from taking the biggest risk of my life (so far) part 2 of 3.

Apply for a job at her secondary school?! Head of department?! Did she know I had absolutely no experience of teaching secondary age children? The oldest I had ever taught was one lesson of year 6 on a teaching practice.

She must be mad I thought. But I was desperate to leave my current job. Just come and have a look she said. See what you think. Why not I thought. What could I lose by looking!

I wasn’t much more sure after looking to be honest! Yes there were things that appealed to me. I certainly needed a new challenge and I had never shirked from hard work.

Speaking to my brother who was an assistant head of a secondary school at the time he reassured me. I was worried about behaviour management. He said it was all about developing positive relationships. I could do that I thought.

Preparing for the letter of application and then resulting interview inspired me. There was something about this new role. It was going to be massively different but it was worth a try. I could always go back to primary if it didn’t work out.

When I got the job there were a lot of shocked people. Friends thought I was crazy going to secondary. Their doubts filled my own head but I was determined to make it a success. I had read an article from the TES which said children loved school until they got to secondary school where it lost its fun. I believed i could change this and take my primary ways with me to make learning enjoyable.

It was one hell of a learning curve. It was like being thrown in the deep end and being told to swim without ever having any swimming lessons before. But I gained a massive amount of confidence from the fact I did it. Not only that I seemed to be ok at it.

The additional responsibility meant additional money. This ensured I could buy my first house on my own. I was finishing my masters. Teaching gcse and a level for the first time. But I could do it I had overcome the biggest change ever.

I spent the first year saying in my head I’ll do one year maybe two and then go back to primary. I couldn’t see me doing this long term. I didn’t feel confident enough . At primary I had always felt sure of myself, clear on what to do in every situation. Now i mostly didn’t know what to do and could often feel overwhelmed.

But i wasn’t aware that this risk would lead to more changes than a new career path. The second year into the role I discovered I had depression. In reality I believe I had it through my teenage years and on but I was always so goal centred I kind of ploughed over it.

Until this point I never even knew what depression was. I would have denied its existence as something people can just pick themselves up from and get on with life. How wrong I was! It hit me like a tonne of bricks.

But luckily the biggest risk I had ever taken insured that when it did take over I was surrounded by two colleagues and friends who knew better than most the true nature of depression and were able to support me through it.

Third year into my new job and my personal life would take another turn. This time the biggest risk of my life meant I was in the right place at the right time. I found love.

What I gained from taking the biggest risk of my life (so far). Part 1 of 3

So by nature I’m not a risk taker! I hate the unknown. It scares me. I hate being out of control. I am very much one for planning for everything. Therefore I can only think of one really big risk I have taken in life so far.

I can remember at the time everyone thought I was crazy. Colleagues were shocked. Many people were worried for me. Family and friends questioned my decision. To be honest so did I! And this questioning went on for many years!

I had always wanted to be a secondary PE teacher until in sixth form I complete a catechetics course and did some work with year 1’s at a local school. This changed the direction of my focus. I trained as a primary school teacher and spent 3 years teaching year 2 children.

I absolutely loved it. I have always seemed to be able to connect with children and going to work every day surrounded by 6 and 7 year olds inspired by the world was special.

I have so many happy memories of this time I don’t know where to start. Reading stories outside in the garden, doing art work, creating Christmas plays, coming up with assemblies, designing displays, leading swimming lessons, playing football with them at lunchtimes, leading the football team to county triumph. These just a few that come to mind.

I loved the school I worked in. My colleagues and friends were an amazing bunch. Supportive, creative, fun, it was a good atmosphere. I felt valued and believed I could work there forever.

So what changed? Several things. It wasn’t one huge event but a build up which made me feel like I was desperate to leave. After two years there my third was to be not quite as happy.

The headteacher retired. The head that had given me my start, had always completely trusted and believed in me and now is one of my closest and valued friends even though she is nearly as old as my Mum!

I broke up with my boyfriend. We had been going out for four years. It wasn’t what I wanted. I was devastated. It rocked my confidence and my morale.

The school changed. I struggled to get on with the head who took over the job. I found myself internally questioning his decisions and hating the way the school was going. It made me sad to see it change.

A colleague of mine who was also a friend was relying on me for advice and support with a personal matter. At the time I was happy to try and help but I realise now it had a very negative impact on how I was feeling. I worried about the consequences for those involved if what I had been told was ever revealed. I was only 24 and this was a complex issue for someone double my age.

Lastly the final straw. When I found out my friend and colleague who always supported me was looking to leave I knew it was time. I had just started thinking about other primary jobs when I got this weird message one day.

The receptionist thrust a post it in my hand. She said this lady called, this is her home number can you call her back. What was weird was this was my ex teacher. Why on earth did she want me to call her? Why give me her home number.

I hate phones so this and the not knowing what message I was going to receive when I called, meant it took several days to pluck up the courage to call. That phone call changed my life.

Depressed teacher-the self confidence is returning (slowly).

So it’s slowly been coming back. Today was always going to be a massive step for me. It felt like it was make or break. In reality it wasn’t as extreme as that at all!

This time last year I was starting to feel extremely unwell. The stress of work and home was becoming too much. The depression which I live with was starting to rear its head.

At this point last year on the day of my lesson observation I had a panic attack at break time.It was so bad. A friend and boss had wanted to send me home but I was determined to stay for my lesson observation period 5. I did the observation and it went ok considering how unwell I was!

This was the start of the end for me last year. It certainly wasn’t the lesson observation that made me unwell but looking back it signals to me the time of when it all started going wrong.

So today a year on and another lesson observation. The one I had been in a state about for over a week. The one that the pathological liar in my head had tried to pollute and poison me with negativity that I wouldn’t be able to cope with it.

Last night in bed I was telling my husband that I wasn’t going to work tomorrow. I couldn’t do it. I was going to fail. I am a rubbish teacher and a failure. Today I had a mountain to climb before the lesson had even begun. I had to persuade myself I could at least attempt it.

The classic “are you ok?” This phrase came from a number of sources this morning! Was I oozing doubt and worry? The classic “I’m fine”. I was far from fine but desperately trying to hold it altogether for fear of falling apart completely.

So the end of the day it’s all over! Relief is my major emotion right now. But I’m also so proud of myself! Yes I know that’s a miracle coming from my head! I have no idea what the lesson was graded I haven’t had any feedback yet but wow I was shocked at how well it went. My very difficult, loud and challenging year 11 group spent an hour on task. They really engaged in the carousel activities I set up. They worked as a team. They even drew in those who don’t engage well.

More than anything I loved teaching them. I can really see improvements being made. On a feedback sheet some of them were asked to fill in they were so

positive.

In the car on the way home (I still can’t drive so my husband picked me up) it was great to hear how happy he was for me too! He also put it all into perspective when he said think about this time last year. We agreed I was in a completely different place then. Things were spiralling out of control. It was the beginning of the deep depression that would consume me for most part of a year. Right now things are good. Yes I’m having lots of blips. Lots of lows. Lots of depression or anxiety points. But they are not continuous or deep. Mostly I’m managing them well. Mostly I’m keeping the illness in check.

So thank you for anyone who has stuck with me. Thank you for taking the time to ask if I am ok. I am sorry I am not always honest with my response but all I can say is it means the world to me that you took the time to ask and care. Thank you to my amazing department for putting up with me! You make me laugh everyday which really helps especially the chair episode today! Thanks to my friends and husband who reassure me through my constant self doubt. And finally thanks to the students I teach who inspire me to be a better teacher everyday.

Depression: my head is a pathological liar.

One of the most difficult parts of depression for me is the liar which lives in my mind. It is very hard to explain what this is like in reality. Most people perhaps have different thoughts flying through their brain every day. But for me I live fighting off these negative thoughts.

A very good friend of mine suffers from the most awful night terrors. The things she has shared with me are seriously frightening. Now I have never had a night terror. I’ve had many nightmares but actually it is more my nightly dreams that are causing me most trouble lately.

I spend my nights either awake with anxiety or asleep having dreams which stir up my anxiety further. Many dreams at the moment seem to be me struggling at work. Me failing. Me needing time off. Me needing people to help. Me being back in the position where I am unwell and can’t be at work.

Awaking from these dreams it can take ages to fully process. I wake up scared, anxious and stressed and it can take a while for me to realise it was just a dream and not reality.

Once awake my the pathological liar kicks into over drive. You are rubbish. Everyone hates you. You are annoying. She is avoiding you. She is cross with me. She doesn’t like me. She is fed up with me.

With work (even on my day off). I can’t teach. Yesterday’s lesson was rubbish. I made a fool of myself by doing this. I didn’t handle this situation well. I am useless. My observed lesson on Friday will be a disaster.

Then it picks on one point. As an example Friday I am being observed teaching a lesson.When well I really don’t mind being observed. It doesn’t give me any worry. I know I can teach I just do my normal job and it usually goes great. In fact I thrive in this situation and love to show off my skills.

But right now on the brink it has caused me so much anxiety and stress. Last week before I had planned the lesson I was the lowest I had been in months due to the worry.

Today the pathological liar in my head started with coming up reasons for not going to work on Friday. My wrist hurts too much. Maybe one of the boys will be unwell. Maybe I will be unwell.

It’s the negative and poorly part of my brain kicking in. This is not me! This is not who I am! This is not my normal. This is the depression and anxiety running overboard in my head.

I hate the pathological liar in my head. I hate the way it changes me. I hate the way it ruins my everyday day and night.

Overthinking. Negativity. A LIAR lives in my head! I spend nights and day at the moment fighting this liar. I have to push it back. I have to stomp on it or it will take me over again. I feel like I am tired because I am constantly trying to contain the monster in my head.