I’m sitting here waiting to board my plane. I’m heading home. Finally. When I go to sleep next it will be in my own bed, in my own room.
It doesn’t quiet feel real. None of it does. Not the fact that I’m coming home, or that I’ve been gone for a year and a half; over 500 days. I know when I get home it will feel like I never left, I’m already starting to feel it. My best friend told me after returning from her travels, that life goes back to normal and you just fit back in to a world that is largely the same. That, sounds like the biggest tragedy of all.
I know I can’t stop travelling now, but there’s places closer to home I’ve yet to explore. I’ve never been to Ireland, I’ve barely been to Scotland. There’s places in England I’ve never been – the lake district, the peak district. The list is endless. I’ll probably spend the rest of my life exploring this planet, just in smaller chunks. Now, I’ve got all these memories to keep, keep me happy, keep me focused on life and what really matters.
I want to be able to write this blog and reflect back on my trip, tell you how amazing and life changing it has been, give you the highlights and lowlights. But I can't squeeze 500 days into one blog, however long it is. To explain my trip would take 500 days. Some of you will hear stories over the years and assume you know all there is to know and then 10 years down the line I’ll tell you something new. That's how it works. So when I pause after being asked “tell me all about it!” its because I can't and sometimes just processing that questions takes me back to another time or another place.
So since I can't tell you how I feel adequately, I'm going to do what I need to do. Say thank you. Because, boy, there are a lot of people to thank.
To those who made it possible to leave. My parents who were so encouraging before and during, who encouraged me to spend all my money and enjoy my trip. To my friends who pulled me out of the darkness and into the light, I'd never have left without them. To the friend who was there with cuddles and food and wine and who followed me into Asia and beyond. And thank you to everyone who stayed in touch while I was gone, you were fewer than you think.
While I was gone there were hundreds of people I connected with, some for a day, some for a month; but they all meant something. Thank you to every single person who made their story part of my story, because monologues are boring. To those I never knew before, to those I've known forever but rarely get to see. To the family that became friends and the friends that became family. More than a few people welcomed me into their homes and I wish I could thank them individually, because after months in hostels a home is something not to be taken for granted and I for one can't wait to get back to mine.
As my plane takes off I'm not sad to leave, I'm excited to see what life has in store for me, because, as my Cambodian tattoo says: it seems to me we have a lot of story yet to tell;
There's been a lot on Twitter and in the news about the retention crisis, a lot of teachers aren't lasting 5 years in the profession; some don't even finish their NQT year. The government is trying to solve the teacher shortage with plans to recruit more teachers, but recruitment is nothing without retention. I'm not going to suggest ways the government can retain teachers because, honestly, what do I know? I'm not in leadership, neither have I ran a department or a school. My advice its to anyone considering quiting and its simple. Try a new school.
We all start our training with 2 schools, our A and B placements, but for some people that will be the only experiences they have of different schools. Just this week I spoke to 3 teachers who had quit within 5 years of starting, none of them had worked at more than one school. New teachers worry about getting a job so much they accept an offer from their placement school and stay there. Assumptions are made about the entire profession based on those 2 schools. I'm obviously completely different, I've worked at 3 schools!
My A placement was a Catholic all girls school. The kind of school a teacher goes to and literally never leaves. The students were lovely; hard working, well behaved, actively participated in school life. The leaders were supportive, caring and there was real culture of love. Plus it was petty well funded. So let's just say I got a good idea of how great teaching as a whole can be. But my B placement was a whole different story.
I don't know what set me on the path to depression and I can't pin point exactly when it started, but I do know that after my B placement I was a shadow of my former self. The thing I remember most is how empty the staff room always was. At my A school you had to fight for a chair at lunch, here it was a ghost town. I had a few other trainees to talk to but otherwise I only ever saw my maths colleagues. A teacher had left the year before and so the department was a member of staff down, enter me. I was used as a cover teacher for a mid set class with behaviour issues (I later found out that the teacher who left had the top set, but this class’s teacher traded for them). Their previous teacher gave me resources that would be helpful and some tips on seating. It turns out they had already used the resources I had been given (by their previous teacher). The head of department kept popping his head in, which would have been great if he didn't chase this up by telling me I looked terrified. He offered to do an observation and give me suggestions, which I jumped at. However, he graded the lesson using Ofsted standards at the time, not trainee ones, giving me a 4 (the lowest). Needless to say I was distraught. I was already falling apart outside school, the only time I left the house was to go to work and that was making things a whole lot worse. Luckily B placement only lasted 6 weeks (a very short term) and I was back in the loving embrace of A placement. Ofcourse the road I was on to depression didn't stop but that's not the point of this story.
The school I had my B placement at not 6 months later closed down as it failed its Ofsted, the teachers left in droves – while I was there someone said the teachers were leaving like rats abandoning a sinking ship. It was by all standards a ‘bad’ school. But I knew that not all schools were like that. I had seen the other side.
My third school, where I actually had a job through my NQT year and a bit after that, started out great. The teachers were friendly, passionate, cared about the kids and most importantly made substantial use of the staff room. This has come to be the way I judge a school, a staff that avoids the staff room, in my opinion, is one that is either overworked or not happy or both. I had friends at the school and I loved comming into work, we had staff socials that were well attended, I was happy.
I had one term with the original head before they retired and a new one was employed (that old head was actually my mum, but again, not the point). The difference was like night and day. Policies were changed, the ethos of the school was overhauled and my ideal workplace became a distant memory. Behaviour went downhill, yearheads were forbidden from having lunches and forced to go on duty (the union rep resigned and no one stood up to the tyranny), the staff room became more and more empty (since I left three had actually removed the sofas and put in chairs). Staff began leaving, going off for stress and having breakdowns in front of the kids.
It was time to leave, I knew where this road led. I had just begun my recovery and that was the most important thing to me. I'd allways wanted to travel and so that's what I did, but I also always knew I'd go back. I love teaching and I know that the right school is out there, I'm willing to look for it. If I have to change schools a hundred times to do it I will. The way I see it, the longest you have to stay at a school is 2 terms, based on when you hand your notice in. But if it's that bad, break contract. Gone are the days where a school wouldn't employ someone who had broken contract, if you're good and you love the job you'll find another school, hopefully a better school. Your health is THE most important thing.
So my advice? Don't quit yet. Try another school, and another and another. If you love the teaching part, if you love the kids; then the right school is out there. And when you're looking...
Start with the staff room.
Today I just got off a one week cruise to Alaska, beyond being possibly the most beautiful place I've seen (I know I say that a lot but hey, it might be true this time) I learnt something about my anxiety.
I always try to 'prevent’ my anxiety attacks and my low days. So, when I have them, there is always this sense of failure. Like I failed to prevent them from happening, I should have taken better care of myself or I shouldn't have put myself in that position. Which obviously in turn makes the attacks worse or makes me more depressed. It's a vicious cycle, one which I assumed would be broken when I just stop having them. I know I'm as shocked as you they haven't stopped yet.
But something happened on this trip. I had an anxiety attack, mild at first, then a little less mild and I told myself it's ok. It's ok to feel this way, accept that you feel it, don't try to explain why it is, just accept that it is. Once I accepted I was having an anxiety attack I thought about how I could calm myself down, what tools did I have to help myself right there.
Perhaps a year ago I would have hid in a toilet, passed out or just cried for a while until I was so tired I fell asleep. This time I took some deep breaths and I went on a bar crawl. Ok ok there's a few steps in between. I went for a walk, which on a cruise ship in Alaska is a beautiful thing. Then I sat for a while and smiled at people, there's something about smiling for others that makes you want to smile for yourself. And finally a few hours later when I was invited by a stranger on a cruise organised bar crawl I went, I had a great time and eventually I realised I wasn't pretending I was truly happy again.
So here's what I realised. The trick isn't necessarily prevention, though I suppose that is the reasonable route A. The trick was showing myself some love and understanding, accepting the illness and not letting it run my life. Understanding that nothing is permanent, everything changes, how I feel now is not how I will feel in an hour.
I'm calling it progress.
So here's the view that changed my perspective:
A friend of mine posted something on Facebook about small talk. It talks mostly about people being happiest and making the most authentic connections when they skip the small talk and delve deeper. The link is here if you want to take a look:
Considering a major part of our job as teachers is to connect with students and make meaningful connections with them as people (or at least I strongly believe so), it's amazing how stuck we can be in small talk. While traveling I am definitely guilty of it, asking the same questions day after day and only on day 5 of knowing someone actually get anywhere real; that's if neither of us travel on.
So in the interest of delving deeper I'm going to share with you the questions this article suggests and my answers to them. Think about your own answers and perhaps you'll find a few of them interesting to ask a student or a colleague. Deep connections can be monumental in those struggling with mental health issues, weather that's you, the student or a colleague.
I hope this has given you an insight into me and perhaps you'll use this to ask someone a deeper question next time you meet them. Perhaps you'll even be surprised at their response. I'd love, love, love it if anyone wanted to post their own answers to one or all of these in a comment (or message me if your shy). And don't think ‘oh, she doesn't mean me I barely know her’ let's change that! You know me a lot better than most now!