It's no secret I've struggled this summer. The lack of routine and infinite free time to think set my anxiety on overdrive. Add in my attempts at dating and I'm sure you can see how I could go from loving the freedom of the holidays, to suffocated by the expanse of nothing stretching ahead.
Ever wary of my triggers, I hadn't anticipated this one. So I guess at least now I know! I really do need to stay active and keep busy. So that's what I did. I popped off to stay in a yurt for a few nights, went lavender picking I even went for a walk in the forest I've lived 10m from my entire adult life. But when the dust settled and I had had one too many rejections, I still wasn't feeling like me. So I talked to a friend (more than one actually), who listened to me cry for over an hour before I fell asleep on his sofa, but ultimately I knew I needed to sort this out myself.
And as fate would have it, I’d already signed on to volunteer with the same group I sat my 10 day silent mediation in Malaysia in July last year. Sometimes I really do think the world works to help you out when you need it most. I had signed up to serve, to help a group of 250 people experience the sheer peace that I found in Malaysia last year. I'm not sure what I expected really, a bit of cleaning, maybe help in the kitchen; certainly I assumed there would be lots of mediation.
But what I actually experienced was a world away from what I expected.
Firstly I want to lay out the rules; this time round they were slightly different from when you sit the course. Most obviously is you can talk, but your speech should be “noble “ – no swearing, gossiping, singing, humming, whistling, lying or shouting. There are no phones, no internet, no books, Male and female are divided everywhere but the kitchen and everyone who serves sits 3.5 hours of mediation everyday. You literally stop whatever you are doing and head to the mediation hall.
So I turned up a day early ready to help and needing a peaceful place to get back to my happy place and it kind of was. I'm disappointed in myself for letting my mediation slip gradually to a few minutes here and there. The sessions immediate sent me internal to feel who I was and where I was. A sense of peace drifted itself over me after the first day. But it wasn't quite smooth sailing.
On day 2 I was asked to be the kitchen manager, not really knowing what that was I agreed wanting to help in whatever way I could. It turns out the kitchen manager is responsible for the entire kitchen; getting food out, preparation for the next day, organising the kitchen team, health and safety, seting up the dining rooms; even taking meals to the teachers. It was NOT a small job. I was supposed to be trained for 2 days but the person I was relieving was ill and had to take 4 days off, so I got the equivalent of half a day! So its just Me, a kitchen, a very detailed recipe book, 10 other volunteers and 250 mouths to feed. It was initiation by fire (literally when we set a box of matches alight).
I think it took 3 days for me to be ready to go home, I had had a confrontation with another volunteer who didn't like being told what to do and believed they'd be better than me. I didn't ask for the job, I didn't even want it, I was stressed. I spent my only break in the day (we have 30 mins for each meal and 1.5 hours after lunch, otherwise it's 9 hours of working) crying my eyes out and planning how to get home. But was this not the exact thing I had been worried about starting work again? I've been petrified I won't be able to handle the stress and here I am in a stressful situation, not handling it. I needed to see if I could do it.
It's a gorgeous atmosphere in these places, you're never really alone, just when you think lunch is going to be late, 3 more people will turn up to help you finish everything off, even though they're on the cleaning team not kitchen, or its their day off. So I let my stress be known, I asked for help (not something I do very often) and help came. It was there in the words of encouragement, the random helpers, the innocuous conversation and the late night motivational speeches.
Before I knew it the course was over and I had survived. Everyone was fed, the food was even complimented and most importantly no one got food poisoning (my food hygiene certificate from way too many years ago clearly helped). It wasn't the peaceful escape I wanted, but it was the stress test I needed. I feel like if I can handle that, I can handle anything.
I’ve been home a week now and while I've not kept that busy my anxiety has been almost non existent. I learnt that I don't need other people to be happy and that's easy to forget; especially with modern dating and social media. I just need to accept everything as it is and let my path unfold, wherever it may take me.
And possibly take a few brakes from my phone a bit more often! I can't tell you how freeing it was to turn it off for 12 days! No facebook, Twitter, WhatsApp, Google (we had to ask other people for answers to our questions) or even texts and calls. Modern liberation. I highly recommend unplugging for a day or 2.
It’s Friday the 13th and while that’s unlucky for some, for me it’s my last day of term: 7 weeks off. I think that’s pretty lucky!
I have been back in the country for 8 weeks, at work for 5 weeks and I’m popping over to Croatia on Sunday for a family wedding; missing the last week of term. But these last 5 weeks have done exactly what they were intended to do: ease me back in.
From day 1 it was already like I’d never left, I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: “kids are kids no matter where in the world they are”. They are funny, resilient, brave, silly, annoying and a million other things in between. They are also dealing with things some of us can’t even begin to imagine. I get copied into the emails I see the problems these boys face, even the ones I don’t teach. I’m reminded why I came back, why I went back into teaching, why I truly love what I do.
It wasn’t easy coming in and having to assert myself from the outset, with little guidance about what is expected of me, I was given a lot of free reign. The support was there if I needed it and the department I work with are fantastic, but it was very much my classes and therefore my decisions. Which I loved. I had great easy classes of top set students and some very difficult classes. But I don’t give up easily I’m definitely a trier. I gave up almost every lunch and most afterschools with these students holding detention after detention and I gained some level of control, they listened better and worked harder. But on my last lesson with them after I attempted to do a fun pub quiz style game with them: they couldn’t stay on task, disruptive as I’ve ever seen them and LOUD. So it was my last lesson of the term with them had us doing maths from the board in silence (or as close to it as I could get), various students in other classroom and me left feeling a sense of losing the battle. Because I did lose the battle. I told a friend once if you scream at them, you’ve lost. And I screamed.
But that’s not how I remember the day! I had a fantastic class building sweet and toothpick towers, using the plikars app and giving out prizes. Because that is what teaching is. You have really bad lessons and really good lessons, but none of that defines the day. You have to search for the good and hold on to it. That last lesson could have soured my entire experience but it didn’t, it didn’t even stop me reusing that resource, I just finished another lesson who did fabulously with the pub quiz.
One of my favourite sayings is: “it’s all swings and roundabouts”
We are always having highs and lows, ups and downs, going round and round on a never ending wheel. Until we jump off and look back. See the bigger picture.
I’m heading into the summer excited for September. I have a new TLR, a first aid course to look forward to, a new class room, a new form and lots of plans I want to make a reality. Just typing all of that made me appreciate how far I’ve come in the last 5 weeks and I have the whole summer to develop myself, learn new things I can teach the students and prepare myself mentally to cope with the stresses of teaching. Not forgetting of course, a little traveling around Croatia – I’ll even be there for their world cup final! So it didn’t come home, it came pretty close!
Last night saw my second Teach Meet, and it was so different to the LGBTEd teach meet, that I almost don’t want to call them the same thing.
The format was faster and a lot was packed into the 2.5 hours I was there. We all stayed in the same room, alternating speakers with share tables. At one point I realised it felt a lot like CPD speed dating; where dates had just 5 mins to get their point across.
With speakers like @TeacherToolkit and James from @Innerscope1 it was no wonder everyone had so much fun. I was in awe of their experience and knowledge, trying to absorb all the incredible suggestions and tricks of the trade. I was most struck though, by James' spoken word poetry. I do love my poetry and his struck all the chords, delivered in an engaging way that had us hanging onto his every word. I would absolutely love for the students to be able to see him and hear him, truly inspiring.
But what surprised me the most about the speakers was the brutal honesty and openness they showed in revealing their own stories to a room full of strangers. Not 1 but 2 of the main speakers focused on mental health and wellbeing and a further 2 mentioned it in their talks. I found myself relating to the depression, the anxiety and the twisted thought patterns of @JamesHilton300. His recovery through CBT echoed my own and it really was a light bulb moment of #WAITT: We Are In This Together. Teachers are lifting the lid on mental health and we ARE talking about it, finally! Could this be the start of a new era for teaching? Where we look out for each other, talk about our problems and solve them together? One can only hope.
Something that one of the speakers said last night has also stayed with me: “Positive people are happier”. In a profession clouded by so much negativity it isn’t important we stay positive. It’s VITAL. I know how those negative thought patterns work, they can drain you entire being if you let them. They can turn a great day into a terrible one and they can turn an amazing teacher into a shell of themselves. So let’s all try to be more positive; positivity begets positivity.
I’ve been back in school a week and a half and already it feels as if I never left. Rushing around all day with kids asking a million questions, pens disappearing at an alarming rate and that one class that drives me mad.
Maybe starting with 5 weeks till summer sounded great when I realised I get paid over the summer, but right now cementing myself in the role of teacher is a farce of kids pushing boundaries. I forgot what it was like having to battle for the respect I had earned so long ago. Most students think I’m supply and that I’ll be gone soon, those that know I’m here to stay are trying to see what they can get away with. And me? I’m exhausted.
I like to have a bit of fun with my classes, connect with them and tailor my lessons to their needs. But right now I’m in full on strict mode. Everything is getting pulled up, I’m giving them rules they haven’t had all year and the battle is real. But if I know anything, I WILL win!
I knew it wouldn’t be easy coming to a new school, you have to assert yourself. Prove you are a good teacher worth their respect (students and staff). I hadn’t even met my department before I started as I was so far away. So nobody knew what to expect. As hard as it is though, carving out my place here, I'm loving every single second. I love the routine, seeing them get something I’ve explained. I love the extra curricular and running around in the sun on sports day. I love helping the trainee teachers prep for their observations. And I really love those 3 minutes I manage to get my noisy class to be quiet.
As confidently as I can after a week and a half, I’m going to say that I really like my school too. I already have friends here, it’s small and the boys are fairly well behaved and the head teacher respects your work life balance; compensating weekend trips with days back or organising them in school time.
Guys, I think I’m going to be very, very happy here; if not a bit more tired for a while until I adjust back to this working malarkey.
Is been almost 2 weeks since I returned home. Since I boarded my last plane and finally unpacked my backpack. I slept in my own bed, showered in my own bathroom and had a home cooked meal. It’s been 7 days of getting a SIM card, seeing long lost friends, organising my memories into a scrap book and being smothered in my parents love.
It’s strange now looking back, it already feels like this distant memory, that I have to keep reminding myself really did happen. You lose touch with home when you travel, but when you get home you lose touch with traveling. It’s the small things that I noticed at first. Always having the fridge full and I could take anything ( no labels saying keep out!), or how quiet it is at night when there aren’t 5 other people in your room. How I can leave my toiletries in the shower and no one will steal them. But those only lasted a couple of days. It really is incredible how quickly these things become the new normal.
Now my trip to the supermarket was something else. Firstly, when we walked in my friend picked up a scanner, I was very confused, they scanned items as they put them into the trolley! Then when they went to pay they just touched their phone on the pad. THEIR PHONE! I seriously felt like I’d come back to some futuristic time. I was still paying with cash everywhere!
But even that becomes normal eventually. It definitely took a few days, but it seems like everyone does it and perhaps, soon, so will I. But it has me worried. If all that can change in the general world, has the teaching world changed so much too?
I’m excited for my new job to start in 2 weeks. I have so many ideas and I can’t wait to be teaching again, but a small part of me is worried I won’t remember what to do or ill say something I shouldn’t, almost like being an NQT again! And another not quite as small part of me worries that I'll succumb to the stress of the job again (I think my mum’s is worried with me on that one – hence the smothering). There is only one way to settle my nerves, however, and that is just to jump straight back into it.
So I’m going to enjoy my last week of freedom while eagerly anticipating my new job and reminiscing about the trip that definitely did happen!
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!
After accepting this new job way back in late January and finally sorting out the details in march, I think I'm ready to put my feelings into words. I've started with a lot of words, just to give you an insight into what my head has been like the last few months.
Largely, I think my feelings fall into two categories: terrified and excited. I'm sure this isn't that surprising but I think I might be feeling these a little more intensely than would reasonably be expected. I'm not going to sugarcoat this post so I guess you're about to get to know me a whole lot better.
Why am I terrified?
It's no secret that some of the contributing factors to my leaving were: depression, stress, anxiety and migraines. All of these mixed together in a knot of problems. I did have what my friends like to call a “full mental breakdown”, around 2014/2015 Christmas/New year. It was without a doubt the worst year I ever wish to experience. What started as mild depression, spiraled into a more serious depression due to my lack of willingness to seek help. It didn't help that at the same time my migraines reached a point where I was having 5+ a week, possibly or probably from the stress of my training year and the depression. All of this topped off with a newly discovered allergic reaction to gluten. So yeah, 2015 wasn't good for me. At one point I took a few too many pills and I realised I had a decision to make. End it or get help. Luckily I got help.
So considering all this happened within the remit of life as a teacher, I'm sure you can see why the thought of going back into this environment is more than a little terrifying. What happens if the migraines come back? I was one step away from having an injection in the base of my skull to stop them before I left. I was taking pills upon pills to try to control them and those pills had side effects. There was one great day where my pulse dropped so low I kept nearly fainting in front of the class. It's inevitable that there will be stress, and I can only hope that the strategies I have developed this year will help me control that stress. I need to remember it's ok to say no to things and I made a major decision regarding my career. I realised I have no desire to climb the ladder, I don't want the extra money and responsibilities; I want to do my job and teach the students. It's the last of the job I love and is where I feel I can make the most difference. I'm hoping this will reduce my stress.
Ok so maybe I can reduce the stress and therefore reduce the migraines, but depression is a life long illness. Even in this last year and a bit there have been days or strings of days where I have felt down and a bit of depression has creeped back in. If I can be depressed in what is essentially paradise, is there any hope for my return to work? I only know one thing about coming back and that is if I ever get that low again I won't survive it. Dragging myself out of that hole was the hardest thing I've ever done and I'm not sure I've got the strength in me to do it again.
So yes I'm terrified that going back to the environment that put me in that situation in the first place, will put me back there.
It probably hasn't helped that even my parents have expressed concern about not taking on too much, limiting my stress and my mother has decided she will personally be my wellbeing protector (I've yet to decide whether this will do more harm than help).
Why am I excited?
Ah ok this is a slightly lighter topic! And I'm pretty sure you teachers out there can understand my excitement. I've not been consistently in a classroom since December 2016 and I MISS it! Like, really miss it! Yes I've taught while I've been traveling, but never for longer than a month, never consistently and sometimes not even math. So I'm really looking forward to having MY class, with MY students.
I'm starting at a new school, one where I have a few friends and know about the schools reputation. I also know the head teacher a bit and I love their ethos and attitude! Leadership is very important to me and I'm hoping this is a good foundation.
I think most teachers will agree it's very hard to switch off, during the holidays our brains are always coming up with new ideas. Now, multiply that by over a year! My brain is overflowing with teacher ideas that I've been waiting months to implement and try out. Add in the edutwitter lovelies and the books I've been reading (possibly a review of a few to come) and I'm dying to get back in the classroom and relieve myself off some of these ideas!
I'm even excited about new equipment! Who hasn't dreamed of new pens, books, whiteboards...
Since I promised earlier full disclosure, I've also missed something else. Home.
I haven't been home in 16 months (except 4 days for a wedding), I haven't seen my friends, my family, my bed. I feel like I left putting my life on pause. And now I'm ready to pick that life back up again. I'm ready to put down some roots, maybe buy a house, form relationships.
I've a lot to look forward to, but in the shadow of all this excitement lerks that lingering terror. I just have to trust in my own development over the last year and my own strength in being able to handle whatever life throws at me. Or I suppose whatever the job throws at me. Because good or bad I'm in this for the long haul, I love teaching and it's the only career I can see myself in.
So here's hoping and here's to enjoying the last 6 weeks of my epic adventure!