The Vulnerable Teacher

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I burnt out this year. I remember the precise moment the flame finally sizzled out. It was a Wednesday morning. I can vividly recall the feelings, the waves of panic and distress rising in my chest, the deluge of tears that wouldn’t stop.

I was signed off work for three weeks.

To be a teacher, you need resilience and stamina. You can’t just crumble when you come across children with complex needs, challenging parents or difficult colleagues. You can’t just avoid the workload because it’s huge and you’re exhausted. You can’t just refuse to teach the curriculum because the floor standards are too high and the expectations are age inappropriate for the children. There is a job to do, one that you’re not only paid to do, but also passionate about. One that can be enormously rewarding for all it demands of you. So we absorb everything that comes our way, we get on with it, we manage in every situation because we have to. It is our greatest strength. But it can also be our greatest weakness.

When the ability to cope becomes prized beyond all else, not coping becomes the ultimate teacher failure and we avoid the appearance of it at all costs. It makes us vulnerable to admit we’re not managing. We worry about how people will respond or if saying something will ruin our chances of future promotion. We tell our children it’s ok to make mistakes, while not believing it ourselves. Good teachers don’t fall apart, so we keep silent and struggle on.

But, as Brene Brown writes,

When we spend our lives pushing away and protecting ourselves from feeling vulnerable or from being perceived as too emotional, we feel contempt for when others are less capable or willing to mask feelings, suck it up, soldier on. We’ve come to the point where rather than respecting the courage and daring behind vulnerability we let fear and discomfort become criticism and judgement. (Daring Greatly)

I worried I’d be on the receiving end of that criticism and judgement when I went back to work. I’d had a leadership role and now I didn’t. I lost my sparkle, felt like I’d failed and wondered if I could still do the job at all.

I had lots of good support though, and gradually things got back to some kind of normal. I’m particularly thankful to the three senior leaders who were extremely kind to me in their own ways, enabling me to get on with my job, recover my confidence and finish the year well. I know that this is not everyone’s experience.

My inspiration for full time class teaching, however, has not returned. I need some time out and my very lovely Headteacher has thought carefully about giving me a role I will enjoy. So from September, I will be teaching music for three days a week in Key Stage 2. I’m going to spend the other two days on my writing. I have a few projects already in the pipeline and I’m excited that I will have some time and mental and emotional energy to spend pursuing my writerly dreams.

Being vulnerable can be seen as such a weakness. We’re supposed to hold it all together and keep our emotions in check. But in truth, the people who are courageous enough to say how they really feel and admit it when they need help are ultimately the people who will be innovative and creative because they are not afraid to fail. They are the ones who will be unafraid of change, bounce back after mistakes and stay emotionally and mentally healthy. It’s such a relief when you don’t have to pretend any more. And who knows, maybe the future is waiting to open up in interesting and exciting ways after you’re brave enough to say those four little words: I am not okay.