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Putting yourself first

Heroes do not wear their pants on the outside all the time. Corinne Settle, SSAT senior education lead, explains

So, a thing happened. Quite simply, I broke.

It happened so creepingly slowly in many ways that I didn’t recognise what was happening. To be honest, if you had put a big flashing light on the motorway, I would have been too busy to notice.

Over my 20-year career as a teacher and six years as a senior education lead at SSAT, there have been many learning points about my own mental health. But just like many learners, I didn’t learn what I was supposed to. What I heard and what I then did have been two unrelated things. What this has become though is a stick to beat myself with. Feedback has been unwanted, unwelcome because my own fragile self-confidence needed right now. Accepting this situation has been the hardest step.

Perfectionism

In the earliest years in my career, perfectionism nearly broke me. I look back at my teacher planners (I still have all of them) and they are works of art. So was everything I tried to do. I slowly and awkwardly learnt that this wasn’t sustainable – but my word, I tried. I remember what I called ‘zombie Saturdays’: being so exhausted that this was my level of functioning. Sunday was then marking day.

I have learnt that I have two high-risk points, mid-October and February. It’s not remotely surprising that these are linked to the school year. In September I was always excited and ready for the new term with big plans for lessons, professional learning or my next big project. I would then pop my superhero pants onto the outside of my clothing and go for it. Not just professionally, personally too. I would start a new diet and exercise regime, making amazing plans to keep that ‘summer feel’ and closeness with my son gained through precious time together. This is also my pattern in January too.

Perfection isn’t attainable. Wearing your pants on the outside for a long time is a bad plan.

In the last year, unknowingly I reached a new level. I have piled so much more pressure on myself, feeling the need to become even better, to reach and support more schools. But as I increasingly worked on more and more projects, my focus narrowed. Work became everything, but I didn’t see it. Hobbies I have loved for years were no longer enjoyable, socialising a distraction, everything became about completing a ticklist both personally and professionally. I have been travelling at high speed for so long, I didn’t even know what stopping felt like.

At the end of the summer, I went away for the weekend with friends. I couldn’t cope with relaxing. The 13-amp fuse in my brain that I had been pushing 18 amps through for who knows how long broke. I stopped working. I never understood how, one day, people just didn’t go to work anymore. Now I know. I couldn’t concentrate, read or focus on anything. My brain had had enough, it needed rest. So, for the first time, in a long time, I stopped. It wasn’t a choice, it happened.

Just get back to normal? No

Allowing your brain to recover from something like this is really hard, you just want to get back to normal and be ok. It doesn’t work like that. You have to listen to your body, be patient. Many of my friends came out in support of what was happening to me, explaining that they had been through this too. The science teacher in me needed to understand what was going on. There is a wonderful book – The Depressive Illness: The curse of the strong by Dr Tim Cantopher. This explained the physical impact of what was happening to me, why I couldn’t function and why I had to accept that returning to full health would take time. This book identifies the personality characteristics of the types of people that this may happen to: a focus on reliability, diligence, moral strength, a tendency to focus on the needs of others before one’s own. Sound familiar to fellow teachers and school leaders?

Remove the superhero pants

Superheroes are real, teachers are superheroes.

The challenges that I have seen teachers and school leaders face in these difficult weeks have required the application of pants over your outer clothes.

Please remember to take them off.

Just keeping going… just a bit more… a bit longer…? NO! – this could take you out of action. Instead, look at, for example, #teacher5aday:

  • #connect
  • #exercise
  • #notice
  • #learn
  • #volunteer

You are not alone. It’s ok to not be ok. It is ok to stop, rest and talk honestly about how you are feeling. My greatest superpower now is to #notice how I am feeling and #connect to the people around me, and talk about it. But don’t get me wrong: six months on and I am still a work in progress, there will always be tough days. I have been practising social distancing with my own thoughts for a while. A phrase I found useful is ‘the stories that you tell yourself aren’t necessarily true’. I am good enough.

Over these next few weeks, with my son at home we will also doing the ‘family mile’ each day to get outside into the fresh air as long as we can (#exercise). I have offered to support at my local primary school (#volunteer) and I will certainly be learning about home-schooling (#learn).

I love Patrick Ottley-O’Connor’s:

A slightly modified version is especially relevant in the current situation: “Look after yourself first, before helping others, so we can make the biggest difference for our families, students and community.”

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