This is guest blog from an anon contributor.
Therapy was a roller coaster. There were times when I left feeling worse than when I had walked in, and other times, I felt as though I could tackle the world to the ground. What I knew for sure was that I needed it. In the weeks I skipped sessions, the anxiety and deep sadness returned and did so with a vengeance.
After a few months off work, I finally came to the decision that I couldn’t return. Partly due to the fact that I could not see the toxicity at my school getting any better, nor the idea that my mental health would improve had I chosen to go back. Not only did I decide to leave my school, but I had also decided to leave education for good. This decision was not made lightly. I had been teaching for over 15 years and loved working with children, but this was not the first school I had worked in with a hugely toxic environment. I came to the conclusion that I was simply not very good at judging schools before accepting jobs and now I was suffering the consequences, alongside my family, who I relocated to work at this school.
I was a senior leader in a challenging school with a challenging role. None of this had ever frightened me before; however, after a year of working every hour in the day, the ‘fear’ and need for validation from my close colleagues started to plague me daily. Am I doing a good job? Am I making the right decisions? Do staff like me? Do they think I am doing a good job? I had been signed off work with ‘work-related stress’—a growing concern in the education sector, but one that is still not taken seriously. I loved my job, the kids, the school, but my capacity to do my work to a standard I felt was acceptable, rapidly disappeared. With this came the sleepless nights, responding to emails at all hours, and being the first person in school and last to leave on most days. I barely saw my family, and when I did, I was always working. The more I felt I wasn’t doing a good job, the more I worked. The more I worked, the more anxious I became. This vicious cycle continued for a while before I broke. I say I broke because that is exactly what I feel happened.
I pride myself on being an ethical leader; someone who is compassionate, open and honest. I believe that my success as a leader has always been in my ability to build strong relationships, even with people who at first struggle to trust me. You get this a lot when you work in toxic schools, and staff will put you through the mill before accepting you are a nice person and a leader they can have confidence in. I treat people the way I want to be treated… with fairness, kindness and respect. However, there have been many times in my life when this has not been how I have been treated, including professionally.
I’ve been told I care too much as a leader, that I need to be tougher, harder, put my game face on more often and not let people see my kindness. This feedback only made me feel more determined to show people that you can lead with compassion and still be as successful as the zero-tolerance towards your staff approach. Unfortunately for me, when I tried to fight back, I was met with open bullying and would often find myself isolated by some of my fellow senior leaders.
I have stayed in schools where I have been desperately unhappy for years because I loved the kids and the community I served. With each change of school, I had to accept defeat and walk away, hoping that ethical changes would happen for the sake of staff and students.
For anyone who meets me and gets to know me, they will tell you I am confident, funny, caring, a bit loud (sometimes), charismatic, approachable and kind. My mum and dad would often tell me off as a teenager for being too nice for my own good. ‘Wherever you go, you pick up broken wings. You can’t save everyone’. I knew this, but would undoubtedly die trying! My capacity to love knows no end. I love hard and fall harder, but this has never stopped me from wanting to love again.
My innate compassion comes from my grandfather, who passed away when I was nine years old. Such was his impact on my life that I still think about him often and sometimes talk to him in times of need. When I was 16, I truanted from college on a few occasions, always managing to get home on time in order for my parents not to suspect I hadn’t been. On this particular day, after spending the day with some friends, I walked towards the bus stop to get the first of two buses home. As I approached the stop, I noticed a woman on a bench. She was crying, holding her stomach. I sat next to her and glanced at her quickly. She was pregnant and homeless. I asked her if she was ok and if there was anything I could do for her. She continued to cry and explained that she thought she was in labour but could not go to the hospital as ‘they will take my baby away’. I didn’t understand why this would have happened, who takes children away from their mothers? Why would they? And then, of course, I realised that she had no home to go to and would therefore not be able to look after her baby when it was born. Trying to remain calm, I told her that I only had a pound to my name and that this would take us straight to the nearest hospital. It wasn’t a good idea to have the baby at a bus stop, and I had never helped to deliver one! It started to snow. After an hour of negotiating, I finally convinced Claire to let me take her. I refused to leave her on her own and persisted until she gave in. I remember people looking at us on the bus, some in utter contempt. Even the bus driver asked me if I knew ‘this woman’. What the hell was wrong with people? Could they not see she needed help?
When we finally got to the hospital, she was in excruciating pain. I asked if I could stay in the waiting room but was told to go home. Home, Oh god, I was so late. Everything had come to a standstill as the snow had come down like a cloud on the ground. Three hours late home, what excuse could I make up now? First things first, call my mum and explain what had happened. As I had no more money left to get the second bus home, I made a collect call and begged my mum to ask my dad to come and get me. ‘Why are you at that particular hospital, it’s the opposite way to your college?’ I made up a silly excuse, which my mum didn’t believe, and as punishment, my dad refused to come a get me. I walked for an hour before calling again. I couldn’t feel my feet, and I wasn’t dressed for the weather. ‘What can I say? You will never learn. Always needing to help someone. One of these days you will help the wrong person, and we will find you dead’. My mum always had a habit of exaggerating. After a further hour of walking and with 3 miles still to go, I called a third time, this time crying for my dad to come and get me. He did, and all the way home, I was given the usual lecture. ‘You’re too nice for your own good’ blah blah blah.
This wasn’t the first, nor the last time I got into trouble for trying to help someone. I say trouble but realise now that I am a parent, that my mum and dad were just worried. I didn’t see this at the time. I find myself thinking about Claire sometimes and wonder whether she managed to get the help she desperately needed and whether she was able to keep her baby. These small encounters with strangers have a habit of coming back to me every so often.
Back to my first therapy session; I cannot remember a lot, other than my meagre efforts to sound sane. Stringing a sentence together would take a lot of energy, and one that made any sense well that rarely happened during this time.
I choose to work in challenging schools in hard to reach communities. I want to make a difference to people, children and the world. I want to change lives and build a more equal and fairer society. When I had my breakdown, this hadn’t changed, it never had and never will. What changed the darkness I found myself in and the idea that I could not get out of it. So what else could I do with my life now I decided to leave teaching? I had no idea I didn’t know if I could love something else as much as I loved my job. This thought circled my mind for months.
What will come in the next few blogs are some life experiences that I have never shared more widely than with some very close friends, and certainly hadn’t deal with since they happened. You will see that my feelings of self-worth and value had been crushed from the age of 9 and that in fact, the issues I was tackling at work were taking me back to a time where I felt helpless where I felt like a nobody.
This is part of a series of blogs. Part one can be found here.