Losing A Pupil

This is by no way professional advice, a substitute for therapy or a ‘what to do when’ article.

This, unfortunately, is almost inevitable in the life of teachers, through your career you will lose a pupil, I have lost many pupils, to multiple different causes including suicides, road traffic accident, violent crime and illness. It hurts until a numbness envelops you.

This, unfortunately, is almost inevitable in the life of teachers, through your career you will lose a pupil. Click To Tweet

The teacher-pupil​ relationship is really complex, to some of these pupils you are the constant in their lives and although this is ‘work’ for us I would argue that our whole profession is predicated on the basis that we care for those we serve.

After losing a pupil, the intrusive thoughts of ‘should I have said something’ and ‘done something’, No matter how irrational these thoughts are, I call this the ‘what if’ phase, then for me comes the I don’t care phase. The world is so cruel why am I even playing this game and slowly the acceptance game. Everyone goes through feeling pupils similar to these, teachers, staff, the community I mean everyone.

We are trained to be the pillar of strength. We are strong for the kids, our colleagues, we are trained to be the adult. I am going to admit, I have cried many tears over my pupils, being the pillar of strength may be​ the right thing professionally but we need to recognise this takes its toll.

A pupil’s death is rarely an event that can be compartmentalised. This trauma can take months, sometimes years to deal with. Personally,​ I used to have a feeling of dread every year pre-holidays, with no idea of what and why I was feeling that way. Until I did. The community, teachers, our pupil, and the school family should be supported throughout these times.

I have no real answer to what this support looks like. Yes, I could suggest ​various things but like I said earlier I am not a professional. I would state again this is support is important and should not be pushed on to anyone other than the appropriately trained professionals.

Losing pupils to suicides is the hardest thing I have ever faced in a school. Every feeling described in the earlier paragraph is heightened. The hardest part is acceptance. Only once I accept that at that point it’s what that pupil wanted where I could move past rationalise any of it.

I’m going to leave this here. I will add to this. Just not today.

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Edutwitter. A Dangerous Place?

Every so often, I get an email, a DM or a phone call, from someone that wants, no, needs their voice heard. Guest Blog.

TW: Online grooming.

As I am about to write this, I already feel like a fool. I start typing, read, delete and repeat. I’m not a blogger or a writer, I don’t use long, flowery words, so please forgive me. This experience is extremely difficult to articulate and write about.. but I will try my best and here it goes.

About a year and a half ago, I had a twitter account that I set up a few years ago when I was an NQT. I wasn’t a huge Twitter user at the time and dabbled in and out of Edutwitter although never became heavily involved with it. Over a couple of years, my account shifted from being focused on education to my personal account, posting photographs of what I was cooking for dinner, photos of my friends and I, rubbish jokes and puns as well as making fun of my horrendous dates from Tinder.

One day a message popped into my inbox from someone, let’s call him… Paul. Paul wrote to me ‘Hey, your tweets are so funny, they really make me laugh, how are you?’, before I reply to any message the first thing I do is suss out the person’s profile, I scroll through their tweets, look at the number of their followers, who they are following, I check to see if we have any mutual online teacher/education friends and look at their photos. Paul, quite clearly knew his stuff, a Head from London, all tweets where SLT/school-related, this was someone who had a thirst and a passion for education, however, there was one thing I did notice in particular, he had no picture. So what? Many teachers keep themselves private on Twitter. Headship is a lonely place, Twitter was a safe place for him, after a few months of this first message, I found out Twitter wasn’t a safe place for me.

Twitter was a safe place for him, after a few months of this first message, I found out Twitter wasn’t a safe place for me. Click To Tweet

I politely replied, small talk, chit chat but did not ask any questions. He messaged me again the next day, asking about my job and hobbies. This time, I tried to imagine how old Paul was, I assumed much older than myself given his position in school and/or married. After a couple of friendly messages exchanged I decided to ask him outright about his age. He told me he was thirty-four, whilst that is a young age for a Head it is possible, my previous Head was younger than that. After a few weeks of messaging, he asked for my number. I was hesitant, I didn’t know what Paul looked like but he seemed so interested in me, my job and I suppose after a while I became interested in him.

I gave him my number and immediately he sent me a Whataspp message, he sent me some photographs of what he looked like, one photo was of him standing in a school playground, suited and booted surrounded by secondary school pupils with a proud smile on his face. We Facetimed and chatted about each other’s day, he said I looked beautiful even though I was exhausted. We would speak on the phone for hours each day over a couple of months, Paul told me all about his interview for his Headship, he told me about his deputies and how two of them didn’t get along with each other. One day he told me about an NQT in the English department who was struggling so had a meeting with her and had gone to support her in her lessons. I enjoyed finding out about the ups and downs of his day and that he could vent and offload to me. I remember him telling me that a student had dislocated his shoulder and that the parents wanted to take the school to court.

Meanwhile, I was having a difficult time at work, I felt frustrated with my Head of Department for different reasons. I’d ask Paul for advice and he suggested a few things, my Head had asked to see me about my issues with my Head of Department and of course, it was something I wasn’t looking forward to. Even though I hadn’t met him yet, Paul had given me lots of support, he had run through what I should say to my Head. I’m definitely not the most diplomatic person so always tend to get flustered in situations like this but I felt confident what to say as Paul had advised me. I was getting text messages from my Head of Department and abusive messages from my ex-boyfriend, Paul told me to change my number, so I did.  Nobody had my new number apart from family, very close friends and Paul.

With a whirlwind at work and having just come out of a difficult relationship I felt that the best part of my day was talking to Paul. Every time I put the phone down I felt full of confidence and self-belief, he oozed enthusiasm and positivity. After a few more weeks, Paul said he was going to be visiting the city that I live in for a Head’s conference and asked if I’d like to meet him for a drink. I felt nervous, we had been talking every day for months and I agreed. We arranged to meet in the city and he was already there waiting for me, I slowly walked towards him and he turned around and beamed and wrapped his arms around me.

We went to a bar, it was busy but we managed to get a table, we were chatting away and he put his hand on mine and said he had something for me. The bar staff bought over a bunch of flowers, they were beautiful.  We spoke a lot about my job and that I needed to move schools, he suggested looking for a job in London and that if I could work in a London school I could work anywhere, I’d progress quickly if I wanted to work up (I hate London so that would’ve never happened). My phone ran out of battery and I had no cash on me so I used his phone to order an Uber for myself, he jumped on the train back to London. At the time, I was living with my parents, as soon as I walked through the front door with a bunch of flowers a barrage of questions followed which I avoided answering! I started to think and realised that even though I had been speaking to Paul for a few months, there was still a lot that I didn’t know about him.

Paul called me the next day and we had our usual chat however I decided I would dig a little deeper into his history. He had grown up in the city where I live and I was eager to know where and how his teaching career started. I asked him where he did his training and he would reply but not actually answer my questions. We met for a second time and he came to visit me from London, he took me to a lovely Italian restaurant which he told me it held happy memories before his mother passed away. So after our dinner, we were drinking red wine, I asked him about his school, I still didn’t know the name of his school or his second name, we had only met twice (I also wanted to read the OFSTED report for his school!). He couldn’t look at me directly in the eye and I knew something was off. He took his bank card out of his wallet to pay for the bill, so I played detective and managed to read the name on his bank card, let’s call his second name.. Smith (very original).

When I arrived home, I opened my laptop and my Google search began. No Head called Paul Smith, nothing. Not one single thing. I remembered I had the photograph of him and the students from our Whatsapp messages. I reversed searched the photograph (I had watched the programme Catfish many times!), nothing. So I turned into a ghost and vanished from Paul, I wouldn’t reply to his messages. Gut instinct is so powerful and usually, it is always right.

One evening Paul called me in desperation to talk to me again, I answered and told him I knew there was something that he wasn’t telling me. Then there were a few seconds of silence.  He said there was something but he couldn’t possibly tell me what it was. I told him if he didn’t tell me what he was keeping from me, he would never speak to me again. The first three questions I asked him were “Are you married?”. No. “Are you engaged?” No. “Do you have a family that you’ve not mentioned?” No. I remained calm although in my head my conscience was shouting “WTF” over and over again.

Now if I reveal too much detail here,  his identity will be exposed. After he told me his secret, he had been lying about his name, Paul Smith was the name on his bank card (remember Paul Smith is the name I’m using for this blog), he told me that he had legally changed his name. I asked what his previous name was and he told me. I Googled his original name and my mouth dropped open, there were articles published in the national press with his photograph and his original name. Although what he had been accused of wasn’t illegal but definitely a case of breach of trust and I’m pretty certain that no school would want him working them if they knew this information, true or not, his name and photograph had been dragged through the media with a pretty serious accusation.

I stared at his previous name, printed in bold. I felt angry at him and myself. There was no way this guy was a Head, it was all a lie. He had told me so much about his job, a complete web of lies over a few months. For someone to be able to manipulate and lie to this extent could potentially be dangerous. I changed my number, even a couple of colleagues made a comment about how much I changed my number. He knew what school I worked at, I was worried he was going to turn up outside the school gates or even turn up at my parents’ house (I remembered using his phone for an Uber). I felt like I had been groomed, even as a grown woman. I deleted my twitter account and completely disappeared. I was at work and had an email sent to my work address from a teacher who had been following me, he had guessed my work email address, I could see the numerous attempts in the ‘CC’ bar of the email. He guessed correctly and asked why I vanished. This was getting weirdier.

I moved out of my parent’s house and did move school. After a year, I made a new Twitter account, I wasn’t frightened anymore. After I gained a few followers, after a few months it became a few hundred and then thousands. My tweets occasionally get retweeted hundreds of times and I went to check Paul’s account only to find he had already found me and blocked me.

Twitter can be a great place for many, I’ve met some great educators from there and even friends and they are the people who will know my identity because they have heard my story already. However, it can also be a dangerous place. I’ve not spoken to Paul since he doesn’t deserve to be anonymous but I do. Male or Female, Look after yourself.

However, it can also be a dangerous place. I’ve not spoken to Paul since he doesn’t deserve to be anonymous but I do. Look after yourself. Click To Tweet

Me x

 

Edu-Meet Mental Health – Autumn 2019

The Vision

To create a place where educators can get together, network and discuss the very pertinent subject of mental health within our profession. We are the foundations of modern society, we make all adults into what and who they are. Mental health is a facet rarely discussed with our pupils or ourselves and this must change for the betterment of the pupils we serve and the profession we love.

Mental health is a facet rarely discussed with our pupils or ourselves and this must change for the betterment of the pupils we serve and the profession we love. Click To Tweet

The form below is to gauge interest in different areas

 

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What to do When Your Pupils Exhibit Mental Health Issues.

I believe that mental health illnesses are exactly that, illnesses, and should be viewed as such without the fear of stigma and discrimination. As educators, it is our social, moral and legal responsibility to create an environment in our classrooms in which pupils and teachers alike feel safe in reaching out for help and support.

Recently I appeared on BBC London’s Inside Out program “Why Teaching is Making Me Ill” in which I disclosed that I, myself have suffered from bouts of depression, sleeplessness and anxiety. Since the program aired not only have I been inundated with emails from fellow teachers in solidarity but my pupils have been completely supportive and frank in their questioning. Although I do feel as though I have reduced my employment opportunities in some schools but do I really want to work for those organisations anyway, so all in all a positive experience.

Let me make a point here I refuse to be ashamed of an illness. This is my consistent response to every enquiry which errs on the side of stigma or discrimination, sometimes peoples brains don’t produce enough chemicals for them to function at a 100% all of the time and I cannot emphasise this enough, that’s okay.

Being honest as educators, schools can be pressure cookers for teachers with the inherent stresses of day to day issues of working with the volatility of pupils, unachievable numerical exam targets, incessant formal lesson observations, pay related performance management and the harsh face of accountability.

Similarly, pupils in their adolescence also have a multitude of stresses and if not checked in many cases this becomes a breeding ground for mental health issues. As leaders within schools, how do we create a safe environment within the teaching body and as classroom practitioners how do we do the same for the student body?

How School Leaders can impact on Mental well being

School leaders, senior and middle leaders should be acutely aware of the impact of their actions. When relaying targets teacher self-efficacy has to be in the forefront of their minds, when leaders and followers alike don’t believe they can do their task successfully the pressures are often passed down the chain and ultimately to this impacts on the pupils.

A protective layer of real leadership has to be formed somewhere along the chain as the number of times I’ve heard senior leaders make statements such as “just get the results” and “you’re the middle leader make it happen”. Similarly, I’ve heard teachers say to pupils “Grow up you’re in year 11” or “You haven’t started revising. What is the point of me teaching you?”. None of the phrases offers any insight, knowledge or advice to move forward however it does have the effect of making the pupil or teacher feel pressured and stressed without the tools to solve the dilemma.

School leaders need to recognise honesty and transparency are the structures which form an organisation’s foundations of culture. Within my current senior leadership team, I feel absolutely no fear of judgement or consequent discrimination as a real trust has been built through long term continuous and honest discourse.

Many teachers and pupils either fear the consequences of reaching out for help or are unaware of the symptoms and illnesses they are going through. Digging into the reasons behind this, often the stigma comes second to the discrimination around mental health. Simply creating a culture where people are not labelled is not enough, the fear of discrimination have to put to rest first.

Without the regular conversations trust around our mental well-being cannot be built, similarly, I would advocate a similar approach with our pupils. Some schools use form tutors/mentors to foster such conversations but I believe this has the most impact if we celebrate the role of the teacher in pupil well-being. Every teacher is and should be a teacher of mental well-being.

Important: Let me point out that teachers (including myself) are not trained and probably do not have the skills to treat mental illness or identify them. This is okay, accept this and own it we are not health care professionals. Direct pupils and parents to the right medical services.

“Place Mask on Securely on Yourself Before you Help Others”

I’d like to make an analogy here; on aeroplanes, the oxygen safety mask announcements always end with “Place your mask on securely, before you help others”. If I am saying it’s your responsibility to look after your pupils’ mental well-being, to do this effectively I’m also saying you have to fulfil the same responsibility to your own self.

How do you check your own mental wellbeing? I live by one steadfast rule, if there is something that has a detrimental impact on your day to day life, that’s not okay. Regardless if it is physical or mental in nature, go and seek medical help from your doctors.

Here are my 7 tips for the preparation for getting help:

1. You are not going crazy or mad (this is unhelpful). The chances are, that you are ill, accept this, you are going for treatment for your illness. You are at the doctors for treatment.

2. Doctors are often nebulous beings in our lives, they are always there but do we really know them. Think about and prepare the words to describe how you have been feeling. It took me at least 2 appointments to describe my experience clearly.

3. Get there in good time and think about asking for a longer appointment. I didn’t go to my first appointment, I was a few minutes late and it was easier to cancel than face it. The second appointment wasn’t much better, I made a sharp exit mid-appointment when I realised that time was going to be an issue.

4. Be honest with yourself and consequently the doctor. You deserve to be happy and don’t let anything get in the way of that.

5. Take someone who knows you well with you, that’s if you need to, we all get lost for words sometimes or become overwhelmed it made easier to tackle if you have back up.

6. Be open to the doctor’s advice, remember they are the professionals. Anti-depressants are often regarded as a taboo. For some people, tablets are the way forward and letting a stigma around a pill stop you from feeling better is silly.

7. Commit to making yourself healthy. This means there may not be a quick fix but a long term strategy. As practitioners we often commit to our schools and pupils, spending endless hours doing your very best for them. Do the same for yourself you deserve it.

If you are not in a position to support a pupil, do not lament, just use the structures within the school and pass it on to someone who is, Recognise you can only give when you are ready and able to give. If you feel you are in a position to support please recycle the above list, use it as script and pass it on.

Then, and this is important whether you supporting or passed it on, it is your responsibility to keep checking in with the pupil, parents, teachers and all other stakeholders, mental illnesses do not disappear after a trip to the doctors.

Telling Pupils – About Yourself or Others

The first time I told I pupil that I suffered was around 10 years ago. At the time she felt alone in the world and thought the feelings of anguish and anxiety was brought on because she wasn’t positive enough and/or appreciate her life enough.

“It’s okay {add name}, I have these sometimes too, try and breathe through it, it’ll pass, I know it doesn’t feel like it now, but it’ll pass”

As soon as I said it I stuttered, stammered and stopped, was this what I should be telling a pupil during an anxiety attack? Does this make me look weak? Will the senior leadership team find out? Is this the right thing to do?

The answers to these questions are yes. Yes, the act of sharing was an act of solidarity, she was no longer alone in the way she felt, it wasn’t just her and more importantly, maybe it wasn’t her fault. Yes, it may have made me look weaker as a person of authority by admitting weakness but stronger as a human being and I’d argue as a real role model. Yes, the senior leadership team undoubtedly found out but surprisingly no issues there either. Yes, I believe it was exactly the right thing to do.

Thankfully from her reaction, it was obvious that she needed someone who wasn’t afraid of the illness or the stigma. Someone who she could come and talk to when her friends/family thought she was attention seeking. Someone who’d been there when the doctor suggested Cognitive Behavioural Therapy and the possibility of medication. Someone to say you’re not mad, crazy or nuts you’re unwell at the moment and the medical professionals know best.

Being a Role Model

Whether you like it or not you are a real tangible role model to your pupils. They look up to you. Even on those dreary days when they are all being so annoying they still look up to you, in many cases you are the constant in their lives, not just someone but that someone for whatever reason cares about them.

What does this burden of role-modelhood entail? I’m not going to tell you that teachers must live perfect lives but I do believe as teachers we form the pillars on which societies are formed. As role models, we should share our adversities and moreover our triumphs over them.

Role models who triumph over adversity are commonplace in our schools and in wider society, whether it’s a triumph through the tribulations of living in a slum or overcoming a physical ailment for sporting glory. However triumphant roles models with respect to mental health are few and far between, this is mirrored and is culturally similar to wider society so having them within schools is an absolute must.

Where teachers are fortunate enough to have robust mental health it’s important for them to portray their understanding and acceptance of the conditions that plague some many others.

We can only hope that the next generation will live up to the values of the role models they see in our schools. Perpetuating through society, changing the world for the better.

This is from a chapter I wrote for the following book as you have made it to the end, it’s available here for a discounted price thanks to School Books Direct.

Mental Health and Well being in Schools.

 

 

 

MH: What does “Look after Yourself”, “Rest”, “Being Kind to Yourself” Actually Mean?

When a friend of mine broke their collarbone in an incident involving her cat. She was put into a sling with regular fracture clinic visits and told to rest the arm. She absolutely ignored this advice and as a result, has made her recovery more convoluted.

With physical illness it is always easy, broken arm – rest the arm, broken leg – stay off the leg. What happens when it’s your brain? You can’t stay off your brain. How do you rest your brain? When people ask you to look after yourself, to rest and be kind to yourself. What does this actually mean? I used to think this meant I had to get of the house, go for walks, clear my head, meet friends, do yoga, etc.

To be completely honest, sometimes some of those things really helped but equally, sometimes they made things worse. When you’re suffering from a mental illness, looking after yourself is a priority and you have a responsibility to yourself. That means letting yourself heal.

What does healing involve? Listen to yourself. If that means meeting your friends for dinner, do that, at other times, if that means cancelling because you can’t face it do that. Do whatever you need to, to get you through the day. Live day to day and when things are bad, hour to hour.

When you’re in the thick of it. It feels like that dark cloud will never pass, sometimes that the tears won’t stop streaming and the numbness, god the numbness, will be permanent.

Take solace in the fact it will pass, I promise you.

#MH Tips Doctor’s Appointments

 

For years I thought it was my fault, my brain told my psyche that I was inexplicably upset daily. I spent years trying to train myself to deny this reality. This was the epitome of stupidity, turning away from a demon may provide temporary respite but in the long run, this will always leave you blind sighted.

 

If you feel sad, not right, flat, have intrusive thoughts, go through mood swings regularly. You’re probably ill. You may need help, I mean medical help. Please, you deserve to be well. Go to the doctors.

 

Tips for your doctor’s appointment.

 

  1. Book a double appointment – it was hard for me to get to the doctors and when the doctor said I was out of time before I declare my issue. I bottled it and ran home.
  2. Get there early, I’ve turned up to an appointment 3 mins late and again bottled it and ran home.
  3. Make a list of what you want to say. Without this, it’s hard, to be honest with a relative stranger. It easier to lie and run home.
  4. Take a friend – it’s hard to bottle it a run away when you’re with someone
  5. Listen to the medical professional, if they offer you medication consider it carefully. I’ll come back to this later.

 

Running home serves no one well, least of all yourself. Other than my legs that is, as you may have inferred I bottled it a lot.

 

Pills, happy pills, anti-depressants and SSRI’s, you know the addictive and prescribed to crazy people. Right stop, if we are going to make a difference in the lives of young people we are going to have to be brave for them.

 

Medication is medication. The only thing it means is that your doctor thinks it will help

in the treatment of your illness. If there is a stigma around that, let us turn it into a positive one. You are getting the support you need.

 

If you do not get the answers you need. Book into another doctor. I have had all manner of silly things been said to me.

 

“You don’t look depressed”

 

“Take walks every day”

 

“You’re a little young to be feeling this way”

 

You are important, you have a responsibility to your self.