Visiting Parliament to Discuss Teacher Wellbeing

I decided to join Twitter (often referred to as #edutwitter) before I started my initial teacher training as a way of collaborating with others and sharing ideas. It’s a fantastic (and free!) resource, and also where I found out about the newly established Charted College for Teaching (CCT).

Their aim is to give every teacher a voice on professional matters, in order to improve the lives and opportunities of our children. It’s free for trainees to join, and it gives you access to a wealth of research which has not only helped me with my university studies, but will hopefully improve my professional practice too.

As a member of the CCT, I was lucky enough to have the chance to attend the All Party Parliamentary Group for Teaching on October 22nd. During the meeting, Professor Dame Alison Peacock spoke about the ethos of the CCT and their expansion over the past year. However, it was also a brilliant opportunity to hear from other researchers and their proposals to improve teacher wellbeing. For example, Julian Stanley who is the CEO of the Education Support Partnership, presented their 2018 Teacher Wellbeing Index.

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Second to inadequate funding, I think mental health and wellbeing is the most significant issue in education. Not just for pupils, but also staff.  The yearly Wellbeing Index which is the UK’s largest teacher survey found 57% of teachers had considered leaving the sector during the last 5 years because of health pressures. Moreover, in comparison to the rest of the UK workforce, over 1/3 of education professionals described their role as causing them to feel stressed, either most or all of the time over the past few weeks.

As Julian explained, a consequence of this is a growing teacher recruitment and retention crisis. The Department for Education has failed to meet their recruitment targets for a successive 5 years. The graph below depicts how this could lead to a national catastrophe.

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I believe teaching is one of the most important jobs in society, it shapes future generations, and all of the jobs preceding it. Furthermore, the index also included a word cloud of the most common concerns with teaching:

Screenshot 2018-11-02 at 14.10.29In the words of Julian Stanley, “by turning the role into an unmanageable task we risk alienating those with the passion and skill to succeed”. I personally feel incredibly strongly about the lack of wellbeing provision in schools, due to my own battle with anxiety. I didn’t receive a diagnosis and thus access to support until I reached crisis point at university. I’d never even heard the words “mental health” until shortly before. Furthermore, I believe if we foster a positive culture of speaking about ways to look after our mental health at an early age, I would have been able to access support sooner. Which is one of the main reasons why I wanted to become a teacher.

Fortunately, I think we are heading in the right direction as a society. Mental Health is becoming more prevalent in discussions. However, the level of support is still inadequate. In July, the DfE announced plans to amend the National Curriculum, meaning from September 2020, all schools must follow a programme of ‘health education’, incorporating an understanding of both physical and mental health.

However, despite welcoming the news we’re becoming the first country to include mental wellbeing within our curriculum. I don’t believe specific lessons are enough to change attitudes, and ultimately develop a society where mental health is not shunned or stigmatised, but nurtured openly and honestly. I firmly believe a child should have the same confidence, and reaction from others in expressing that they’re anxious, as they would to announcing they have a sore throat.

My concern derives from headlines such as that of The Times, “students aged 4 will learn how to beat depression”, indicating ‘health’ lessons may reflect the same stigma or worries which sex and relationship education currently evokes. Headlines such as these, leave visions of  Y1s playing snap the symptom to the mental health condition!  Instead, we need to focus on the fantastic work which schools are already doing to promote mental wellbeing. Activities which need to remain prevalent across ALL lessons and day-to-day activities, not merely standalone sessions, working towards building a culture of tolerance and understanding.

Although ultimately, sole responsibility should not lie within teachers. The DfE needs to provide sufficient funding behind their proposals. This will ensure teachers receive adequate training to manage the workload associated with undertaking a new responsibility. Additionally, research states one of the key factors associated with improving mental well-being is the importance of exercise and creativity. Both of which are being drastically reduced from school timetables as a consequence of a range of factors. I’d like to see this addressed within DfE proposals, as opposed to just an outline of curriculum content.

The Education Support Partnership also recommend mandatory provision of personal mental health and wellbeing guidance within Initial Teacher Training. In addition to annual staff surveys to become statutory in all schools and colleges; with senior leaders acting on the issues identified in an open and transparent way. This may also lead to increased awareness, knowledge and signposting to external support services for teachers.

In conclusion, everyone at the APPG was incredibly welcoming and friendly, and regardless of qualifications or status, you had the opportunity to share your opinions. I think it’s great how the experiences of frontline teachers are valued and have the potential to shape policy. I was the only student there, but being able to provide a trainee insight into teacher training was a fantastic opportunity and I hope to be able to attend future meetings and encourage others to join the CTT and get involved!

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3 Weeks Ago I Felt Suicidal

IMG_5617On the outside, I doubt you’d realise I suffer from depression and anxiety (I hate the word “suffer” because I like to think I fight it). Nor would you think I have “anything to be depressed or anxious about.” However, I think this reinforces the fact that mental health doesn’t discriminate and can affect anyone and everyone.

If I was asked to picture someone suicidal, visions of medical professionals holding down a hysterical person, kicking and screaming, would flash in front of my eyes.

For me, it was a sense of calmness. Emotional numbness. Our brains work by trying to rationalize situations, but in the case of mental health, our brain can be our own worst enemy. I find it ironic how my suicidal thoughts also brought peace. My self-soothing strategy against anxious/depressive thoughts was “It’s okay if you don’t feel better. The only thing you can do is end it, and that will take the pain away.”

My friends and family, the career I’ve worked all my life to reach, absolutely none of those things came into the equation. I hadn’t eaten or slept for several days and I felt paralysed by anxiety.  I thought ending my life would be the only way out of this intense pain, it was like tunnel vision. Fortunately, the (albeit small!) healthy part of my brain fought this. I knew I needed help, and I wanted to seek it. A 3am wake-up to my parents and teary phone call to Samaritans later, the feelings hadn’t subsided. But the difference was I now had a plan.

I apologise if my writing sounds cold or brief. I can’t describe in much detail the events of that night, or the days leading up to it. It’s so painful that my brain struggles to remember and tries to block out the thoughts. The feelings are so irrational and alien, that I don’t have the vocabulary to describe them.

In short. The next day I went to the doctors and began medication. The day after that I went to university to refer myself for counseling. The second I knew there was a pathway in place for things to improve, the suicidal feelings dramatically subsided.

I didn’t, and still don’t really know how to express what’s happened to me this Summer. But the words from a counselor resonated with me, “you may worry you’re a burden to friends/family through discussing mental health. But the impact on their lives from you talking, in comparison to the impact if you were to do something to hurt yourself, couldn’t be more different.”

In the last 3 weeks, I’ve had days where I’ve laid on the sofa and it’s taken me most of the day to muster the energy to shower. I’ve also had days where I’ve been out, enjoyed socialising and completing work.  I almost feel guilty for managing to go out and enjoy myself. But, no-one I pass in the street knows how much I’ve struggled to get to that point. I’ve learned during my journey with anxiety over the past year, that recovery isn’t a linear process.

For me, one of the main things that’s contributed to helping myself is through talking. I’ve had to bare all, and accept the compassion and rejection which results from this. But I know that this first step is the hardest and most overwhelming.

What worries me most, is that our mental health system needs to change. Last year, 95 university students committed suicide. I’m fortunate enough to have been urgently referred for counseling, but even then I have 3 weeks before I begin CBT, and I know the effects won’t be immediate.

You’re told in a crisis to go to A&E, but I’ve read many stories where lack of beds and provision have led to people being sent home again with merely a leaflet. Not to mention NHS waiting lists if I wasn’t fortunate enough to receive counselling through university.

It shouldn’t be the stage where someone gets to A&E feeling suicidal before they can obtain help. We need a radical overhaul of education,  of investment, of attitudes.

But for anyone reading this, I wanted to write the blog post I wish I could have read. To know there are other people that have felt, and still feel like this. But we still fight to lead ‘normal’ daily lives. And to reinforce the fact that no feeling is ever permanent, even when it feels so.

I know I’m going to qualify as a teacher, and I want to help ensure that no young person ever feels the same as I’ve felt.

And now for the cheesy part (if this wasn’t enough already) – this is to you know who, for being the kindest, most compassionate stranger I’ve ever ‘met’. For showing me I can feel happiness even in the darkest of times. But most importantly, showing me that even those I don’t know, can view me as a whole person and not just a condition x