How to get through the term when you are feeling demoralised. …and how to come work on your relationship with your work.
IN this edition, I’m stepping away from the inspirational ‘New Year, New Start’ energy, to take a different look. Because New Year 2022, has – for many of us – a completely and totally different energy to all those that have gone before. We learned that New Year 2021 was by no means in the bag. I am willing to wager that fewer resolutions were made at the start of last year…(why bother!) and that those resolutions that were made, were broken sooner…
I talk about healthy relationships, supportive relationships, and toxic relationships a great deal. But this edition is going to be a deep dive into what happens and what we can do when our relationship with work is under strain. We spend a lot of our time at work. And in so many of my professional coaching sessions, I know that the nature of the job means that many teachers are spending a lot of life at work even when you’ve left the building.
Feel free to take a dive into the Daily Mash take on the cushty lives of teachers!! Read and weep…one way or another! https://www.thedailymash.co.uk/news/society/graduate-looking-for-easy-life-decides-to-be-a-teacher-20170804133457
Pandemic context… New Year 2022 is now coming after an Autumn term of a determined focus in schools to somehow attain ‘business as usual’ for the wellbeing of the kids: to return to providing the extra supplies of the richer school experience. We’ve had plans of strategic interventions to help those worse affected by lockdowns to ‘catch up’…Only to have those plans routinely hijacked by the roulette wheel of infections with colleagues and pupils having to self-isolate or worse, being ill. We’ve habituated in school life to various masks on / off dynamics. And routines being subject to return to risk management to a greater or lesser degree depending on the numbers game. And all the while, teachers have been the ones whose work involves arguably, fundamentally more risk – given the task of working with groups at close quarters for prolonged periods of time. These risks to teachers’ personal health and to their wider families have largely gone unacknowledged. Some colleagues have felt battered by the sheer volume and need to support more highly vulnerable pupils than ever before. Others still feel scarred by bruising interactions with anxious, defensive, blaming, or demanding parents. AND now we’ve moved into a phase of a real determined commitment to keeping schools open come what may, so return the old pressures – the inspection regime springs back into action – and with it all the additional work in fettling up policies, procedures, documentation… So what I am coming across in so many of my planning meetings with school leadership about professional development or coaching work, is the issue of morale. And above and beyond that – for readers who are working within the Independent sector – is the coup-de-grace of the financial pressure on Independent schools to quit the Teachers’ Pensions Scheme.
Financial pressures. We’re now starting to get our bills in and seeing the energy crisis in action…the hikes in our living costs can put a sharper focus on the costs and rewards of teaching… Added to this is the threat to TPS membership in private schools.The NEU quotes their Freedom of Information request for the data. There are 952 independent schools who are in the TPS, since September 2019, 274 schools have left. 41 intend to leave and 17 new schools have joined. Those of you in the State sector who read this may wonder what this has to do with you…and I think – without wanting to be alarmist – and also caveating what I say enormously. I have only slightly more financial or actuarial acumen than your average fresh-green graduate…But I have acted as union rep for the negotiations and consultations around closing and re-forming of Support staff pension schemes. I have also had to take lots of advice as I single-handedly sabotaged my own TPS pension in the journey from being a full time contributing employee, to homeopathically part time, and finally leaving all together as my self-employed work gathered pace. The direction of travel has already been clear in the commercial world – that the extinction of Defined Benefit schemes, followed by the move to defined contribution plans (which lessen the costs and complexity for the employer and place the burden of saving and investing for retirement on employees)….quickly cedes to changes and shaving of the employer contribution…and in the wider world there are several companies that will only offer the bare minimum statutory pension contribution. Pension scheme rules, it seems, are there to me re-written over time…They are no longer the sacred cows that upheld the social contract public sector workers traditionally had – less ready cash now, in exchange for security in retirement…So one has to wonder whether the more commercial wing of the profession is the canary down the mine of what is ‘affordable’ to the business of education. So teachers who are already running on empty, who continue to give their all, are having to re-evaluate whether practically -in terms of the long term financial planning- and emotionally – whether it’s worth it.
A personal context… I have never really spoken or written about this before – apart from in my journal or with various counsellors and psychologists who helped me at a time when I needed a lot more resource and insight to get me through the term and year when times were hard and the pressure was on. I remember well, a time when I was a Deputy Head, and the pace of school life was relentless. Especially at the time when there was a handover between one long-established head of many year’s service to a new head. During that time of uncertainty, as the Deputy on the frontline of that transitional leadership phase of change, the demands on me in a practical and emotional sense were incredibly high. At the same time, I was wrestling with life choices of my own. At 37, I was moving into what was felt at the time as a last chance saloon for having a child of my own…and felt ambivalent about the way forward, and uncertain as to whether my better half and I were or could be on the same page with that decision – whichever way it went… Then – as often happens, a new Head appears, rich in ‘fresh start energy’, taking a look at the school through a fresh lens, bringing various reality checks about inspection preparation…So it felt like we had come down from one precipice of activity as the previous head worked out the important legacy she wanted to leave, only to then immediately embark on climbing the face of the Eiger…with barely a chance to draw breath. One particular conversation resonated – a wonderful, inspirational young teacher came to me in tears because twice in her book laden journey to the staff room, a colleague, and then a student, had let the doors swing in her face. And those moments were epiphanies for her – events which served as the culmination of overwhelm in a high-pressure job. She worked hard. She gave her all, but these events made her feel dehumanised, that as a person, and as a person working and caring deeply about doing her best for others, she was fundamentally unrecognised. It wasn’t one cataclysmic event – but the rising tide of cumulative small stressors that had made her feel increasingly fragile. Her sense of the thinning of her skin, her sensitisation to the slights and setbacks resonated strongly with me. The general relentlessness of the pace of life, and a lack of connection – the feeling that social support was thin or inaccessible is something so corrosive to our sense of wellbeing at work. I remember colleagues during that transitional time coming into my office to vent, to blame, to weep, to confess. And this is where despite my own baggage, I was determined – utterly determined – to provide a non-judgmental, supportive space where girls, parents, colleagues could come and feel safe, seen and heard, that they could have their lived experience and their struggles witnessed with compassion. But it took everything I had during the day. At night I would conk out in front of the TV, and at the end of term, my body would just collapse and the first days or week of the holiday would be wiped out by exhaustion or illness.
So here’s what you can do to get through – the principles.
- Take a pause to check in with yourself, to see where you are at and recognise what emotional zone you’ve been inhabiting. How have you been feeling? Sad? Angry? Apathetic? Cynical? These unpleasant feelings cause us to withdraw and reflect. But we need to guard against this becoming ruminatory. The brain is altered by what it marinades in…
- If our feelings are like the weather (I write from the UK, where we get a LOT of different weather!)…then watch our for climate change. Are you ordinarily quite summery, but feeling more Siberian…or normally temperate and mellow, but becoming prone to storminess? What are you getting from this shift in your internal and temperamental climate? What are you learning? How well has that been serving you? And what is the impact? Is it sustainable? All emotions have a purpose. They are signposts for action (E-motion) not destinies. How can we learn from them?
- Double down on self-care. Look after yourself. Your mental and physical health is your number one priority. Withdrawing tactically to take stock and reflect is important. But we need to watch, that our withdrawing “does not become akin to a depressive, self-protective, withdrawn low-energy mode getting stuck ‘on’….” as Dr Alice Boyes writes in her recent article for the Harvard Business Review (see link below)
- It’s not just about dialling things back – learning how to be productive when you are feeling low can help with recovery from depressive tendencies. Cognitive fusion can keep us in a downward spiral of negative feeling and negative thinking that is difficult to get out of and contributes to chronic stress. The lower energy you feel, the less you do, the worse you feel. The narratives you create around this decline can accelerate and deepen those feelings and the thinking fuels the feeling, and the feeling fuels more negative thinking. This is not a healthy or happy place to be. When we are stuck emotionally, our feelings lose their effectiveness as signals…what should be an internal alarm or wake-up call ‘I don’t feel good, something’s not right’ gradually becomes your screen-saver, and from there becomes your wallpaper, to becoming the green screen of negativity where your negativity bias and confirmation bias CGI your lived experience in that light…So finding or making targeted meaningful activity can help give you an uplift or firebreak from the contagion of those emotions.
- Plan for pleasure, purpose, and fulfilment every day – even if it is just one thing. DO it… It’s a therapeutic technique called behavioural activation. Or maybe try to punctuate your day with a source of pleasure, morning afternoon, evening to keep your cup topped up.
- Reconfigure your workload. Look carefully about what’s a must-do and look at the areas of work that are more at your discretion. Ways you can structure your lessons so that you are the core energy in the room less than 100%. Ways in which you can set work that requires a variety of different marking loads for you and being more selective in pacing out where you have to use your energies for really deep, focused marking. In my professional experience, teachers can present at work in a very black and white way. Either giving 110% or nothing as they are off sick or signed off work. No one ever talks professionally about how you can take a tactical retreat in order to restock. Surely 70% or 80% for a time might be good enough do you think? And a hell of a lot better than having to be signed off by your GP? If you have a good bond of trust with your line manager, talking about your situation, your health, your concerns, and looking for ways to target your energies would be the ideal – but this is not always possible in practical terms with work relationships where people can still feel the taboo of owning the notion that they are struggling – even if those struggles are pretty objectively overwhelming!!
- Pace yourself in your planning. Avoid having back-to-back lessons which require you to be constantly at the edge of your capacity. Where can you get your pupils to be the ones taking the lead with their interaction with the material. Where can group work and group exploration mean you’re not always ‘on-stage’ working the room like a stand-up comedian.
- Segment your time, use timers for deep-work, and create small rituals around deep-work that help signal that zoning of your focused attention. Eg clearing your desk (even if it just goes to a pile at your feet), turning your phone to Airplane mode, and having your favourite coffee to hand. The consistency helps access the mindset you need. And the timers help curb perfectionism, or over-work, or over-thinking.
- Consider stoking up your inner resources by getting help. Therapeutic approaches may include Cognitive Behavioural Therapy which seeks to unpack and reframe unhelpful narratives and underlying beliefs. It often has a defined scope – eg a set number of sessions. It’s available via the NHS, and there are also online provisions that can be both affordable and accessible. Acceptance and Commitment Therapy can be another helpful mode to explore – which is more recent and has gained a great deal of attention and traction in the times we are in – where we have had to work though so much that is beyond our control. A clinical psychologist can be a great resource in drilling into the patterns of what’s happening in your internal climate and giving you active strategies for evaluating your thinking, reflecting, and finding psychologically informed ways to manage your mind. If you are feeling stuck and think that therapeutic or clinical help would be a good path, then you can search for a therapist near you via the BACP website, and then you know that they are registered with a reputable UK regulatory body. Consider – is your school counsellor only available for pupils, or can he or she also find space for you?
- Being connected, talking with trusted advisers in your star cabinet of friends who can listen with less of an agenda is always helpful. And people like me, professional coaches, can also provide some structured thinking and reflective space from a more neutral perspective to be on your side, champion your aims, look at what is, and think about what you want and how you can take steps to get there. Kind of a mid-way point between a trusted adviser / friend and a therapist.
- Recognise that you are having a hard time, and develop a self-compassion practice. Dr Kirsten Neff is the queen of this. And it is really helpful. Her foundational book Self Compassion: The Proven Power of Being Kind to yourself is linked here: https://www.amazon.co.uk/Self-Compassion-Kristin-Neff-ebook/dp/B0052RMNCE/ref=sr_1_1crid=1J7ZXCY3EFEAU&keywords=kristin+neff+self+compassion&qid=1643207232&s=books&sprefix=kristen+ne%2Cstripbooks%2C85&sr=1-1 And her newest book about fierce self compassion is directed at women, but also has a great deal that speaks to so many of the wonderfully nurturing men who are out there in our profession who may be more prone to an inbalance of compassion for others, and compassion for self. It’s all about harnessing negative feelings to get towards moving to action… https://www.amazon.co.uk/Fierce-Self-Compassion-Women-Stand-Claim-ebook/dp/B08KXHQK54/ref=sr_1_4?crid=1J7ZXCY3EFEAU&keywords=kristin+neff+self+compassion&qid=1643207232&s=books&sprefix=kristen+ne%2Cstripbooks%2C85&sr=1-4
Do a CBA…No! That doesn’t stand for Can’t be A***d! Start considering yourself as a business – do a COST / BENEFIT ANALYSIS this may be your vocation, but you are a professional. You are earning to live…and if you are only just living to earn, that’s not a good place to be. This was the turning point for me back in 2011 when I went through all these processes to get by, and then to get my life moving forward. So – a cost, benefit analysis…You’re basically doing what it says on the tin. Listing out all the benefits of doing what you do, and continuing to do what you do, and you systematically reflect on the strengths and weaknesses of alternatives. Does the reward outweigh the emotional labour? How far have you gone down the path of addressing burn-out – if that’s where you feel you are or are heading… There’s a whole sliding scale between all or nothing in the opportunity to tweak and change your teacher’s lifestyle. You don’t have to go to Defcon 1 and leave the profession… Defcon 1 – Give your notice in and retrain or look for alternative work. Defcon 2 – Consider a total change of scene. There are jobs on the international educational market – and a change of location might be just the tonic you need. My 2 years in The Sultanate of Oman were amazing. Different standards of living can really work in your favour. A contract with accommodation provided can provide the opportunity to save. Defcon 3 – Consider part time work. Can you afford to step back to step up later? Or can you manage household expenses and change your lifestyle to give you a more measured pace. Or can you start some sort of portfolio work where you teach partly and – for instance – tutor privately or get some side hustle going. NB Working part time is an art – and there is a serious need to be boundaried if you’re going to prevent the seepage of work into your time off. Defcon 4 – Consider the culture of the school you are in. How rewarding and supported do you feel? How frantic do you feel the pace of life is? City schools with excellent transport links can flex up school functioning hours. Rural schools don’t have that possibility in the same way due to school bus time-tables. Can you look for a school in an area where the pace of life is different. Defcon 5 – do the maths. If the pensions scheme issue is grinding you / your colleagues down, work it out. Get advice. Look at how much capacity you have to save. Where are you living? What are the travel costs? What adjustments can you make to enable you to have the wiggleroom you need? Subscribe to someone who blogs about personal finances to help you ask the right questions and put plans into place with a bit more insight. John Rampton is great on personal finances on LinkedIn – but he is more US based.
This has been a big one – thanks for sticking with it. I hope it helped.Let me know how this resonated. Email me with a vent – if you wish. Speak your truth. I know that in my line, we like to talk about empowerment and action, and purpose, fulfilment, and next steps…But sometimes, times are hard and they are right now. I always LOVE to hear from you and hear what you like, what you don’t – what you want more of, what I’m missing…Life can feel like a slog. And this is an acknowledgment that teaching is not all shining faces, transformational work, and inspiration.I have undying respect and admiration for all the work you are doing in school – and for the sheer grit it can take to make it to the end of term. But if you are noticing your skin getting thinner, a greater proximity to either physical or emotional fragility, if you are noticing the signs of burnout: exhaustion, disengagement, depersonalisation, cynicism…take action and take care of yourself. It’s your most important job…With love and profound gratitude,Emma.