Primary Musings

thoughts of an every day teacher

The Vulnerable Teacher

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I burnt out this year.

I remember the precise moment the flame finally sizzled out. It was a Wednesday morning in January. I can vividly recall the feelings, the waves of panic and distress rising in my chest, the deluge of tears that wouldn’t stop.

I was signed off work for three weeks.

***

To be a teacher, you need resilience and stamina. You can’t just crumble when you come across children with complex needs, challenging parents or difficult colleagues. You can’t just avoid the workload because it’s huge and you’re exhausted. You can’t just refuse to teach the curriculum because the floor standards are too high and the expectations are age inappropriate for the children. There is a job to do, one that you’re not only paid to do, but also passionate about. One that can be enormously rewarding for all it demands of you. So we absorb everything that comes our way, we get on with it, we manage in every situation because we have to. It is our greatest strength. But it can also be our greatest weakness.

When the ability to cope becomes prized beyond all else, not coping becomes the ultimate teacher failure and we avoid the appearance of it at all costs. It makes us vulnerable to admit we’re not managing. We worry about how people will respond or if saying something will ruin our chances of future promotion. We tell our children it’s ok to make mistakes, while not believing it ourselves. Good teachers don’t fall apart, so we keep silent and struggle on.

But, as Brene Brown writes,

When we spend our lives pushing away and protecting ourselves from feeling vulnerable or from being perceived as too emotional, we feel contempt for when others are less capable or willing to mask feelings, suck it up, soldier on. We’ve come to the point where rather than respecting the courage and daring behind vulnerability we let fear and discomfort become criticism and judgement. (Daring Greatly)

***

I worried I’d be on the receiving end of that criticism and judgement when I went back to work. I’d had a leadership role and now I didn’t. I lost my sparkle, felt like I’d failed and wondered if I could still do the job at all.

I had lots of good support though, and gradually things got back to some kind of normal. I’m particularly thankful to the three senior leaders who were extremely kind to me in their own ways, enabling me to get on with my job, recover my confidence and finish the year well. I know that this is not everyone’s experience.

My inspiration for full time class teaching, however, has not returned. I need some time out and my very lovely Headteacher has thought carefully about giving me a role I will enjoy. So from September, I will be teaching music for three days a week in Key Stage 2. I’m going to spend the other two days on my writing. I have a few projects already in the pipeline and I’m excited that I will have some time and mental and emotional energy to spend pursuing my writerly dreams.

***

Being vulnerable can be seen as such a weakness. We’re supposed to hold it all together and keep our emotions in check. But in truth, the people who are courageous enough to say how they really feel and admit it when they need help are ultimately the people who will be innovative and creative because they are not afraid to fail. They are the ones who will be unafraid of change, bounce back after mistakes and stay emotionally and mentally healthy. It’s such a relief when you don’t have to pretend any more. And who knows, maybe the future is waiting to open up in interesting and exciting ways after you’re brave enough to say those four little words: I am not okay.

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8 thoughts on “The Vulnerable Teacher

  1. Abby, this is such a lovely and moving account of your reality as a primary teacher. You are not alone. In fact, this is why I founded Invincible Me and we are about to embark on our first pilot programme in 12 primary schools, facilitating a whole school approach to mental health and wellbeing. In particular, there is a focus on supporting teachers and school staff in their own wellbeing. I would love to talk to you about your experiences and get your first hand advice. If you are interested in speaking, please get in touch via email (amy@invincibleme.org.uk) or Twitter @InvincibleMeUK and we can talk. Thank you for your courage and honesty! Amy

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  2. I am sorry it had to come in such a bitter pill, but I am anxiously awaiting all the loveliness about to pour forth. Thanks for being so brave, Abby.

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  3. Such a lovely read, Thank you. Sounds like you are doing an amazing job, you clearly needed the break.
    My son Teddie is about to start in reception this September & I’m worried sick. Teddie has complex needs & non-verbal using PECS to communicate. Unfortunately, our village school has limited knowledge of PECS and yet to receive the correct training. We have an IEP in place but still, have my concerns, have you any advice from a teachers point of view having taught children with complex needs? xxx

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    • Thanks for your kind comments.
      Regarding your son, you are bound to feel anxious, as many parents do, leaving him for the first time in reception, but it will be even more pronounced for you in light of his needs. My advice is keep reassuring him, and help him to feel calm and confident. If he feels you’re not worried, he is less likely to worry. In terms of school, keep communicating and working with them. It’s in everyone’s interests to provide the best care for Teddie, but you know him best, so don’t be afraid to tell them what he needs. Hopefully they will welcome your input. Also, are you on Twitter? You might want to find @nancygedge on there. She also blogs here https://notsoordinarydiary.wordpress.com/ She has a lot more expertise in SEND, both as a teacher and parent, than I do. And there’s a lovely community of parents and SEND teachers you might find supportive if you haven’t already discovered them on Twitter. I hope you have a lovely summer and the transition in September is a smooth as possible for you and Teddie. x

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      • Thank you for your comment. I try not to show how I’m feeling but kids pick up on it! I am in Twitter but nit often I’ll take a look in the morning, thank you so much for this info!
        X

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      • Yes, of course they do! It is hard. You sound like a great Mum and I’m sure you will cope really well. Take care. x

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