How can teachers talk more openly about their mental health?
Yesterday, I had the pleasure of attending Education Forward in Leeds, a movement for changing the way we view, and talk about, educational reform. The original group believes that the public debate about education in the UK is backwards-looking, polarised, and focused on the wrong priorities. Read our manifesto.
As a result of our collaboration, we published this book in less than 3 months and have made a pledge to take control of the education debate. In the future, I will share more about what I have written inside the book, but for this post and keeping with my promise, I share one of the pledges I made to the 100 educators who attended.
The Social Media Illusion:
With the rise of social media and a desire for the perfect photo, story and/or experience, there is an increasing perception that ‘everyone seems to be having a better time than ourselves’. The wise amongst us will know this is unfounded and we will know many students (and some of our friends) who succumb to the social media allure – a life of perfection.
Here are some examples:
- the selfie pout
- the beach shot
- arm in arm with somebody famous
- the ultimate experience – bungee / parachute jump.
… we must tackle the stigma that stops people asking for help in the first place. We want to encourage people to talk to one another.” (Heads Together – The Duchess of Cambridge)
With thousands of apps to access, it is incredibly easy for people to have their story heard – or at least share the same story in multiple locations; ‘status update’ of what we are doing, the places we have been and the people we meet. As an observer, we form an opinions of someone else’s life – forming a perception (perhaps comparison) of success.
In reality, we are largely all doing the same things, meeting like-minded people and each sharing thoughts and events; with a subconscious aim to share that ‘perfect moment’ – redefined today by a high volume of retweets, likes and comments – even though we know that the photograph we view, will be at least the 2nd version and will have been edited pre-publication.
Teacher Mental Health:
As it is Mental Health Awareness Week, I’ve decided to do my bit for the profession – to share a few truths in order to help quash the social media illusion of perfection, particularly in school leadership.
With the profile I have on social media, over the years there has been a growing interest in my workload as a deputy headteacher and a blogger – or at least the perception that I do not switch off. The stark reality is that life is far from easy for most – and is even harder for those teachers working with mental ill-health.
In terms of managing my mental health, I have learnt how to switch off from school and from social media; to blog quicker and much less. With a help from a small group of team members and a selection of teacher-bloggers who contribute, managing the two has become less of a burden for me. Of course I still tweet from @TeacherToolkit, but this blog over the past 12 months has taken on its own course – which has thankfully allowed me to spend more time with my family and still use the platform to support teachers across the world.
Honesty and Failure
For the past 8 months, I’ve kept the following photograph to myself for obvious reasons.
Given the nature of social media, we are all lured into a false sense of security, believing that everyone else has it better than we do and that it is ‘only me that is facing any difficulties’.
Mental health is a rarer discussion amongst school leaders.
Every sensible school leader will know that success is hard to achieve and even harder to sustain. As a school leader, I am happy to admit I’ve failed lots of times, but often failure has been a result of external forces which are out of my control – this image is no exception.
It has been a catch-22 decision to share this image in all it’s glory, standing in my vest at 6.30AM in the morning before getting ready for school / work. I soon realised that I couldn’t open my eye.
Other than subtext, the image has not be edited in any shape of form.
The eye infection culminated in my body reacting to a brutal OfSTED inspection and as a consequence, working 60+ hour weeks with 2 or 3 senior colleagues off long-term sick.
The world of education is NOT free from mental health issues – far from it. Mental health reaches all of us and with the nature of external accountability, the illusion off social media, difficult working environments and the fallacy of leadership perfection, despite this knowledge, we are all very reluctant to share the truth. We assume failure or honesty as a sign of weakness (or a bad teacher / leader).
I hope by sharing this image, it will encourage others to consider or share their vulnerability too.
Mental health is not a dirty word – we all have mental health like we do physical health, good or ill. But not seeking help at those times when it all seems too much, or we are depressed or anxious, can impact the rest of our lives. Put simply, [we] want to make asking for help no longer a big deal.” (Heads Together – Prince William, Duke of Cambridge).
If we are take to back control of the recruitment and retention agenda, we must stand up to external accountability. Let’s stand up against inadequate inspection teams, forced academisation and incoming executive headteachers who work on the basis of ‘positional power’ to bully and cull colleagues from our profession.
Instead of arguing with one another, let’s aim to be more honest on social media by exposing our own experiences to help normalise the mental health issues that we all face. And whilst we’re at it, let’s continue to expose the polarisation, corruption and victimisation that contributes to teacher workload and mental health.