Are You Sabotaging Your Own Wellbeing?

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Does talking shop mess with our mental health?

Our wellbeing is always under threat and sometimes we do ourselves no favours. Talking shop about teaching doesn’t help us to switch off and that eats into our mental health.

Authentic conversations about teaching can be empowering and a valuable part of informal CPD. But watch out for these conversations as they are toxic trespassers and play around with our fragile wellbeing. As teachers, we aren’t always that good at setting boundaries with ourselves. When we meet socially then you can guarantee that within a few seconds school business will be on the agenda and we will be talking shop.

I had a Headteacher once who insisted that when we went out as a staff then no one was allowed to talk about school.  His rationale was a good one – it wasn’t good for our mental health. Although no one actually took any notice, talking about school stuff was getting in the way of having a good time and relaxing. Everyone needs their down time but if you want to get away from school talk then don’t go out with your colleagues. We are obsessed with school details and gossip.

Quite often these conversations can become a game of one-up-manship with colleagues competing with each other about who has the hardest class, biggest workload or who is the sickest.

Teaching is all-consuming and some of us just can’t leave it alone. We go to work to ‘work’, not drag it about with us everywhere we go. But we do and it isn’t good for us.

On duty

We have created a situation where we are always working. Look at Twitter. It’s now an extension of the workplace. We are our own worst enemies! Some teachers are talking shop on there 24/7 and this can’t be healthy. Many just talk shop to themselves.

Twitter acts as a pedagogical pub that people dip in and out. Some announce their arrival and departure with teachery quips or messages of woe. Some lay in wait waiting to pounce. It’s a rabbit hole with many toxic passages where you can lose your mojo and get caught in traps set by Twitter attack dogs.

Then there is the place we call home. We all need to download and offload some of the things that have happened in the day. Some of them might even be interesting or entertaining to a non-teacher. But don’t bank on it. Partners, family and friends are actually quite bored of hearing edited highlights of something that happened. They absolutely don’t want the detail.  Try and keep work conversations at work.

When we talk about work to others and you can see their eyes glaze over then you know it’s time to back off. But do we? No we don’t, We carry on and our victims aren’t impressed. Talking about other things can help give us perspective but slipping a school-related tale into every conversation makes us boring. Of course teachers bring work home but that doesn’t mean we have to talk about it.

It’s good to share but not too much and certainly not all of the time. You have to leave your working day behind you and devote energy to other things. Yep, there are teachers married to teachers and good luck to them but I can’t think of anything worse. There is more to life than teaching but living with a teacher and you are never away from school.

Wellbeing boundaries

So yes, it is good to talk about work and get things off our chest but we have to draw the line. There is no shortage of things to discuss in education but not everyone wants to discuss them, especially our families. Talking shop can be a wonderful support but it can also be a terrific barrier and pummel our wellbeing. We can’t always compartmentalise conversations but we need to know when to shut up. It’s hard to grow personal relationships if school talk muscles in all the time. There has to be a line between professional time and play time.

Teaching is all-encompassing and we are heavily invested in it but there are other conversations to be had. As teachers we are our own worst enemies. If we want to press self-destruct then this is the way to do it.

Unbalanced

Some of us are married to our jobs but being in full-time teacher mode isn’t good for our sanity or those around us. Life is never balanced in the right proportions but it might feel less intense, stressful and chaotic if we talked about something else.

Work-life balance is a dangerous delusion and a bit of a pipe-dream if you are a teacher. ‘Unbalance’ goes with the job and life too. Work-life alignment might be a better target to aim for. No one said achieving personal balance and wellbeing was going to be easy but we could just help ourselves a little more by backing off. Crafting a meaningful professional life with your outside self is a constant work in progress.

The Teacher Wellbeing Index 2018 found that 74% of those surveyed said the inability to switch off from work is the major contributing factor to a negative work-life balance.

Julian Stanley is chief executive of the Education Support Partnership and he believes that teachers drive themselves into mental health problems because they can’t say no. He’s right. Teachers have to learn to say no and that includes saying no to the urge of being a permanent pedagogue and engaging in constant teacher talk.

The next time you hit the pub as a staff, don’t take the whole school in with you. The next time you hit Twitter, talk about the weather.

John Dabell

I trained as a primary school teacher 20+ years ago, starting my career in London and then I taught in a range of schools in the Midlands. In between teaching jobs, I worked as a national in-service provider, project manager, writer and editor. I am the teacher without a tongue. www.johndabell.com

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