For our Christmas campaign, English teacher Chris blogs about his experiences with mental health and education.
Teenagers are incredibly funny. You know from their faces if you’re having a good lesson.
Nearly straight after university, I went into teaching English at secondary level. I love my subject and I love working with teenagers.
One of the challenges in teaching is that for a certain percentage of kids, school is going to be a difficult place. My mission is to win them over to the subject, even if they think they’re no good at English or don’t like it. My answer to that is, who doesn’t like stories? My aim is for teenagers to learn without really realising they’re doing it. Getting them passionate about the subject, seeing them come alive, and having really mature conversations sparked off by things that they’re read.
"Schools generally can be a little bit stuck in the past when it comes to mental health."
I teach at an all-boys school. Schools generally can be a little bit stuck in the past when it comes to mental health. There’s an emphasis on rewarding good attendance, which will never be within reach for someone who needs time off for mental health problems. Ofsted makes the right noises about mental health, but I still think that ultimately it boils down to exam results. Until this changes at a governmental level, it’s difficult for individual schools to change their mental health culture.
As a new teacher in particular, you’re under an intense amount of scrutiny. Pressure trickles down from above – from governors, to senior management, to teachers and inevitably to the pupils themselves. You also feel that you’re only as good as your last set of GCSE results.
When I started teaching, I just thought I got sad sometimes, or got angry sometimes. I didn’t know why I was struggling when everyone else seemed fine. I didn’t ask for help because I didn’t know why I wasn’t coping. I wouldn’t have known how to go about getting help. A few years ago I wouldn’t have been able to be open and honest about the fact I was someone who has bouts of mental ill health.
I’m sure that lots of teachers are struggling on without really knowing why. There is such a drive to be perfect when you first start. I still feel resentful of it when I look back to being a newly qualified teacher.
"I’m sure that lots of teachers are struggling on without really knowing why."
I consider teaching to be a performance – it’s a professional character, it’s not me. Keeping that performance up even when you’re under pressure is very difficult. I remember feeling a wave of panic being observed teaching by governors as well as a class of 30 pupils. You try not to let the mask slip. It’s really tough because there’s nowhere to hide. You can’t just walk out of your classroom for a five-minute break if you need one.
Unfortunately, I think there’s still an undercurrent in society where mental health problems, especially the way they manifest in teenagers, is associated with laziness.
Times are changing though. On an individual level, people are more understanding of mental health problems. I don’t ever remember mental health being mentioned when I was at school, or even at university. It seems bizarre to look back at now. Pupils in general are better at being kind to each other now. Boys will use words like ‘mental’ or psycho’ but then others will call them out on it. There are wellness policies in schools now.
"I wanted my pupils to know that if you go and cry in the toilets, you’re no less of a man."
As teachers, we don’t really see the effects that exam pressure has on pupil behind closed doors. It’s important to be aware that stress can really ramp up around this time and as teachers we can contribute to this. I wanted to show that exam results are not the be all and end all. I held an assembly on mental health for my year 11s going into their GCSE year. I really struggled with mental health at university. I wish I’d known then that it’s ok, you’re not alone. I wanted my pupils to know that if you go and cry in the toilets, you’re no less of a man. I think it helps boys to see a male teacher reveal some vulnerability.
Feedback from staff about the assembly was really positive, and it was even better from the boys. I think that they appreciated the honesty. In teaching, we can so easily skirt around the point. There’s no magic bullet, but normalising mental health and showing vulnerability hopefully shows them that you can come out the other end.
"Schools and the government have got to stop paying lip service to mental health."
Mind’s work incredibly important and really timely. The way things are now, children come to crisis point and it doesn’t need to be this way.
Schools and the government have got to stop paying lip service to mental health. I also hear a lot about the huge waiting lists for help from CAMHs (Children and Adolescent Mental Health Services). Some pupils never actually receive any help at all. I worry about what happens when mental health is not the fashionable topic any more. What will happen then? In a few years’ time it won’t be in the media all the time in the way it is now and something else will be higher on the political agenda. We need to seize the opportunity to make a change in young people’s mental health now.
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