In a blogpost I wrote last summer, I joked about how, with the timetable and workload I had coming up in September, I had “pencilled in my breakdown for February”. It actually came a few days earlier, on Wednesday 27th January. Breakdown is too strong a word really; more like ‘tearful meltdown to my head of department and repeatedly claiming “I can’t do this”‘.
I went home that morning, didn’t go back in for that week and saw my GP who was very understanding, reassuring and sympathetic. He diagnosed work-related stress and signed me off for a fortnight, which has just ended. I’ll be going back to work after half term.
So, what was wrong? It’s important to note that it isn’t a particular pupil, class, colleague, SLT or school practice that has been causing me stress. It’s just my workload and my inability to handle it effectively: three subjects spread across 21 teaching hours a week, with only one of those hours being key stage 3. My subjects – history, classics and politics – are marking-intense and, frankly, difficult to teach well. This year has been particularly and uniquely intense: it’s my first and only year teaching all three subjects (classics has been wound down) and my first year teaching a new subject, politics, at both AS and A2 levels.
I spent the first couple of days away from school feeling immensely sad, embarassed and, most of all, guilty: you don’t WANT to be away from your classes and you feel like you’re letting them, and the colleagues and friends who have to cover for you, down. Then there’s the thought of what awaits you when you go back: have they done the work? What will you need to go over again? It’s partly this internalisation of workload and responsibility that has caused me so much stress, I think, and something I need help in dealing with if I’m going to avoid this happening again.
The school immediately arranged for me to see an occupational health doctor, which was also incredibly helpful. Like with my GP, telling someone who you don’t know how you feel, someone who isn’t a friend, colleague or loved one but who can see things entirely impartially, is a very relieving thing to do.
I’m not after sympathy here, or trying to make my own circumstances out as unique or special. To anyone reading this who feels that they can’t cope, that the workload is too much, I’d just like to say that stress IS real, it does affect how you think and behave and, if you can, speak to someone about it. All it took for me to collapse was for my head of department to notice I wasn’t my usual self and ask if I was ok. Turns out I wasn’t.