A guest post by @dutaut.
I never got to say it.
It was three Christmases ago. I was cooking the family Christmas meal. I love cooking. I’d spent two days on the prep. It was going to be a gourmet affair for the whole family. As it turned out, I cocked up the starter, a beer soup that tasted just awful. The amuse-bouches were nice. The sorbet, at least, cleaned the beer soup off everyone’s palates. I got the main course on the table, but the show-stopper pudding stayed in the fridge, a sad homage to the deconstructed fancies of Masterchef. I didn’t eat. I excused myself and went to bed.
Part of me never woke up, though it took me a long time to realise it.
The rest of that holiday is a blur. I went back to school in January, having recovered enough from the virus to convince myself I could motor on. I did, right up until February half term.
I was teaching a pretty full timetable. I had responsibilities on top of that. Determined to bring about better communication, better assessment and lower workload for everyone, I was in charge of deploying Google Apps for Education. My line manager, an Assistant Headteacher, had left and on top of what I was doing, I was asked to fill his role too – parental engagement. No promotion. No pay rise. No support. No extra PPA. No review of my current responsibilities. I could have turned it down, I suppose, but the promotion was hinted at as a deferred possibility, and I wanted nothing more at that time than a seat at the decision-making table. I wanted to change things. I knew I could change things.
The school had just come out of Special Measures after years in the category, dragged out by every unsustainable, damaging initiative you could imagine. Every single one. I reckon I’ve been seen by more Ofsted inspectors, LEA advisors, Mocksted-peddling consultants and every other type of external observer than most teachers will see in their entire careers, and I never let the side down. I watched colleagues leave and get pushed out. I stayed. I threw everything I had at it, and all that ever happened was that more was thrown back at me.
By the time the virus came along, there was nothing left of me to fight it.
Between that Christmas and February, I started losing weight. I still attended every after-school parent event, as was required of me. I still ran the parent forum that SLT never attended or responded to. I still followed up, as was asked of me by the head, every single parent complaint and produced half-termly reports for governors on my work. And I rolled out Sims Learning Gateway, too, so that every parent would have access to their children’s data and reports, and so that the school could save the considerable work and expense of printing them out.
I still ran Google Apps for Schools.
Oh. And I still taught. Not one. Not two. Three subjects. There were gaps in the staffing you see. And I’m a bit musical. And I’m a bit French. And that’s all you really need at Key Stage 3, right? Someone to stand in front of the class who knows more than them and who can write reports.
School finished at 15.30 on the Friday and I was in the doctor’s office by 17.00. I had pain in my gut and I was exhausted. I was diagnosed with a stomach ulcer and sent home with Omeprazole. I went to sleep.
I don’t really sleep much. Six hours a night has been the average my whole adult life. For the next few months, I was sleeping 14 hours a night, and I needed a nap to get through the day. It was a sleep that provided no rest. I woke up from it as tired as I’d fallen into it. I went back to the doctor and he signed me off. A fortnight. Then another. Then another.
I had a whole barrage of blood tests. My white blood cell count was critically low. I was, apparently, suffering sepsis. There must have been drugs. I can’t remember. There were supplements. All sorts. The energy required to digest food was more than my body could handle. Eating meant sleeping. I developed a tremor. I couldn’t walk down stairs without holding on because my knees shook from the effort. I couldn’t play my guitar, which broke my heart. I still can’t play it because, I think, my heart is still broken. I got a new diagnosis: post-viral fatigue syndrome, or post-viral ME.
During that whole time, the school called me once.
“Hi JL. We’ve just had the call from Ofsted. I’m just calling to find out if there’s any chance of you being back tomorrow.”
The school went back into Special Measures.
And I missed it. Oh how I missed my work, my students. My sense of purpose.
My wife, I don’t mind telling you, saved me. She is my hero. As I write this, she’s still out there doing it. She works in education too. The greatest challenge for me these past couple of years has been to see the job’s impact from the outside; to watch it try to do to her what it did to me; to support her the way she supported me; to struggle daily to find the balance between encouraging the right amount of resilience or of resistance; to be at home feeling like the one you love loves her job more than her family; knowing this to be untrue; resenting yourself for feeling it; resenting the toll it takes, the fact that even when she’s home, she isn’t really – the best part of her is still at work. Just like I was.
She has resigned. She has a wonderful new job to go to. All this week, she has been saying goodbye and it must be gut-wrenching for her. She loves those kids, and her colleagues, and they love her back.
But she is getting to say goodbye.
I went back on a phased return. The occupational therapist’s report was ignored (administrative cock-up) and I was put straight back into the classroom. It was awful. I was awful. I had no support. I felt like I was shunned for having dared to be ill. I was a stone and a half lighter, and I’m not a big guy to start with. I struggled on until the summer holidays. I was given a timetable on the final day. Next year, I would be teaching English and Citizenship instead of Music and French, neither of which I had ever taught. Surprise! Have a great summer.
I went home in tears. I had an appalling summer. My precarious health caved in a second time.
Anti-depressants were little use, but they reassured people around me that I was doing something. CBT was excellent. It gave me a language to conceptualise the anxiety attacks I was suffering, and to manage them. It didn’t stop them.
I had another term of absence, until my departure was mutually agreed.
Since then, I’ve only worked supply and part-time contracts. Initially, I felt totally, and stupidly, emasculated. How utterly disrespectful to my wife that feeling was – to the decade she’d supported my career aspirations at the cost of her own. I got over myself pretty quickly.
Physically, I’m a weaker person for my experience. The weight and muscle loss have caused me to suffer pain in my cervical spine, which is with me for life now. At some point, a permanent tinnitus kicked in. If that doesn’t sound like much, consider never being able to enjoy a silence, and having to work harder to keep your cognitive load under control in every noisy environment. A classroom, say, or any dinner table where more than one conversation is going on at the same time. I’m still prone to an anxiety response in stressful situations.
Mentally though, I am stronger than I’ve ever been. I’ve learned the power of no, and I’m not letting go. Unfortunately, that’s not always helpful when working in schools (an understatement). By the same token, I have a little less ego getting in the way. I never valued myself much by how hard I worked, how much I earned, or how important my job title sounded, but I don’t break myself anymore trying to sustain a system that can’t sustain itself, and I advise all those who’ll listen not to either.
I focus on the students in front of me, on the curriculum to be taught, on keeping expectations high. Ironically, I can only do this because expectations of me are low. Anything more than a body in the room who’ll take a register is a bonus, it seems, for some schools I’ve worked in as a supply. But even for those who really look after supply teachers, accountability is low, and where that is the case, I stay as long as possible. Every placement where my curriculum needs are met and my pastoral abilities empowered, I literally feel my teaching improve.
What does that say about our education system, at least as I’m encountering it?
As I’ve picked myself up from the floor, I’ve taken ownership of my own CPD. I go to conferences and I read, read, read and I write. I listen and I ask questions. I interact with people across the education system who constantly challenge me to think better, to be better. And I have the time to do all that because I don’t work for a school that won’t let me, that has other priorities for me.
But there’s one thing missing. Nearly three years ago, I didn’t get to say goodbye to students I’d taught and colleagues I’d taught with for years, and I still carry that with me. Since then, I’ve met many young people and teachers, some of whom I’ve had opportunity to say goodbye to, but few of whom I’d developed a true, long-term, pastoral or collaborative rapport with. If you read this and you have those things, I dare say you don’t take them for granted. I dare say your students and colleagues don’t either. Though I would venture a guess that more than a couple of things this year have gotten in the way of you making the most of it.
In my experience, a focus on curriculum, self-directed CPD, and moderate accountability don’t just create the conditions for better pastoral care for our students – they are in themselves better pastoral care for our teachers.
Saying goodbye is always a proud moment, tinged with more than a little sadness. It is a privilege. Perhaps an education system that allows teachers that privilege is one that would see fewer teachers choose to say goodbye to the classroom instead.
This post originally appeared on the author’s blog and is republished here with their kind permission.