The Long and Winding Road

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Ask any teacher at Secondary Level and they will tell you that the Christmas to Easter term is longest and most tiring one. I’m aware that those in other occupations will be laughing to themselves at the idea, but hear me out before chuckling – working in a school is tougher than people imagine.

This is the term where you have to ensure all pupils are completing coursework, sitting mock exams and preparing for their final ones, completing projects that have been going all year, keeping up to date with marking and paperwork and reports and parents’ evenings…and then there’s the day-to-day teaching that has to be done as well. The preparation, execution, reflection and marking that comes from that is a job in itself.

In the world of education Teachers are restricted by fixed holidays – again I can hear the chortling – but we are told when we are getting days off; we can’t just decide we need a couple of days downtime because we have some left. In most businesses the holiday sheet comes around and you can work out when best would suit you – when you think you’ll need a few days off after a prolonged period of work. Not for us. Yes we are more than compensated in the summer, but across the year (especially Jan to April) those breaks are not always enough.

What you need to understand is it’s not just physical tiredness that hits you, it’s the mental fatigue that wallops you. There is not a moment when you are not working as a teacher. You have to be “On” throughout the day. With thirty expectant pupils in front of you five, six or seven times a day, you have to be ready for them and get the most out of them in the short time you have together. Spreadsheets need to be filled, records kept of progress, preparation done for each class.

Having worked in offices over the years I know there is the ability to have downtime; to plan out your work across a day, week or longer. You can take five minutes to yourself or go for a wee walk around the office – I can’t do that. If I leave the classroom for a second to get something there can be a transformation from sedate little angels to wild feral creatures in the space of thirty seconds. A PC doesn’t do that – you can walk away and the worst you come back to is another couple of emails.

But here’s the rub – while it is the most all-consuming of jobs it has such rewards that you trade-off that tiredness for the moments of pure elation. In the last week fundraising for Comic Relief and taking part in Rock Challenge has pushed my sleepiness to its limits, but they were both completely worth it. The reaction and satisfaction you get from those extra-curricular activities is huge. Even the day-to-day work where you see pupils achieve their goals, pass their test and have brilliant Eureka! moments make everything worthwhile.

The other reason I’m so tired is that I’ve spent most of this academic year trying to fight off the deepest darkest bout of depression I’ve ever endured. Having the strength to battle that on top of everything else have made it an unbelievably difficult year. But, and it’s an important but, having been away from Teaching and now being back in the fold, I am enjoying things second time round much more. Yes, there are still problems and the government and SQA don’t make our lives easy but if you remember that the pupils are the reason you are there then you find your focus quickly.

Like any job there are those who are ambitious and look to promoted posts as their next step – perhaps I will feel that urge in a few years – but I’m not ambitious in that way just now. Having stepped back and actually considered why I want to do the job, I know it is all about the pupils. They are where my ambitions are – in them. Might sound twee, but it is true. I came back into teaching because I knew that those moments of realization, success and recognition that pupils have in front of you are worth all the lost hours of sleep and jokes about the length of the summer holidays.

There are few jobs that can tire you as much, but there are also few jobs that can reward you so much. It might not feel like it today after the final day of term, but I know that with hindsight it will have been worth it.

JD

Clarity

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When you live with a head like mine, you find moments or days of clarity are a rare and treasured thing. In the last week I have felt the most “Normal” as I have in a long time. But then I was due a break after the toughest six months I’ve experienced.

From October until mid February I had been battling with depression – deeper and darker than I’d ever gone through before. Permanently exhausted, empty of optimism and lost to what felt like a parallel world – distanced from my own life. You are aware of your solitude, of your separation from those around you in emotional terms but you don’t have the tools or wherewithal to do anything about it.

You know you are a horrible person to be around. Your lack of patience and decency embarrass you. You want the ground to open up and remove you from the life you are living. I’m lucky that I’ve never stood on the edge of the darkest point of humanity; the idea of dying is not in my mind – sure, you wish you weren’t alive, but there’s a marked difference.

Now looking back on what was a difficult time for me and all those around me, it now seems so far removed from where I am now. I feel stronger, happier and more contented than I have done in a long time. I wonder if that is a result of the prolonged struggle – feeling relief and release from the black dog that refused to let me go for almost half a year.

Right now I feel good about life and with a change to the medication I am determined not to fall back into old habits. Easier said than done because you can’t legislate for the arrival of the down periods. You think that you have a grasp on it, but speaking to my other half it appears that my awareness is always delayed – I only realise I’m in the dark once I arrive there and not necessarily while I am on the journey towards it.

There is always the concern that I am heading for the other extreme and the mania is around the corner. As the late Carrie Fisher called it “Liquid Confidence” that pumps through your veins making you feel invincible, risk averse and dangerous. I don’t think that’s where I am at the moment but you can never be sure.  Those moments where your mouth is disconnected from your filters and brain – away on an adventure of its own.

I do miss those moments. Being on two medications, both of which are ones that push down the mania and limit it, makes it a rarer occurrence. There are always moments where the tongue is quicker than the mind, but I’d like to think I was better at stopping myself these days. The thing I miss is that complete freedom of thought, my mind was able to go off on tangents and have fun and I’m lacking that spark in my life. Perhaps I’m just growing up – can’t be Peter Pan forever.

Robin Williams once said “You’re only given a little spark of madness. You mustn’t lose it.” And while I know that I have more than my share of madness, it’s the spark that is absent and I’ve got to force myself to find it more. Surely the spark is not just part of the mental illness – it must exist independently and within me as a person. Maybe it’s time I threw caution to the wind occasionally and embraced the lighter side.

This clarity is great at the moment while I am feeling well, but whether I can find and utilise the spark when the darkness next arrives remains to be seen. One thing is for sure: I cannot survive life without pleasure or fun. It’s time to put enjoyment and light front and centre more often, and remember that no matter how bad things get there is always a light at the end of the tunnel.

JD