I’m going to apologise now for the long read ahead. I am not one for saying things briefly. But I felt this was important to write.
One of the things I often said in my first year of teaching is that teachers on the internet seem perfect. I was comparing myself to them and feeling the pressure. 3 years down the line and I’m sat at home, signed off work for a half term because of stress and exhaustion. I have fibromyalgia (a chronic illness that causes widespread pain, brain fog, exhaustion and many other symptoms). Somewhere along the line during teaching, I developed chronic fatigue syndrome. Most probably bought on by the mass of infections I caught (bronchitis, laryngitis, tonsillitis... all the itises!). This bought along more exhaustion that I can’t even explain. Every single little thing makes me exhausted. During a flare up, I can’t walk, every ounce of me hurts and I can hardly get my sentences out. CFS and fibromyalgia are things I won’t recover from but I learn to live with them and sometimes they get worse. But this post isn’t meant to be about those illness, it’s meant to be about taking care of yourself.
I was ploughing through teaching, pretending everything was fine and over time I forgot to take care of myself properly. I thought I was taking care of myself because I was having termly massages and wasn’t working most of the weekend and beginning to leaving work a bit earlier. I would go to work with a smile (mostly) and do the best I could for the children and if I occasionally thought I had a good idea I’d post it on my Twitter account. I have 1000 followers so I thought I need to seem like I’ve got everything all together. People ask me for advice on there, so I need to be brilliant. What no one on twitter saw was that I was crying most days, I have unbelievably low self confidence about my teaching ability and every single day had become a physical struggle and I was struggling to hold myself together. I wasn’t listening to my body properly.
Friends at work began to notice and questioned (kindly) whether I was well enough to be at work. I continued to say I was, because all I could think about was the children and the expectations I’d put on myself. I kept thinking, “how can I do that to the children?! How will they cope without me? I can’t do that to work... think of the cover. It will make me a failure. I don’t need time off, I’m fine, I’d just be wasting doctor time”. And then one day, I just broke.
I felt like I broke right in front of the children. I welcomed the children in the morning, smile on my face and pretended (like we all do) that everything was fine. But it wasn’t fine. I could hardly see, my vision was so blurry. I thought “I’ll go to the outside classroom... fresh air will help”. I got outside and continued to pretend I was fine, but then I couldn’t stand, so I thought “oh I’ll just sit on this bench... just for a minute”. And then I couldn’t get up. I could hardly keep my eyes open. A child was talking to me and I couldn’t process what they were saying. I thought I was going to faint. The bells rang for tidy up time and it was like I was completely detached from the universe. I saw these blurry figures run up to one of the teachers to listen and I still couldn’t get up. Eventually I somehow found the strength to stand and without helping at tidy up time, I stumbled into the classroom and flopped on my chair. “Phonics” I thought. “I need to teach phonics”. I tried. I tried my absolute hardest to teach the phoneme of the day to those 29 little faces waiting on me. I couldn’t get my sentences out so I put alphablocks on. Brilliant choice - the children love it and it’s a short break from talking for me. But I couldn’t stay awake, I was drifting off in front of their eyes. I managed just about to keep myself awake and sent them to wash their hands for lunch. They ran excitedly and I had nothing in me to tell them to walk or they might get hurt. And then I cried. Cried so much I didn’t think I would stop. I barely made it to the assistant head’s office. Then I sobbed and sobbed. That was the day I admitted I wasn’t okay. I waited anxiously in the doctors thinking I’d be dismissed and just told to get some sleep. I wasn’t. The doctor signed me off within the first 30 seconds of me talking.
On the way home, I had a panic attack. I thought I’d failed. BUT I realise now that I hadn’t failed. I’d done the opposite. That day, anyone could have done a better job for those children than me. Who did I think I was, thinking the children needed ME to keep teaching them? They didn’t. What they needed was a teacher that could function. What I needed was rest. We’re now 3 weeks into my rest period and I’m beginning to move around a bit more. After the first week, I managed to mostly switch off about feeling guilty about work. In the second week I had an email from a kind parent. One thing she said was “We all love and miss you but your physical and emotional health is more important, so no feeling bad about setting a really good example to the children by showing them how important it is to look after yourself”. That helped a lot. She was so right - we shouldn’t raise children to live in a society where they think they always have to be fine. And that brings me to now. I’ve finally accepted that rest will make me better. The children are happy, the class hasn’t fallen apart and I’m finally beginning to recover from this flare up, one day at a time.
Trying to be perfect gets you nowhere. Comparing yourself to others gets you nowhere. Listening to your body and taking care of yourself gets you everywhere. You are the best tool you have. So even if that means just treating yourself to a cup of tea and 5 minutes peace... do it. But if it means something more, still do it. No one on this earth is perfect. Everyone is struggling with things. Maybe if we all admitted our struggles more, there wouldn’t be so much pressure to always be brilliant. The reality is, it’s okay to not be okay. It’s okay to not always be good at everything. It’s okay to have a rest.
This post took a different turn than I was expecting when I started writing it. But it’s been cathartic. This is a vulnerable post for me, but I urge you to be more open with each other about your struggles. Next time you think you’re a failure because you’ve just slung the Lego out rather than thinking through a wonderful activity, cut yourself some slack. No one can do everything all the time.