REAL tips for a mentally ill teacher

Health education has greatly improved since my time in school. Rather than just focusing on the human anatomy and nutrition, we’re beginning to expose students to emotional woes like stress and mental illness. Young people are key in evoking change, disintegrating the societal stigma we cling to.

Here’s the problem: that progress has yet to reach the educators themselves. Teaching, as underpaid it is, doesn’t garner the respect it deserves. This job is not easy. You’re basically “turned on,” serving as the counselor, instigator, cheerleader, and wise sage every school hour. The students are depending on you for, really, everything. The dynamic of the room, the routines of the day, the lessons planned out and executed so everybody understands…it’s a lot.

That’s all during school. But once the dismissal bell rings, the teacher continues to work. You’re planning out every lesson, sometimes for every single subject. You’re finding ideas for effective classroom management, ways to decorate the room, techniques to pump kids up for learning, marking assignments, and entering that data into the grade book. If you have a smidgen of workaholic tendencies, then this job could become your life.

the struggle is REAL.

Teacher burnout—even after just a day or week of work—is real. Your health takes the backseat to ensure your kiddos are happy, productive campers. You see a million-and-one ways you could be doing better, criticizing when you feel “lazy.” The smallest details can send you over the edge of overwhelmed, flustered, and just about done with it all.

Throw in preexisting mental illnesses, like chronic depression and anxiety, and that teacher burnout can be an everyday occurrence. The act of getting out of bed to carry on a full day of teaching can feel like a treacherous uphill battle. Putting on a smiling, cheerful mask for the students excited to see you is painful. Halfway through, you give them busy individual work so you can sit and not talk and escape for a moment.

In my search to find some solace and inspiration regarding mentally ill teachers, and the results weren’t helpful. The cliché suggestions of “Go exercise!” and “Meditate every day!” haven’t cured me yet, so it probably won’t today. There are reassuring words about other struggling teachers, but they gave limited suggestions to make it through a rough day and not feel like a complete failure.

Admittedly, I’m inexperienced and have yet to finish this year as a WorldTeacher. However, we need to talk about this more and give more insight beyond the tired, sweeping suggestions that don’t apply during the school day. I cannot leave my class for an hour to go on a run. At least not at my school.

So, here are my ideas and ways I’ve been coping as a mentally ill teacher. While a lot of my self-care practices happen at home, that doesn’t mean you cannot help yourself in the classroom. At least trying to make it easier on yourself should alleviate a full-on meltdown. (In case you’re wondering: yes, I’ve had a full-blown panic attack in the middle of teaching. Best to avoid that.)

1. plan activities that allow you to breathe.

This one is huge on the days where I’m in a wretched mood. Even if you try to mask the feelings, kids are very receptive of how you are and will mirror it. That means more anxiety and depression equals more misbehavior.

Keep handy some different activities that can let you ease back, like art projects, movies, and some individual work time. Sounds like a study hall period? That’s basically what it is. It’s not constant action, but kids should be learning how to manage their time wisely and get stuff done.

Your only hesitancy here is letting it get out of hand. My students can abuse this time quite easily, so over time, I’ve tried to home in on what works best. Keep it structured, not too long, and strict on what happens: little to no talking or getting up from your desks…generally not screwing around.

Call me lazy if you want, but on some days, it’s a saving grace. You wake up in the morning intuitively knowing it’ll likely be a tough one, but if you can ease up on the stage performance typically taking place while you’re at the whiteboard…what a relief that can be.

2. it’s okay to not do it all.

Perfection is futile. Nobody is going to walk into class every morning and make the day super fun-filled and energetic. You, like the students, are human. One year’s experience or decades’ worth, you shouldn’t set unrealistic expectations.

When you’re especially anxious or depressed, the littlest acts of existing as a human being are major victories. Getting out of bed. Going to work even when it sounds dreadful. Surviving the day unscathed. Everything is proof of your strength.

Easier said than done, but don’t beat yourself up over the small things. Maybe you didn’t get to teaching every subject today. You think the day could’ve been more productive than it was. After a few really great days, maybe today you feel like everything fell back ten steps. Guess what? It’s okay.

As a rule of thumb, I always have way more plans than I ever get to in a day. That leaves me with the option to flip around activities that can reflect what fits the overall mood and productivity levels. Teachers are constantly aware of how students are responding to lessons and activities. If something doesn’t work, or an activity takes longer or shorter than expected, then you’re covered, regardless of how the day transpires.

We all have those days…or weeks…or months. Do your best, however that looks each day.

3. treasure each spare moment.

Again, teaching is full-time gig and then some. There’s a lot of plates you’re spinning all at once, juggling what’s happening right now while figuring out what the heck is next. If you don’t consciously schedule out a break, you’ll drive yourself into a total burnout.

When I say schedule it out, I mean it. Whether it’s an hour or the whole evening, one of the most productive choices you can make is taking a break. It’s a break where you don’t think about school at all. You’re not pretending to multitask while obviously still working on school. You just-up veg.

However you want to use this break is up to you and your self-care preferences, but make sure this time isn’t wallowing in your depression. Instead, do the cliché face mask and TV-binge bonanza. Read a great book. Turn on some rad music. Pull out a crossword puzzle. This is essentially what every evening after school looks like for me, and I need it.

The goal is to prevent burnout before it happens. A mentally ill teacher will likely burnout, regardless of how clear their skin is. But it’s still better to relax when you can. Recharge. Prepare yourself to be that daily version of “your best.”

4. it’s not defeat to use sick leave.

I grew up with the mentality that you never skip a day of work or school. Ever. Not unless the apocalypse is happening, in which case school is probably canceled.

Too often, I wake up in the morning already wondering, “Should I take the day off?” Not a great place to start, and usually things improve from there, but it’s always an uphill battle.

Most days, I overcome my nasty depression thoughts and make it a solid day. But sporadically over last semester, I took a day off in there. In the pit of my gut, I knew I needed it. The empty ache was too much. I realized that coming into work like a zombie would only make matters worse for me and the kids.

Yes, there’s still major guilt. I’m letting myself down, the kids down, the whole WorldTeach organization down. All the irrational anxiety comes flooding at me…until I sit down with myself and really think. The truth is, having just one day off here and there is the jumpstart I desperately need. It’s not shameful; it’s immensely strong and mindful.

Again, don’t take a week off just because. Use your leave sparingly. Make it count.

Being a mentally ill teacher doesn’t define my ability to educate. It’s simply an obstacle to overcome, a challenge requiring adaptation, patience, and lots of willpower. Your heart and passion will speak volumes louder than any depression or anxiety ever can.

Most importantly: keep trying. Have a reason to keep coming back, whether it’s to see your kids or simply prove to yourself and the world that you’re more than capable. You’re making a positive difference, even on your worst days.

Take care, and keep the faith. -Allie

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