Physical and Mental Wellbeing: I even tried hypnosis to cope with stress

When asked about my job, I sometimes describe being a headteacher as similar to being in an emotionally abusive relationship. I read a definition once, which described it as ‘a consistent pattern of abusive words and bullying behaviour that wear down a person’s self-esteem and undermine their mental health.’ And without diminishing the terrible experiences of people who have been in emotionally abusive relationships, I can’t help but find a correlation between the cycle of emotional abuse and the cycle of experiences I have working in education.

Some days I feel like I can handle it, and on others I feel completely crushed. No one in teaching needs me to tell them that being a headteacher isn’t easy. The past two years have added another dimension of difficulty to an already tricky job. The chances I used to have to refill my resilience-cup have dwindled and so, all it takes at the moment to make me spill over in despair is one more complaint from *that* parent, one snide comment from someone about how little teachers work, or one more child or family remaining un-helped by Social Services, CAMHS or one of the other over-burdened support systems out there.  

There are delightful bits, of course there are, my passion for pedagogy and bearing witness to a child’s development are the bright spots in my working day. I enjoy assemblies, hearing children sing, chatting to the children in class and on the playground, reading stories and just having the chance to love the little people for who they are. Sadly, this is being buried in the putrid swamp of outside pressure and lack of funding. New curriculum, over-testing, new inspection frameworks, less funding, less support, less resourcing. At times it feels overwhelming.

I never would have described myself as a political animal, but the current situation has certainly forced me to be more aware and to speak up against the injustices being done to school staff, school budgets and the families and communities we serve. But, it is hard to stand against the continued media barrage against teachers, the head of Ofsted criticising us for helping children and families eat when no one else would, and the endless and ridiculous amount of information that is shovelled at us by the DfE.

My job as headteacher is to be a protective umbrella over my school, taking care of the bigger picture so my teachers can teach, my teaching assistants can assist, my children can learn and my families can flourish. In my 12 years as a head, I have faced tough times, deficit budgets, bonkers parents and challenging children. I have had death threats levelled at me and I have had a mentally ill parent actively try to strangle me (I was saved by a wonderful teaching assistant who held a door shut with her bodyweight so I could escape and call the police). I have had parents formally complain to the Local Authority about me for ridiculous reasons. I have had so many Ofsted inspections (including one from an inspector who brought a pink silk corset with honest-to-god nipple tassels on it into my school in her briefcase!) from which I have learned nothing about my duty to school, although I did learn a great deal about my capacity to cope with stress and keep a straight face!

I coped with all these things. I cried sometimes, I comfort ate my way through barrel-loads of junk food sometimes, I ran miles and miles, I composed and deleted my resignation letter, I even tried hypnosis to cope with the stresses. The thing is, these tough times would pass and I would have a chance to recognise the joy in my job, find my equilibrium and come back stronger and more positive.

Lately, however, it feels like there is no let up between the punches- I’m not able to fight back, I have no recovery time between blows… I feel like I’m being bludgeoned into a paste. I have put on weight, I hardly sleep, when I do sleep I grind my teeth so badly that I shattered a molar, I don’t exercise, I cry in my car on the way home but I can’t seem to explain exactly what it is that has tipped me over the edge. I feel like I shouldn’t feel like this. I have a job, a home, a family. I have so much to be grateful for, and so much that brings me joy. My staff are wonderful. They are amazingly supportive, genuinely good people. They try so hard and do their work magnificently. My governors are great and do so much to help me. They ask me how I am and how they can help me. They are the spokes in my umbrella, keeping me up and open over my school but my fabric is being torn to shreds.

I would love to do something else- at times I wish I could do anything else- but I am so worn down and burned out that I believe it when I think there is nothing else I know how to do. I’m trapped in this relationship, waiting for the good times that seem to be fewer and further apart.