January 8th. This is not a day that means something to a lot of people unless you’re Jenny Lewis, in which case happy birthday and I love your music.
To me January 8th is one of those dates that has really started to stick out for me – it marks the last time I ever taught a class. On this day I had a nervous breakdown after my GP basically refused to help me with, what I now know was, my rapidly deteriorating mental health.
I ended up in hospital that night. It was an evening that was equal parts relieving, humiliating, upsetting and necessary. To be unequivocally told by a mental health professional that I should quit my job because I was becoming a threat to myself? Well, there’s nowhere else to go from there is there.
Let’s back up a bit here and start back at the beginning of what lead to that evening.
It starts in May 2011, when out of sheer desperation of five months of no job-hunting success I applied to do a PGCE and snagged a place on the Biology course at King’s College London. The fact that the local sandwich bar refused me a job due to lack of experience and suddenly I was deemed good enough to enter the road to teaching still strikes me as rather strange.
Still, I was moderately happy to get onto this because I still remembered being a student at an independent school… which in retrospect meant I was completely unprepared. We started in September.
The first few weeks we really good. We did a bunch of teaching theory, learned some interesting practicals to teach different areas of science and we started to gel as a group of wannabe teachers. This lasted for nearly a month before being placed into our first school. Here we began to observe proper science lessons until it came the time where we would be up there teaching our first lesson.
List item: Teach someone
It was the first week after the October half term. The class was a top set Year 9 and I was teaching a 50 minute physics lesson about the difference between mass and weight. It took me about a week, off and on, to plan this lesson and it was over so quickly. I must have thrown up 3 times that morning before doing the lesson and, to be honest, it went off a lot better than I thought it would. I did a few more rather quickly, including a Year 7 lesson on classification involving Beanie Babies, with a cover teacher remarking that I seemed like I had been teaching for a while. The thing is, after the first lesson and after the nervous energy wore off I came to the realisation that something wasn’t right with me doing this.
List item: Go pond-dipping
I persevered and after a lot of hard work at two different schools I passed my PGCE. Part of it included doing some field work and learning how to organise outdoor activities such as sampling pond-dipping. I remember us catching and naming some small fish and crustaceans, it was a lot of fun.
The week after that trip I received a letter from the school I had my first placement at saying that they were offering me a job as a member of the science department. I was so happy and relieved to finally have a job, after all that’s why I went into teaching rather than some calling to the profession.
(My own classroom!)
List item: Babysit/Look after kids
And so I entered my NQT (Newly Qualified Teacher) year. A year I was almost immediately told was going to end up being harder than the PGCE year. Still in the first few months I still had enough energy and optimism inside of me to try to make the best of things.
With the reduced timetable that came with being an NQT I found that, whilst it was hard and I had to basically build up my bank of lessons, I was able to just about cope with a lot of what was being thrown at me. I was able to take delight in making colourful display boards and drawing bad cartoons as start activities.
List item: Entertain people with a puppet
The first term went really well. The children loved me, I was passing my NQT observations and with one of my Year 7 classes I was able to let out a bit of my silly side by including an emu puppet in my lesson as a plenary activity. Sounds bizarre, but having 11 and 12 year olds explain the difference between solids, liquids and gases to an oversized purple bird worked for a lot of them.
After Christmas things changed. I had become such a part of the furniture that a lot of the classes began to change on me. My Year 8s got to the point where I would be having panic attacks in the science prep room every now and then with the technicians finding me almost foetal behind the cabinets as I could not deal with the behaviour in those two classes.
List item: Allow someone to make their own mistakes
As with all things there was a silver lining (other than the summer holiday which never seemed to arrive quite quickly enough). My Year 9 class. No matter how bad a day was I knew that everything would be fine during those 50 minutes. They were well-behaved, engaged and just so eager to learn. They allowed me to teach in the style that best suited my personality; tangential, slightly leftfield but with the aim of both entertaining and informing. I never really had to worry about behaviour (maybe once or twice, but no class is perfect) so I could just be me and it was such a tonic.
List item: Attend a court case
Luckily for me I managed to snag two weeks off in my NQT year because of jury service. I actually pleaded with the courts to put me on a case that would last for weeks… they smiled and went back to their day-to-day work. It was worth a shot? At least I got to be a foreman, that was interesting.
List item: Inspire someone
We got to the end of the year and I got this amazing card (with a present) from one of my Year 9s. I was not looking forward to being a teacher with a full timetable after passing my NQT and I was so close to quitting. But, me and my partner had bought an apartment, so I was trapped. Also, I found out that I would be teaching top set Year 10 which meant that a large section of the class that kept me sane would be still there when I came back after the summer.
The problem was, I was never able to truly relax in the summer. For the final two weeks I could not sleep properly and I was having nightmares about going back to teaching. From that September to January it was just a downward spiral punctuated by bright moments with my Year 10s and Year 11s. We got to Christmas where I had to mark over 40 pieces of controlled assessment which meant I had no time to relax, so I came back to the school completely frazzled.
Three days of teaching later and that was it. I mentally and physically collapsed to the point that my GP told me that considering the number teaching had done on my mental health that they would be able to sign me off for months. Not wanting to bleed the school dry I took a few weeks to clear my head and make up my mind about whether I could survive on savings for a while as I job searched or if I had to go back to teaching.
I handed in my notice as soon as that decision was made, threw the anti-depressants in the bin and I’ve been mentally stable since.
In the end, things have become so much better in these two years since. I have a job that I am happy with, I have time to be a friend again, I can be the partner (and now husband) to an amazing person, I can feel free to be me again. I got my life back.
This is the what January 8th means to me. The day where I finally was able to take the advice from a fortune cookie I consumed the Saturday before and take back control of what my life was going to be:
List item: Take advice from a fortune cookie
I have one regret from leaving teaching. I was never able to say a proper goodbye or a thank you to the students who kept me sane for that year and a half. If any of you come across this (you know who you are) I just want to say:
“I am sorry. I tried so so hard and by leaving the way I did I feel like I failed you after all the trust and love that you showed for your eccentric red-headed science teacher. It was a true pleasure getting to know you guys and I wish you all the best in the future.”