A few weeks ago I was asked if I could do a certain something at work. The short answer, I replied, was no.
I rarely say No. Few teachers ever say ‘No’ (when really they should) because there is a culture, and understanding, that it is all ‘for the kids’. We work all the hours that God sends doing pointless paperwork because it’s ‘for the kids’. ‘No’ is a word reserved for speaking to said kids, not one to use where management are concerned.
You don’t say No in teaching.
But I did it, I said No.
I have taught at my current school for nine years. I have run two departments, trained up countless PGCE students, achieved some of the best GCSE results we ever had. One of my students went on to get top marks at one of the best universities in the country (mostly his work, to be fair, but in my subject… so… you know…). I’ve managed the Social Committee, supported newer teachers, entertained the caretakers, held training sessions for other members of staff. And, the kids say they love my lessons and choose to talk to me outside the classroom. I think I’ve been pretty successful at my job.
But then I said, No.
The first meeting I arranged to talk about this – after the frosty-cold-shouldered-run-in in the staffroom – seemed to suggest that my manager had long been concerned about my general performance. I was always saying I didn’t have enough time to do things.
Now, a person would have to be in years of therapy to understand their own reactions to someone saying you don’t do your job properly. Luckily, I happen to have years of therapy under my belt. Unluckily, I am still totally unable to access everything I’ve learned.
In that moment, it was true. I was crap at my job. Here was someone telling me that I am always complaining, never meeting deadlines, and generally performing poorly. I was devastated.
You leave early everyday, she said.
You refuse to take any work home with you, she said.
Do you even care about the kids?, she said.
And finally, Are you just doing this to pay the rent?
I could have cried. I have cried, many times, in meetings at work. It’s not something I’m proud of, but I’ve never been able to channel anger into anything other than hot, frustrated tears. This time, though, I didn’t cry. This time, I just felt resigned. Because, you see, this was the first time I had said no. And I have NEVER missed a deadline.
“If”, I said to her, “that is what you think, then I suggest you take the matter further”. And then I left.
I’m not sure I really need to go into what it was that I had been asked to do, but I think it’s worth saying that the only reason I said no was because I had been asked the question “And can you do it by 4pm, please?”. Was I refusing to do the work? Not really. All I was saying was, “No, I can’t do it by 4pm”. I can’t do it by 4pm, because I am teaching all day, and it is a physical impossibility. Really, though, the problem wasn’t that they had asked the impossible, and it wasn’t that I had refused. There was a new thing, now… this thing about how I’m not putting everything into my job. I am not living and breathing Teaching. I do not care about the kids.
One, or other of us, took it further. I spoke to the manager above her. This man, a member of senior leadership in an outstanding school, repeated the same comments – comments I could now be sure had come from him in the first place. What I remember most from that meeting is how little emotion I felt. Whilst I had been upset in the meeting with my immediate manager – a person I respect, and like – I don’t have a great deal of time for this guy. So, when he asked me whether I should really just leave teaching, because I clearly didn’t care enough, I just felt mild indignation.
“I know about your illness” he said “and I know that people with psychological problems often try to do as little work as possible, so that they don’t get sick again…”
I zoned out after that. A whole part of my brain shut down so that I wouldn’t have to process the exact thing that he had just said. I wasn’t doing my job properly… and it was because I was a ‘mental’. I should leave teaching, because I was a mental. I was mental.
Let’s put aside the legal ramifications of his comment. Let’s forget, for a moment, that Depression is recognised as a disability under the Equal Opportunities something-or-other. And that managers need to be very careful talking in the way that he has. Let’s just focus on that one comment: People with PSYCHOLOGICAL PROBLEMS.
Maybe it’s just me, but there’s something derogatory about the phrase ‘psychological problems’. The man on the tube with his trousers tied up with string, who hasn’t bathed for a year and who is muttering to himself. He has psychological problems. The lady who leaves her entire inheritance to her cats, rather than the children who have supported her in her old age. She has psychological problems.
And now me; the married, home-owning, professional, educated-past-degree-level woman; with hobbies, talents, and a vast array of wonderful friends? I have psychological problems. Pity me.
Stephen Fry has spoken openly, honestly, and far more eloquently, about his struggles with mental illness. He said recently how supported he felt, and how positively the general public have responded, suggesting that attitudes towards mental illness are changing. I’m sure that they are, or I wouldn’t have been quite so shocked and horrified by what was said to me. But here’s my two cents anyway:
What if my manager’s comment had been this: “I know you’re recovering from cancer, and that’s probably exhausting, but you should be working longer hours”?
Or, “I know you’re in a wheelchair, but you don’t even try to manage the stairs. Don’t you care about the kids?”
Mental illness, like any other physical illness, does change the way you have to work. I no longer feel I can put in all the extra hours I used to. I struggle to stand in front of a group of 30 needy teenagers for five hours a day, keeping my cool, staying professional, endlessly patient and positive. It is exhausting. Like Stephen Fry’s comments about hosting QI, it is difficult to teach with a constant, nagging feeling that you just want to curl up and die. By the end of the day, I am exhausted. So I go home and switch off.
I do, however, always meet my deadlines. I always plan and deliver lessons which Ofsted would deem ‘Good’. I know my students as individuals and I treat them as such. My marking is up to date. I attend every meeting and I support every, stupid, new initiative until they change it back again. I, in short, continue to do my job even when it’s killing me.
But I hate to think that people are looking at me and thinking I’m not doing what I should. So, I asked both managers to give me some suggestions about what it was that they wanted from me. I explained that I was confused by what they were saying – that I thought I was doing okay. The single, beautiful, suggestion was this: “You could put up some display work on your classroom walls”.
I told them I don’t do interior design, I have psychological problems.
Maybe I’m better suited to School Leadership… I am mental, after all.