What aspects of teaching can be good for your mental health?

My name is Lucy and I’m an ex-teacher… No one ever says teaching is good for your mental health: that would sound a bit ‘pie in the sky’.  However from someone who left teaching to become a writer, in the 18 months since I left my teaching job I’ve got a clear sense of what I’ve gained and what I’ve lost. And I now recognise those aspects of teaching that are good for your mental health.

Helping children

The most obvious benefit is the one that people who have never taught assume to be the greatest: helping children. If you’ve taught, you’ll know that the reality is less gilded, and comprises two parts. Sometimes, you know you’ve helped a child, maybe more than one, towards understanding a subject, themselves, or someone else. Maybe it happens most weeks, even days, once or twice. But teachers also know that, inevitably, not every one of the 150 individual children you might see over a day will have enjoyed their lesson, let alone learned something. Even so, you will have planned discussions and activities to occupy and interest, given feedback to many, maybe introduced new ideas to some. Here is a different, everyday kind of satisfaction that comes from teaching, entertaining, managing, and supporting up to 150 children and surviving. I miss, more than anything, that feeling of being organised and – there’s no other word for it – useful. I love writing, but it’s hard to see my purpose in society.

Joyful

More than a sense of purpose is the chance to do something joyful, since many teachers enjoy what they teach. I once got to study Slaughterhouse 5 with a group of A-level students for six weeks: so it goes. More often you find yourself dragging a recalcitrant group of 15-year olds through an equally recalcitrant poem from someone else’s list of ‘essential’ reading. Or maybe it’s a poem you loved yourself, and it tears out your heart to hear it badmouthed or – worse – dismissed: “Pearls before swine,” you sob, beating your head against the wall. I did this once. It got the laugh I was hoping for, to salve my bruised judgement. Also, I did get to re-read a poem I love. I enjoyed that, even if they didn’t.

Even those head-banging days, on one level a demoralising mental strain, can have an upside if shared. Sometimes, it’s comparing phone calls to a difficult parent with a colleague; sometimes it’s a new government directive that doesn’t make sense to anyone in the department; sometimes, it’s a surprise ‘book-look’; sometimes, it’s Ofsted. While an entrenched ‘them and us’ mentality isn’t healthy, indulging every now and then reminds teachers they are ‘in it together’, shared stress creating understanding. It’s not the adrenaline of stress that I miss – although I recognise that, sometimes, I yearn for a drama – but the way it can bring otherwise disparate people together.

Humour

And where understanding fails, humour can work. I have left a classroom because I laughed so hard at a spectacularly inappropriate analysis of a snow metaphor, I had to cross my legs. The trick is to laugh first and laugh with them; otherwise, they’re just laughing at you. But if I’m honest, I even miss that: no one laughs at me now except my own kids. Where’s the positivity in that, you ask in horror? I suppose it doesn’t sound great – but for me, not taking myself too seriously was a healthy part of being a teacher, and a great aid in stepping back from the stress that sometimes threatened to engulf me, like an overbalanced pile of marking.

Kindness of teenagers

Perhaps the most surprising mental health benefit of teaching for me – in fact, not at all surprising when I think about it more – was the unexpected and often awkward kindness of children. Experiencing sympathy from teenagers is both disconcerting and disarming: it can feel like an overturning of the natural order, a loss of the control we crave in the classroom. But sometimes, it is that very self-control that tightens the tension in our lives. Two years ago, at a difficult time personally, I burst into tears in front of my uproarious – and yet astonishingly disengaged – year 10 class and had to leave the room. When I returned a few minutes later, I explained what had happened. They were very quiet. In fact, they managed to stay pretty quiet for the rest of the week, before things returned to normal. Perhaps they were just terrified I might cry again. But every so often, one would come in at the start of the lesson and say, “You feeling all right today, Miss?” I felt like a human being, not just a teacher. When children, who we don’t expect to sympathise, make an attempt to do so, it can remind you that we may look for – and find – kindness more often than we assume.

Community

Finally, if you live near your work, as I do, there’s the chance that you will feel genuinely part of a community. I still see old students in the street and on the bus. I have bumped into students from my first year of teaching who, bane of my life at 15, are now successful, happy human beings. When we meet, there is a sense of shared experience, as if we have survived a system that is not always kind to either teacher or student. And yet now, here we both are, chatting in the newsagents, as adults, and it’s a pleasure for them to be reconfigured as equals, and for you to be remembered, and to walk back out onto the street with a sense of your place in the world.

How we can help

  • Help for individuals  
    Sometimes work (or just life) can be tough. A challenging student, an Ofsted inspection, personal financial worries; there are many stresses on those who work in education. That’s why we offer free, confidential help and support, no matter what your problem.
  • Help for organisations 
    Working in education is demanding so we’ve designed a set of services to help you check how your teams are coping, troubleshoot problems and boost everyone’s wellbeing.