A is for Anxiety

A is for Anxiety

By on Sep 1, 2019

We all know how this feels, particularly at this time of year when our thoughts turn to the first few days back at school. My friend tells a story about his first job as an NQT…

He was preparing his new classroom during the last few days of the summer holidays, ready for his very first class in his very first teaching post, when the head came along and asked him how he was feeling. He explained that he was a little nervous about the beginning of term (quite an understatement I think), and the head told him that everybody felt like that at the beginning of a new term, including the head himself! I think it’s worth remembering that head teacher, and the fact that feeling apprehensive is to be expected when starting anything new.

I had been teaching for a good few years when I returned to my classroom after delivering my class to assembly on Monday morning. It was only when another teacher commented that they felt so relieved to have that first lesson over with, that I realised how common that feeling is amongst all of us who work in education. If everybody is a little anxious about most Monday mornings, that feeling is amplified after a holiday and magnified several times over in September with a new cohort, possibly a new year group, and for some, a brand-new school or career!

The dictionary definition of anxiety is ‘a feeling of worry, nervousness, or unease about something with an uncertain outcome’. There’s nothing quite as uncertain as a classroom environment, where it feels like anything could happen at any time, and quite often it does! I think of teaching in terms of a performance. The planning and preparation that goes on behind the scenes likened to learning lines and getting into character, and even the most successful actors tell stories of horrific stage fright before treading the boards for that all-important performance. At least actors don’t have Ofsted in the audience, although I think the reviewers can be as daunting!

Having established that a level of anxiety is normal, what can you do to keep it under control?

Everybody is different and what works for some won’t necessarily work for others. Certainly, knowing that you’ve put enough time and effort into your planning and preparation is vital if you want to get any sleep the night before a new term. But when you know you’ve done that, it’s probably time to put it to one side, and try to stop thinking about school. Some people find that exercise and fresh air works for them, and this is certainly my favourite way of combatting mild anxiety. When I go for a run with my dog, I feel quite insignificant in the vastness of the universe (it helps that I live in a beautiful part of the world where I can run over the fells and not see a soul for miles), so all my anxieties can’t be very important and certainly not worth losing sleep over! To paraphrase Parkinson’s Law, work will always expand to fit the time available, so it’s really important to try to develop the healthy life work balance that we campaign for at Classroom Secrets. Watch a film, go out with friends, learn a new language…anything that keeps your mind occupied with something else. When I worked part-time as a teacher, I found that if I wasn’t careful, my two non-working days filled up with a combination of schoolwork and anxiety, so I took the rather drastic measure of taking on another part time job in a support role at an FE college. My mind was certainly kept occupied by cohorts of brickies and hairdressers, but I wouldn’t necessarily recommend that approach!

Some people find that learning relaxation techniques like yoga or meditation can be useful, or it may also help just to drop your shoulders and breathe deeply or use visualisation techniques such as imagining yourself in a relaxing place. We’re constantly being told that developing a healthy eating habit is good for us, avoiding excess sugar and coffee might actually be a sensible idea, as excess caffeine and dips in blood sugar can exacerbate anxious feelings. However, that’s not to say you shouldn’t enjoy that coffee and cake in the staffroom if that’s what works for you! It’s very common for people to drink alcohol when they feel anxious, as it certainly can help with relaxation and social engagement, but it’s worth remembering that alcohol is also a depressant and can make you feel even more afraid or anxious.

When I started working at Classroom Secrets, I had a temporary job on the customer service side of the business but had the assessment day for the proofreading role looming the following weekend. One of our resource creation managers (she’ll know who she is) asked me if I was feeling ‘really excited’ about the assessment day. That wasn’t quite how I would have expressed it, considering I knew my digital skills were about to be stretched to their absolute limit, but it got me thinking about the similarity of feeling anxious and feeling excited. They’re almost the same! Try thinking about something that you’re really excited about. That sensation of butterflies in your stomach is virtually indistinguishable from those feelings of dread and anxiety we’re all familiar with as we approach a new term. Since then, I’ve used that technique many times. When I’m feeling anxious, I can convince myself that I’m really excited about it, and it actually works!

However, no amount of exercise, yoga or healthy eating can help if your anxiety levels get pushed beyond a certain point. The tipping point for me was when I was teaching full-time in an outstanding school as a single parent of a seven-year old child and trying to visit my mum every weekend as she had Alzheimer's disease and didn’t know who I was. I’d make good use of the 5-hour return trip to the Wirral to get some planning done in my head, and cobble it together upon my return, once I’d  settled my son into bed. Ultimately, that wasn’t a sustainable way of living and I found myself sobbing in the stock cupboard on a random Monday morning, in total panic attack mode and unable to come out.

Fortunately, I had an amazing head teacher who allowed me to take as much time as I needed, but also offered me another role in school whilst I was getting strong enough to teach again. Years later, when I was discussing my breakdown with a psychologist, the entire episode was summarised as ‘a normal response to abnormal circumstances’.

That’s the thing about teaching. A lot of the time we are dealing with abnormal circumstances. The pressure of the responsibility for so many children, coupled with the pressure of making sure each and everyone of them makes progress in each and every lesson. The relentlessness of the planning, tracking and marking might be just about sustainable, but when life throws one of its curveballs at you, it’s too easy to think you can just carry the additional stress without it having an impact on your mental health. I’m reminded of the fable of the frog in boiling water. The premise is that if a frog is put suddenly into boiling water, it will jump out, but if the frog is put in tepid water which is then brought to a boil slowly, it will not perceive the danger and will be cooked to death. The moral of the story is, if you feel as though the water is heating up all around you, do something about it before it’s too late. Good Luck.

Jan Fitzpatrick

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Fear and anxiety can affect all of us every now and then. It is only when it is severe and long-lasting that doctors would class it as a mental health problem. If you feel anxious all the time for several weeks, or if it feels like your fears are taking over your life, then it’s a good idea to ask your doctor for help.

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