Wednesday, 6 December 2017

FEELING CRAP: Teacher Trauma - My experience.

So this still isn’t a book related post, but I will get to them one day, I assure you. I just have some things that I think are a bit more important to talk about right now, namely; teacher trauma.

Now I didn’t come up with that term, my lovely trainee teacher friend did, and it sums up exactly how I feel after coming out of working in the education sector. I started working in education in February 2017, then stopped at the end of July 2017 with the resolute decision that I would never ever go back. How could I make such a strong decision in just 5 months? Well, that comes down to the last month or so of my time in education, in that was so bad, it’s made me fear the thought of ever working a school work environment again.

Now I’m sure people are reading this thinking “seriously? aren't you being a tad over-dramatic?” and to that I say: are you fucking serious? Have you been in a modern secondary school? Have you been in a struggling secondary school? No? Then please keep your opinions to yourself until you've read the following, then tell me what you think. Cheers.

Trying to explain to someone what it’s like to work in a school when they themselves haven’t is exceptionally hard; if you work in a conventional workplace and a fellow worker or customer harasses you, you can, (in most cases) report the issue and have some sort of concrete resolution with said perpetrator facing fitting consequences. Having the same happen in a school is a completely different and more challenging prospect.

For one, in another work environment you can, not exactly, expect rudeness, harassment or even violence, but it isn’t so ‘surprising’ coming from full grown adults who decide to take their anger or frustrations out on you. However, when this same level of aggression is directed at you from a child no older than 13 and who is bigger than you? It’s all kinds of terrifying.

In this sort of situation with an adult you have various ways to defend yourself if need be, such as walking away or having said aggressor removed from your vicinity.  With a child however, no matter how violent or unruly they may get, their well-being is, as it should be, the most important factor in the situation, as well as that of the other children in the classroom. There isn’t the option to just walk away when a child is screaming obscenities or throwing stuff at you because they don’t want to sit where you ask them to. You have a duty to them, and the other students in the class, to create a safe environment, even if this means being told you are a “stupid fucking bitch” so loudly that it still rings in your ears when you’re on the train home.

I had the unlucky fortune of having a ‘perfect storm’ of behavioural issues, unmotivated students, a lack of resources or information, as well an absence of the necessary support team I was supposed to have due to staff shortages. Adding to this was the fact that my students had had various supply teachers over a short space of time due to staff disputes, timetabling issues, and pay, (things I found out only after accepting the position).  My students had no consistency, no permanent teacher, and had been recycled the same scheme of work repeatedly as nothing else had been prepared for them.

Essentially, on top of having classes that were filled with low-ability, low-motivated children, many with behavioural and mental health issues, I had children who felt abandoned and unsupported. Amidst the conflicts I had with some of my worst students, they did open up to me saying that it was nice having someone for more than one week; even though during those weeks they did give me hell, I appreciated their apparent sensitivity to the issue.

So really, with this storm having brewed for many weeks, (and the added joy of hindsight), it should have been no surprise that I was met with the issues I had. I started on my first day with absolutely no induction, no guidance, no computer login or given any semblance or idea where the “prepared scheme of work and lesson plans” I was promised, were.

When discussing whether to take the role, I was promised that I would have use of a full scheme of work fully prepared for me with every lesson planned. This was especially comforting as I had little supply experience, and no formal teacher training; I did say to said employer "you do realise I've only been in education for a few months, and just as a TA right?" because as much as I needed the money I didn't want to be in a position where I was fairly unqualified (well, we all know how that went). I was assured that this was totally fine, the work was prepared, I just had to present it, essentially a slightly more involved version of my TA work.

So my readers, I took the job. It sounded lovely, the work was already in place, I just had to present said work to my flock of willing learners. Well, safe to say that the scheme of work I was proffered could barely constitute work for a minute of lesson time, let alone 5 weeks. I had to rely on a lovely NQT to help me during that first week to string together some semblance of a body of work, before she too left. I now had some idea of how the children felt; I was alone, abandoned, left to scramble together something of substance from the bare scraps left for me in the shared resources. Easy this was not. 

The children, sensing I was very new, very young, and very very lost, took advantage like every child does in the wake of a supply teacher; sitting where they liked, giving me fake names, shouting and throwing things and all round being the typical rowdy class all supply teachers live to expect. I anticipated this, put on my best stern voice and quietened some, but I was small fry to some of the more disruptive students. I had a student, within 10 minutes of our 2 hour class, have to be escorted out and placed in isolation, for the entirety of the school day, for making such nasty comments that I felt like crying on the spot. This had all happened by 9 am.

Oddly me and this student did end up having a decent relationship and rapport going on, and he eventually opened up to me about his behavioural and anger issues. A lot of my lesson time with him was spent trying to placate his hyperactivity and stop him injuring himself whenever he became angry, but underneath I realised that he was a child who was struggling and wanted to learn, but felt like his teachers never gave him a chance. This created a vicious cycle of bad behaviour, missed lessons, and further strained relationships with his teachers, something extremely common with my students.

I ended up spending the majority of my very short lesson time dealing with this boy and other students like him who had greater educational and behavioural needs than I could ease single-handedly, as well as damaged relationships with authority. Had I been prepared for this? No. Had I been warned about this? Definitely not. I had been sold a pipe-dream, one that didn't come even come close to fruition. 

It was at lunch time at the end of my first week, just before a meeting with the acting school principal to discuss my experiences so far, that I broke down sobbing on the phone to my boyfriend while hiding at the back of my classroom. Not only had two students had a violent altercation in my class, flinging each other into furniture and other students, I’d been subject to one child screaming that I was a “fucking bitch” and other such expletives and personal jabs after I politely asked him to calm down. Another felt it was fine to subject me to aggressive intimidation, as well as relentlessly tormenting me in a hostile manner, and egging other students to do the same (of which some did). I was at my wits end, ready to leave and to never look back.

I had expected bad behaviour, I'm not entirely naive, but the level of aggression and intimidation I faced on just my first day was more than I had ever faced at my entire time at my previous school; it was unprecedented and terrifying. 

I voiced my concerns to the acting principal; that I had been given no guidance or information regarding their strict discipline procedures; that I had no time to plan lessons as on top of a full-time teacher’s hours I was also placed on various other supply work (that I had not agreed to), as well as the level of abuse students were subjecting me to.

The acting principal was courteous, apologetic, and arranged for a member of the behavioural team to meet with me to discuss the behavioural procedure as well as to assist in some of my larger and more challenging classes. She also promised to remove me from the supply rota for this second week to allow me to have time to come to terms with my lessons, students, and the general running of the school.

I set off home hopeful, promising to give the school another shot, because surely all of my issues would now be solved, and things could only get better, surely?

From the start of that second week I knew things had not changed. I was booked for a full day, with only the short time at break and lunch (just under an hour) to plan lessons as well as rest and digest the days events. This was to be the same for the rest of my stay at said school; me, managing a full timetable on top of covering subjects I had no expertise in, (often with no set cover work); working with difficult and struggling students, (with no real idea of the strict disciplinary procedures), with none of the support I was promised. Oh, and the behavioural person didn’t get the chance to come and see me till two weeks later, and couldn’t assist in any of my classes as she too was placed on constant cover.

At this point it can be forgiven for thinking “uh, why didn’t you just leave if it was so bad then?” because I’m sure most sane people would, but you might understand why I couldn’t when I give you the context at the time.

Before working at this school, I was at another school as part of a teaching agency from February to June. In all the ways that my last school ruined me, my first school nourished. The experiences I faced in these schools were the epitome of chalk and cheese, I felt valued and respected at my first school, and at no point did was I left unsupported or uneducated. Sadly, the placement was only temporary and on one Tuesday in mid-June I was told that they no longer needed me and my last day would be that coming Friday.

Up until this point I had been working under the assumption that I would be staying until the end of the school year, moving from helping the now absent Year 11 students to the Year 10’s; this was also the assumption of the English Department whom I was paid to assist explicitly. To be told that I was in fact not to be staying, and only had three days left, was undeniably shocking, and especially hard after given I had only recently returned after the death of my Nan. Yep. It was a bit of a low blow.

Not only did I have no ability to say goodbye to the students that had made my time at the school so rewarding and, dare I say it, immensely fun, I was essentially losing over £1000 worth of wages that I assumed were a given.

So, I was to be unemployed as generally no schools hire with just 5 weeks until the end of term. I was freaking out, I was losing £1000 that I thought was a given so had not lined up a summer job, assuming I would start working again in the new school term in a brand new school. In desperation I turned to LinkedIn, and through sheer luck the head principal of my last school contacted me saying they were desperate for a English supply teacher and could hire me at a higher rate that coming Monday! Yes, really!

My prayers were answered, I’d still have a job till the end of term and could go into the summer holidays without worrying financially and wait until my agency could find me another placement for September. I accepted that it would be a little tougher, it was in Essex and would take quite a long commute but I’d not be struggling without over a month’s wages, so it was worth it to me.

Oh how wrong I was.

I stayed at the school despite how hard I found my time there namely because I needed the money, but also a sense of guilt towards the students that would feel displaced if I upped and left like all those before me. I guess it’s another one of those cases where me being selfless hasn’t worked out the best for me, but I have a ridiculously high level of guilt radiating throughout my system so it really wasn’t a surprise. 

So I grit my teeth, thought “just get through it week by week, it’ll be over before you know it”. I had drawn out a countdown of the days and lessons I had left till the end of term, and I always felt a great amount of relief filling those crudely drawn blocks in with my collection of clunky highlighters. I made very sure that I used only the brightest of colours, perhaps thinking that somehow making the whole thing bright and cheery would magically make the whole situation much less awful than it really was.

For 5 weeks I awoke at an unseemly hour, attempted to repress my rising anxiety, dressed, walk to the station, get on the train, walk to the school, battle through whatever challenges I faced that day, go home, eat dinner, battle with the tension that had built up during the day, then try to sleep. Every day on the way home I would look at my timetable and see which classes I had the next day and weep, either with joy that I didn’t have the class with the student that was voraciously after my blood, or in fear that I had two hours with students who thought nothing of hurling obscene levels of abuse and various items my way.

I woke up scared, I went to school scared, and I went to sleep scared, dreading waking up the next morning and facing an environment akin to being dropped in a pit full of hungry lions while wearing a suit made of prime cuts of steak.

I’m guessing this is the point where people will read this and say “well clearly you let them walk all over you, did you bother to discipline them?” Ahh yes, sorry, I didn’t think of that, how silly of me! Discipline, how could I forget it?

I am being sarcastic, deeply, bitterly sarcastic because I tried with everything had to discipline students who didn’t give a damn about what happened to them. Detention? I had to book it for the next day, and the students knew that if they didn’t turn up the only trouble they would get was…another detention. Plus, I wasn’t allowed to keep them in at break or lunch, so the immediacy and seriousness of a detention was duly lost and students acted without consequence knowing my power was limited. What about calling parents? Near on impossible given I had no time in which to call them, unless I sacrificed my already fleeting break times which I needed to be able to digest what had happened so far that day and attempt to dampen my anxiety and adrenaline levels. The system in place was ineffective at curbing bad behaviour and served not as a deterrent, but a system for students to exploit to their own means, namely to disarm me. 

I noticed that, when I had the school sold to me on that initial phone call, that I had fallen prey to the outward image that it was trying to project. So much was spent on trying to make the school look and sound good including; ensuring staff dressed business formal (with the best dressed faculty winning a highly coveted award!); an emphasis on how I would not just be a teacher, but a facilitator for the schools innovative engagement between staff and student; and giving the faculties names that were buzzword misnomers like INSPIRE, SUCCESS and TEAMWORK*, like a crude nouveau-business mockery of EAT, PRAY LOVE.

*Disclaimer: Not the actual names.

Spending so much time dictating the school like a modern business with an emphasis on its outward appearance meant that it ended up lacking in the essential support needed within its classrooms and the greater student experience. And what does this result in? Students who do not respect the school they are in, care little about the repercussions of their actions, and act out because they don’t aspire to do well as they cannot get the help needed to do well.

I will say that I am not excusing the far from auspicious behaviour of said students, but that it is no surprise that some acted the way they did when they had no wider support system to help them with their academic or personal issues. Students should always come before corporate dealings or behaviours, but it felt like the neediest of children were being left in the dust, and so acted the only way they knew how: with frustration, disruption, and destruction. Classic attention seeking tactics that sadly did more to sabotage themselves than get them the level of help and dedication they craved.

Due to numerous failings I came into a toxic environment that meant that students as young as 11 saw nothing in swearing violently at me, throwing stuff at me or at the worst, threatening violence towards me. Hearing a child mutter under their breath that they would “smash [my] face in” is terrifying, especially when you’ve previously had to break apart said child in fights so know that they probably could beat the shit out of you if they so wished.

A child threatening to hurt you, another throwing an object so hard that it bounces back half way across the room after missing its target i.e. you, another taking the opportunity to scream at you at the top of their lungs with such foul and abusive language that you still can’t get said image out of your head, all because you asked if they could move to sit with their less distracting friend. These are the experiences teachers across the UK face, and yet people don’t seem to realise how are teachers are prone to facing traumatic situations like these every single day.

On top of this I faced disgusting behaviour from higher levels of staff, namely being ignored and, when acknowledged, addressed in a condescending manner after initial friendliness, which I now assume was to keep me ‘sweet’. I was also lucky to be mentioned in a scathing status made on a social media platform by a senior member of staff in which I, as well as other staff, were belittled on a very public, very career pertinent site, and subject to the judgement of various strangers who gleefully joined in the slanging match of criticising the “poor quality of supply teaching these days”.
Going on this site and seeing this made my heart sink, the person who had initially sought me out was laying me out to criticism and ridicule. Thankfully he kept names anonymous, but it was clear from discussions made with fellow disgruntled staff members on the final days of school that it was obvious whom he was referring to in the status, and one of them was me.

What I am grateful for was the amount of support other staff showed me, and another teacher unfairly picked out for criticism. It came clear to me on my last few hours within this school that my feelings and attitude were not unique and reflected in most staff I met. I only wish I had known this sooner, it perhaps may have gone somewhere to preserving my sense of self that was ultimately shattered by my experiences there.

After having sat through two long assemblies bestowing plaudits upon fastidiously picked teachers for their time and effort throughout the year I went home with the love of my fellow humanities department, the I.T crew, and other staff who had heard of my social-media quandary and general experiences, and wished me all the luck in the world.

From the higher staff? No thank you or sense of appreciation, just the lingering feel of their apparent disappointment and a burgeoning feeling of my inadequacy and incompetence, clearly demonstrated in their behaviour towards me, because who acts in such a way to someone who doesn’t deserve it, right?

I left the school with a mighty weight on my shoulders. I had taken the position from being supposedly successful in my last placement, but this had taken away the romantic sheen of my previous work and to me showed the ugly truth: I was shit. I was utterly shit and really crap at this education thing and was absolutely bloody useless. I had let these children down, I had let the school down, I had deserved every swear word, every act of aggression sent my way. This school had unearthed the cold hard truth that I was an imposter, I’d gotten lucky at my old school and now, faced with reality I was unable to cope and failed, badly, taking many people with me.

It is no surprise to me that I leaped into doing my Masters studies, the study of literature is something I know I am good at, and after the near literal bollocking I faced I needed to convince myself that I was still good at something, anything. But even this is marred by my experiences.

My confidence had, and still is severely devastated since working at said school; the faith I have in myself and my work has plummeted so low that I even struggle to feel fully confident in my studies, something I should have confidence in but I have an inner conflict towards; I thought I worked well in a school and I was proven wrong, so maybe I am actually bad at understanding and analysing literature and I’m nowhere near as good as I thought, perhaps my brilliant performance at university was a lie.

It was only a short time ago when, talking to my friend who has just started her teacher training, about my fear of returning to education, and the impact the last school had on me that she mentioned the term teacher trauma. I had never thought of what I had been through as traumatic as I had been pushed towards feeling that it was a result of my ineptitude, so was therefore was deserving of what had happened; it felt that I didn’t deserve to feel as upset and effected as I did because I had brought it on myself.

It was only when my friend discussed her first month as a new teacher and all the trials and tribulations she faced that I had an epiphany: she was having the same experience I was having, she was dealing with the same stuff I had as a new teacher, and so where others she knew, I hadn’t gone through something unique, what I had been through was normal and typical for a new teacher. The kids were not reacting to my individual incompetency, they were reacting as all kids do when faced with someone new to full-time teaching.

I was not at fault and in fact, my further experiences with patchy schemes of work and discipline etc. were also the same. I was not at fault.


I didn’t tell my friend precisely how meaningful her words were to me, (I’m notoriously bad at expressing my emotions verbally), but inside I felt an almost literal shift as the guilt and notions of disappointment I had been carrying for far too long slipped away.

I imagine she might read this, if she has time (teachers are far busier than you think), and if she is I want to say thank you to a wonderful friend who helped me more than she may have realised.

It’s almost fitting that there’s barely anything about teacher trauma online, with one study-cum-article I did find on the subject from 2015 stating the following:
Although research has examined secondary traumatic stress (STS) among mental health workers, child welfare workers, and other human service professionals, such examination among public school teachers has only recently begun.*
*Source can be found here

The fact that the idea of teacher trauma didn’t immediately come up upon my search shows just how neglected it is as a concept, which is deeply troubling. While I may have come to some understanding and acceptance that what happened at my last school was tremendously wrong, the combined effects of my experiences with both staff and student still follow me to this day, much like any trauma you may face.

I’m currently employed in the food retail sector, (a huge change form my recent employment), and I found that the experience of job hunting had been blighted by the multitudinous range of emotions that the job seeker is privy to: hope, joy, fear, intrigue, disappointment, anger, and so on. This, mixed with the trauma I faced made the experience of job hunting traumatic and difficult in itself.

As I’ve said previously, the trauma I faced in education has ruined any semblance of self-worth or confidence I have in myself; combined with the up and down nature of job hunting I’ve been struggling lately with the feeling that I’ll stagnate and get nowhere near where I want to in life. I was applying for jobs that I was overqualified for and ignoring jobs my family and friends told me I would be a good candidate for, but I couldn't contemplate as being possible as, even with the realisation that I didn’t deserve what happened to me, I could not shake the feeling of being wholly inadequate.

I am pragmatic and know that my sensitivity to the issues I faced goes hand in hand with my underlying mental health issues, and perhaps I may not have found the effects of teacher trauma so devastating if not for them, but this sort of hindsight does not help me, nor does it overshadow the general issues of teacher trauma. I will not be the only person in the education sector whom has suffered with mental health issues, nor will I be the only person who will struggle in what is a notoriously stressful and hard-wearing employment sector. I believe I would not be hard-wrought to find an individual who feels that the education sector is one of the hardest to work in, regardless of the absence of any mental health issues. It shouldn’t be surprising then, whether a person is inclined to higher levels of anxiety or self-esteem issues or not, that teacher trauma is a real and tangible occupational hazard in the education sector.

On a positive note, I have opened myself up slightly to the prospect of going back into education, I applied for a local job as a primary school librarian while job hunting, I didn't get it but the act of applying to possibly go back into education was a huge step. I don't know if I could ever go back into being a TA, and definitely not as a teacher, but the idea of working solely as support staff is rather attractive to me still. There’s no point hiding it, I am still terrified. I am still feeling the after effects of the trauma and degradation I faced in my last position and I don’t truly know what will help me go back to the person I was before it.

To get over my “fear” of the education sector? Probably going back into it, but that feels far too much right now, at least as anything but a librarian. I had been applying for numerous retail and barista type jobs because I felt in need of a reset and something as far away from the responsibilities of education as far as possible. Running away from the issue is probably not the best way to heal, but it might also give me back some sense of my value as a worker and a person, which I have ultimately lost.

I don’t know whether employers realise the importance of preserving an employee’s sense of self; belittling social media statuses and grandiose attitudes go a long way to making a person feel small, insignificant and useless. Treating staff well and giving them support is especially important in education where the issues faced are so uniquely challenging.

I know now that my experiences were not my fault, I was caught in a perfect storm of poor management, staff retention, and was lied to profusely. Some of the behaviour I faced from students? Not down to my supposed personal insufficiencies but fairly standard for new and training teachers, just made more intense by the slowly diminishing state of my person due to the attitudes and behaviours of other staff.

So what can we take from my ramblings? For starters; lets please recognise that teacher trauma is real, has real effects, and has wider ranging impacts after the initial upsets that can truly destroy a persons’ self-worth, like most work-place traumas. Teacher trauma just has the added complexity of the school environment, but is otherwise the exact same as other work traumas.

Secondly; a lot has to be said for the weight that is placed on teachers and educational support staff every day. The school environment can be brutal if not in an area that is blessed with prosperity and kids who have brilliant support systems; it will have so-called “tougher” kids with a higher work load, but less of a reward. It is not unusual then that teacher trauma and, on a less debilitating vein, teacher dissatisfaction, is so prolific given how the sector can be so difficult to work in.

And finally; more needs to be looked at in regards to mental health in general and how the actions of others can be detrimental to others’ mental state. Mental health is something that is slowly coming to the forefront of the media and is, supposedly, becoming less of a taboo and talked about more openly, but if I felt this was wholly true I would probably not have written this piece. There are still areas in which mental health discussion is lacking and in some, not even considered. Exactly how we have had an organised education system for so long, but have neglected to talk more about the mental health issues relating to it is truly appalling. It is no secret that it comes down to a general lack of real knowledge or discussion of the deeper implications of mental health in society and the workplace, something that is so erroneous to still say in 2017; a supposedly progressive, modern, and sympathetic era.

We need to stop being shy about mental health, and we especially need to stop being shy about the existence of workplace trauma and its long-ranging effects. I am not the only person who has faced teacher trauma, nor will I be the last, nor will I be the last person to be made to feel worthless by employers who are tactless with their approach to staff.

If you are a teacher, or a TA, or another member of the education sector struggling under your unique set of pressures: you aren’t wrong, you aren’t weak, you aren’t useless. Trust me on that.

- Georgia xo

1 comment:

  1. It's a really good read.

    I used to work in a school myself, however, I was lucky enough to not be in a child facing role. Though with what little I did interact with them, and the teachers, it was a quick decision for me that I didn't want to work there anymore.

    I found that the teachers are more like wild animals, in the fact that they have their own pack and if you're not in their pack they aren't there to help you. It's tough entering a new school environment, it really does seem like everyone there is out for themselves and the student's do not make it any easier.