Stress, anxiety, and depression threatened to destroy Johnathan’s 15-year teaching career. But a simple change in mindset enabled him to rekindle the love affair with his chosen profession
The last day of the spring term in school is normally joyous. January and February are tough going, so Easter is a time for everyone to give themselves a pat on the back, and take a well-earned rest before the exam season begins.
I had a different perspective. I was crying on the phone to a union rep, desperate to find a way out of teaching. The person I was then seems a million miles away now. That’s my perception, and as I’ve learned, perception can be a powerful thing.
I’d always believed stress and depression were things that happened to other people. That changed on 7 November 2018. Prior to that, I’d seen numerous colleagues looking stressed and run down at work. I thought myself mentally tougher.
After 14 years of teaching, I’d climbed the ladder and become assistant headteacher and director of sixth form. This was my dream job, so I grabbed the opportunity and worked hard. In addition to my normal duties, I took on additional projects. If there were challenges and time pressures, I’d simply overcome them.
However, taking on more and more work was coming at a cost. For months I’d been getting anxious about things I used to find routine and straightforward: meetings with parents, interviews with under-performing students, and speaking in front of people.
I found it increasingly hard to switch off. Problems and negative thoughts buzzed around my head. At home, I was distant, easily agitated, and tetchy with my children. My descent into depression was slow and inconsistent, but the trajectory was downwards. I had no idea it was depression though. I simply put it down to going through a bad patch.
That bad patch became a horrible crisis on 7 November 2018. I made a mistake in school. A fairly run of the mill mistake, but my resilience collapsed. I had a panic attack and experienced what could be termed a nervous breakdown. I called my wife in tears (I’d never called her from work before) and I knew things were bad.
I’d always resisted going to the doctor, but I went without argument this time. The appointment was terrible. I was so ashamed and emotional that I couldn’t speak and broke down in tears. The diagnosis of depression still shocked me though, and I was reluctant to take medication.
I was, however, relieved to be signed off work for two weeks. My attitude to the job had fundamentally changed: I hated it. I hated the hassle, the parents, the students — everything. I told the doctor that I wanted out, and it was genuine. The prospect of liking the job again seemed impossible.
As the end of my two weeks approached, I was nowhere near ready to go back. The mere thought of it sent me into a panic. Two weeks turned into a month, which in the end became five months. I knew that I’d have to return eventually, but something had snapped. My love affair with teaching had reached a bitter end.
Thank goodness that those around me were so supportive. The two deputy heads in particular were amazing. They invited me in for ‘no-pressure chats’, and arranged and paid for counselling. My wife was superb. Always a source of strength, she listened, offered advice, and appeared unshakable. She encouraged me to exercise, get out into the garden, and overhaul my diet. I received support from a Buddhist centre, and learned how to meditate. After five months of recuperation, I found myself back in school.
However, the bottom line was that I didn’t want to be there. I was back in work because I didn’t have an alternative. The antidepressants had kept me more stable, and the counselling had helped me to understand the root of the depression; however, nothing had prepared me for the jarring reality of returning to work.
I planned my return, deliberately, for three days before the Easter holidays. Three days to get back into the swing of things, two weeks off, and then back in properly. By day three, I wanted out. The only thing I could think of was to phone my union and ask for advice on how to take redundancy. Thankfully, I was so upset and inarticulate that we had to end the conversation. Thank goodness the Easter holidays came when they did, because the prospect of a fourth day in work felt impossible.
After a few days of feeling sorry for myself, I summoned the energy to reflect. How on earth was I going to get back into work, not feel terrified, and maybe, just maybe, enjoy the job again? I couldn’t see a way forward.
Ironically, the answer hit me as I was looking for a different job. All the jobs that seemed interesting were the ones that were the most similar to my current occupation. If I’d seen my job advertised online, I would have applied for it. It wasn’t the job that was the problem, it was my perception of it. If I was going to make a successful return, I had to reconnect with my decision of 15 years ago to pursue a career in teaching. Drilling down to the root cause was essential. Why did I choose teaching?
For me, like the vast majority of teachers, it was to help people, to make a difference, and to foster a love for a subject that I enjoyed. Just this simple mental exercise had a positive effect. All I’d done was shifted my perspective by reconnecting with my original desire to teach.
"A change of perception had, more than anything else, got me out of a black hole, back into work, and made me much, much happier"
I returned after Easter a far more robust person. I felt rooted and more comfortable in my own skin. Things weren’t perfect, but the trajectory was always upwards. I still had to make positive lifestyle choices: eat well, sleep well, exercise, meditate, and be strict about not bringing work home. But more than anything, I’d got better because I’d changed my perception.
I’d been told by my doctor to ‘follow the joy’. To think about everything that the job entails, and identify what the joyous parts are — think about them, read about them, do work related to them, set goals connected to them. Again, this change of perspective worked wonders.
Finding the joy in the here and now, rather than wishing I was somewhere else, made the biggest difference to turning myself around. A change of perception had, more than anything else, got me out of a black hole, back into work, and made me much happier. A different person to the one phoning a union rep only a year ago.
Rachel Coffey | BA MA NLP Mstr says:
Johnathan’s story is compelling in its honesty and strength. It’s tough when, from the outside, we appear capable and in control – yet internally we’re struggling. This was compounded for Johnathan by the fact he was clearly a respected member of the team. Sometimes, the higher we rise, the further we feel we have to fall.
But Johnathan made a discovery we can all learn from. He realised that perception is key. If you’re anxious or overwhelmed, seeking help and making a shift in perception can make all the difference.
To connect with a counsellor about feelings of depression or anxiety, visit counselling-directory.org.uk/