This much I know about…looking after our own mental health first

I have been a teacher for 30 years, a Headteacher for 15 years and, at the age of 54, this much I know about looking after our own mental health first.

On the day we are officially charged by the DfE with supporting the mental health of our students, I think it is worth taking a moment to reflect upon how the way we think might help preserve our own mental health. It’s a little bit like how adults need to fit the oxygen mask first on aeroplanes, before attending to their children.

I always take time to read Oliver Burkeman’s Guardian column. Oliver is one of our alumni. After establishing his philosophical foundations during his Huntington sixth form days, he has grown into an increasingly wise thinker. His urbane philosophies are just the tonic for any mildly-anxious head teacher who wants to remain sane in a world of budget-cuts, teacher-shortages and job insecurity.

Over the last few months Oliver’s words, along with the wisdom of several writers and thinkers, have resonated loudly for me. I have collected a list of aphorisms which sustained me as I watched, to borrow from Kipling, the things I gave my life to, (almost) broken.

For starters, Oliver’s column on managing anxiety is superb, based upon Massimo Pigliucci’s marvellous book, How to be a Stoic. Burkeman reflects upon the notion that almost all of our worries are hugely overblown. He suggests that, “Next time you worry that something’s going to ruin your life, it’s worth remembering that if you’d ever been right about that before, even once, your life would presently be ruined”.

Another source of philosophical strength came from Karen Pierce, the UK representative to the UN. I had never heard this before, but her Sunday supplement advice was simple: “It’ll be alright in the end and if it isn’t alright, you haven’t reached the end yet”. She also pointed out that, “You have to work though problems, not round them”. Quite.

The Pierce lines came from her recent Times interview; Caitlin Moran, a columnist for the same newspaper, contributed this next line in an article for the chronically anxious: “You will never, ever, have to deal with more than the next 60 seconds. Do the calm, right thing that needs to be done in that minute…You can do that, for just one minute. And if you can do a minute, you can do the next.” I find that, occasionally, breaking that minute down into two lots of thirty seconds even more useful.

Not all the philosophies come from the weekend broadsheets. Twitter threw up this gem from Hilary Mantel: “The things you think are the disasters in your life are not the disasters really. Almost anything can be turned around: out of every ditch, a path, if you can only see it.” In my experience, she’s spot on. And William H. McRaven claims that to change your life or the world, you should start off by “making your bed!” For me, that is shaving every day, even when I don’t have to.

I found McRaven’s book on Waterstones’ stocking-filler table last Christmas. And Richard Holloway’s On Forgiveness popped itself into my hand when I was last in Hatchards’ St Pancras station book shop. I found it truly illuminating. Ultimately, Holloway explains how forgiving the unforgiveable enables you to own your future unencumbered by the transgressions of the past: “Human beings do terrible things to each other and the tragic thing about it all is the way the remembrance of past hurt can rob us of our future and become the narrative of our lives.”

My accumulated list of timeless advice is all too long. But I can’t end this post without mentioning the Stoics. I have been reading Marcus Aurelius’ Meditations, translated by Gregory Hays. They are profound truths. Shakespeare’s “There is nothing either good or bad but thinking makes it so”, is rooted in Stoic philosophy. Here, lastly then, is Aurelius on enduring threats to your wellbeing: “Remember this principle when something threatens to cause you pain: the thing itself was no misfortune at all; to endure it and prevail is great good fortune”.

None of which can do you any good, unless you accept that you can control how you react to life’s vagaries. You can choose how you think, and knowing this has helped keep me sane!

About johntomsett

Headteacher in York. All views are my own.
This entry was posted in Mental Health in Schools, Other stuff, School Leadership. Bookmark the permalink.

1 Response to This much I know about…looking after our own mental health first

  1. Ian Stock says:

    Thank you for this John. A truly enlightened post – and you used precisely the same oxygen mask analogy that I have used. It works! Amidst all the coverage of MH issues, I felt that once again the spotlight was not where it has most urgently needed to be – the teachers. As with teaching generally, if the teachers are not in good shape, then they can do little for their pupils.

    Unfortunately, the last couple of decades have made things worse in this respect. The emphasis on targets etc. has routinely applied pressure, which any observant person at the sharp end could see was having a completely detrimental effect on both MH and education more widely. But with Michael Wilshaw pronouncing that low teacher morale was a sign of successful school leadership, how could it have been otherwise? He should have been sacked for that comment.

    It needs to be acknowledged that some schools took him at his word, and used MH as a management stick. Who can forget the head teacher who publicly claimed (later recanted) that ‘poor’ teachers should be made to feel afraid, even when at home? This, and the wider use of anxiety as a management tool, was utterly shameful. You may recall from our brief private discussions, that this was an issue that I was trying to tackle in the school where I taught. Unfortunately, I did not succeed; it was then used against me, and have been living with my own MH consequences for the past 2 1/2 years.

    Thankfully, it seems that the climate in teaching is starting to change. The past twenty years will, I believe, come to be seen as the nuclear winter of education in Britain. It is time for spring – and I believe that past transgressions in this respect require a formal apology to the profession from its managers. Unfortunately in my own case, it destroyed my career; while I could still be in the classroom successfully teaching young people, instead I am forced to sit alone at home ever day, nursing my broken head.

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