Appreciate the beauty that exists
About me and what I do
I’m Allen. I qualified as a teacher in 2012. Before that I worked for the Crown Prosecution Service from 1986 until 2010. For those of you who remember the British political and economic landscape both in 1986 and 2010, 1986 was a time when unemployment was rife and my parents were concerned that not going to University would consign me to the dustbin of society. However, I didn’t have what I now know to be recognised as the ‘cultural capital’ to go to University, so, with my fistful of O-Level passes, I ended up walking into an entry level position in the Civil Service, where I managed to rise through the ranks to the heady heights of middle leadership. By 2010, after the austerity measures, the Labour Government at the time realised the money had run out. They therefore offered me two years salary, plus pension frozen for a payout in 2028, to depart on what was known as “Voluntary Early Release Scheme”. As I had aspirations to become a teacher, having been told by senior colleagues how effective I was at performing training and support roles to colleagues, I took the money and did exactly that. Exactly ten years on I found myself #workingfromhome and #homeschooling from my classroom duties. As the restrictions eased, one of my colleagues announced his departure and my Senior colleagues decided to offer me the role of subject lead in Computing, which is how I started school year 2020. Being part of a Multi Academy Trust, senior members of the Board of Trustees (knowing my reputation for being very innovative and enthusiastic about establishing wide cross curricular learning opportunities) invited me to split my role. This means that 40 percent of the time I am working at one of the Trust’s three Secondary schools, where I am teaching A-Level Computer Science. For somebody who originally aspired ten years earlier to teach technology at Secondary, I am now living my dream. But it has not always been that way…
When did you first struggle with your mental health?
I first realised that I had issues with my emotional well-being during my teenage years. I often felt very rejected and disconnected from all those around me. My Mum and Dad being from Hong Kong, and moving to London before I was born, meant that I felt there was a part of my life that wasn’t like everybody else's around me. My parents were disparaging about my choice of friends. I got into trouble with the police at the age of 12, for which I received a Police Caution. This was enough to encourage me to try to focus on my school work, but in the age of the early home computers I believed I had found my forte and was desperate to pursue that. I therefore felt it grossly unfair that my school wasn’t able to offer the combination of O-Level subjects and A-Level subjects I wanted to study. I struggled with a combination of A-Level Maths, Physics and Chemistry until at the end of the Spring Term I was told by the then Head of Sixth Form to find full time employment.
Less than a year after working at the Crown Prosecution Service as a Casework Administrator, I felt my heart truly skipping beats for the first time. I had become friends with a beautiful colleague, and I thought was romantically interested in me. As it turned out, I had misread our friendship, but when she decided to leave the organisation we had both worked for, and was quite disparaging about working in the public sector, I felt I had to do so as well. It was at that point the demons of darkness descended and I felt so, so low. It was reading a book about depression by Dorothy Rowe which helped me through that episode. After I had taken a month away from the Civil Service, my senior colleagues generously offered to reinstate me to my former role, allowing me to mentally move on.
At its worst, there is nothing that can be done. When I went to get and was fortunate enough to receive help, all I could think of was what I had to do merely in order to barely function - for example, going through the morning bathroom routine. I felt so angry, that I thought I would hurt others. I felt so sad and lonely that all I could see in the mirror looking back at me was ugliness and a dark, dark heart that would never learn to love or be loved. I look back on my professional record and wish that those experiences that left me feeling that way could be erased from my memory. It affected my eating and sleeping patterns. It affected me financially, as I often tried to buy my way back to ‘happiness’. Fortunately, following a really bad experience of drinking alcohol in 1991, I had vowed never to drink alcohol again, so I never tried to comfort myself that way; however, there were other ways. I was evidently on a path of self-destruction – from regularly and repeatedly under-performing at work, to spending money like there was no tomorrow.
What I learnt from the year-long course of psychotherapy that I received was to hold on to the good and positive ideas. By way of specific example, at my lowest, when I was barely earning a minimum wage working a part-time role and just about able to cover the bills, it was to recognise and take comfort in the fact that I had a permanent and very comfortable place to call ‘home’. I have the love of my wife, and at the time of going through psychotherapy I had become a Dad for the second time to a beautifully cheerful son who was not just healthy but exceptionally strong in terms of his growth. Counting the smallest of blessings I guess.
Mental Health of Teachers
Having been a ‘wage slave’ since 1986 and in such contrasting roles or work places, the mental or emotional well-being of teachers is an issue that thankfully is now coming to the fore. Having come from a Primary background, I can see how, as Primary teachers, we are expected to be constantly “smiling” as positive role models to the children we’re working with – almost like inane Children’s TV presenters. When a safeguarding concern arises, teachers are expected to switch into this professional evidence gathering role and, for the safety of others, not permitted to ‘talk’ to anybody about the safeguarding issue that an individual has had to record and report. Being a parent of school aged children I’ve realised that, other than the holiday periods coinciding, being a teacher is possibly one of the least ‘family friendly’ workplaces there is. Teacher parents have to get special dispensation to attend school events like watching end of term performance, going on school trips with their family members as a volunteer or simply being able to take them to school and collect them.
How schools can help
I have no desire to ever become a Headteacher, nor to ever be responsible for duties that would be expected to be completed by their Deputy or Assistant Head. If I were to be such a position, I would try to offer my staff the opportunity to take ‘parent’ days in term time. I would also, as I’ve directly experienced this lack, ensure that there was a member of staff available at the school able to formally support the mental health of colleagues. I would also give time and space to colleagues who needed it, whether it was time to talk or to just be there to listen. I would also want to be engaged with and support organisations who promote mental health and wellbeing.