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Stress – A crisis of epic proportions

Stress - the modern plagueTwo days ago I had my first article published in the TES. For the last two days I have been inundated by messages from teachers telling me their stories and thanking me for letting them know that they are not alone.

There is a huge mental health crisis, not just our schools but our hospitals, our universities, among our children, bankers, lawyers… everyone is being affected.

Yesterday we were told that Diane Abbott, the Shadow Home Secretary, was being replaced due to a period of ill health. We haven’t been told officially that it is stress related but whatever you think about her policies (and this isn’t a political post), there are two things that I find very upsetting about this news.

The first is that we have become a society who, for reasons unknown to me, seem to think that anyone who is in the public eye is fair sport and ceases to become a person. Diane Abbott has been trolled online for weeks. Some of the comments about her after her recent interview with Nick Ferrari were absolutely appalling. No one deserves to be treated in such an inhumane way.

Secondly, I fear that she is just the latest in a long list of people, passionate about their work, to be toppled by stress. When we are under stress one of the first things that happens is that our prefrontal cortex shuts down. This is the part of our brains which controls reasoning and rational thought. It helps us retain facts for exams and is pretty much the part that we rely on most to help us look like intelligent creatures. When this shuts down, due to stress and anxiety, we struggle to retain facts and cannot create a rational argument.

Whether Diane Abbott is indeed off with stress or whether she has other underlying health issues will no doubt come out over the next few weeks but one thing that is for sure, she was under a lot of pressure during the interviews she has given recently and by vilifying her for being unable to form a coherent argument the public have only added to her problems.

I don’t know Diane Abbott. I don’t know much about her at all. But I recognise symptoms when I see them. I do know many teachers, nurses and other valuable professionals, who are all in the same mental state that I believe Diane Abbott to be in. They can’t think straight. They can’t eat. Can’t sleep. They are snapping a their children and not able to function about the basic necessities.

Something has to change, and quickly

We are killing the beating heart of our country by not supporting each other when we’re in need. When we see someone struggling and it affects our life our reaction seems to be “how dare you make my life more difficult” not, “how can I help you?”. We need to stop aiming for imaginary ideas of what the perfect life is and start learning to enjoy the life we have.

We need to start caring again. Really caring about each other. But more than that, about our neighbours, random people in the street, the environment, people in other countries… We have to care deeply to reverse the crisis that is happening in the world. We have seen amazing kindness and compassion in the wake of the terrorist attacks in Manchester and London recently. That is what we need to start offering to our nurses, our doctors and even our politicians. There is no point behaving so valiantly when we have devastating events but ignoring the ongoing pain in our society. That’s like a murderer convincing himself he’s a good person because he goes to church on Sunday. We have to unite and be consistent. Learn to see the signs of stress. When you see them, reach out your hand and offer help.

As Martin Luther King, Jr said:

“Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that.”

Please, be the light.

Teachers’ Mental Health – My TES Article

TesWhen I was asked to write an article for the TES about my experiences with anxiety and depression as a teacher and the more general issue of teachers’ mental health, I was delighted. If you are a teacher reading this I hope that you won’t be able to identify with it but unfortunately it is a far too familiar tale.
Something has to change but unfortunately public perception still seems to be that teachers work 9am-3pm and have such long holidays that it must be a dream of a job. We have to start raising awareness and shouting about the conditions our teachers are working in, the impact our current education system is having on our children and the horror that is the upcoming budget cuts. Hopefully the more we share our experiences the more chance there is something will listen and make the changes so desperately needed in schools.

TES Article: 

“Statistics about female primary teachers being more likely to commit suicide come as no surprise to this former teacher

When I recently read that female primary school teachers are 42 per cent more likely to commit suicide than the average woman, it made me angry but did not come as a surprise.

I am a very sensitive person. This seems to be a negative in society these days, but I know that it is my biggest asset. I care when children are upset and I care when colleagues are stressed.

But being a sensitive person made it almost impossible for me to teach. I was a good teacher and I enjoyed my job, but I would also regularly lie awake at night worrying if my best was good enough.

At times, the anxiety was crippling. Senior management would often criticise the one thing out of a hundred that I hadn’t managed to do. Parents didn’t notice the 29 kids I had managed to hear read that week, but were angry because I hadn’t had a chance to hear their child.

And it wasn’t only me. I would look around at my colleagues and see them drowning in paperwork, with little or no energy left for forming meaningful relationships. I heard teachers ask for help because they were waking up every morning feeling unable to face another day.”

Read the full article.

Beauty and the Beast – A mindfulness lesson plan

Beauty and the Beast Mindfulness Lesson PlanTale as old as time…

This magical fairy story has been delighting children and adults alike for centuries. The story of a young girl who loves books and learns to fall for a beast of a prince may not be the perfect story for our modern feminist daughters but it isn’t far off in my opinion.

Beauty and the Beast has been my favourite fairy tale for as long as I can remember. The symbolism of the beastly behaviour of the prince causing him to be tranformed physically into a beast is wonderful. Beauty (Belle in the Disney version) is brave, outspoken and self assured. She loves reading, long before women were allowed to attend school or better themselves in any way, is inspiring. Imagine how excited I was when I learned they were remaking it! Not just any remake but a remake with live action and Emma Watson – who I love!

My daughter was desperate to see it, my sister contacted me as soon as she heard to make me promise we wouldn’t watch it without her, and we started praying that they wouldn’t spoil the original magic.

I was 15 when the Disney cartoon was released and I’m not afraid to say that I LOVED it! I had posters, the soundtrack on my CD player and I even dressed like Belle for a while (no I’m not sharing any photos!).

Well, we were not disappointed. We all felt that the new film paid homage to the original animation, without being a replica, and added a little depth and maturity.

I was so relieved.

So, what is so special about the story of Beauty and the Beast?

I love that Belle sees through the Beast’s appearance to the person within. He has learned his lessons about not judging people by their outward appearance. He has learned to be patient, tolerant, kind.

There are worse role models for our children, that’s for sure.

My Beauty and the Beast lesson plan combines some mindfulness techniques and breathing strategies with simple yoga to create a magical lesson. It explores both our senses and our bodies in a calm and gentle way. Children love taking time to explore sounds, smells, sights and tastes as part of this magical story. It is a wonderful way to introduce mindfulness to even the youngest of children.

Get a copy of the lesson plan or it is available as part of my Key Stage 1 Literacy Mindfulness Pack.

To see my full range of mindfulness and relaxation resources visit my shop.

 

 

 

Ten Commandments of Stress and Depression

Ten Commandments of stressWhen we think about stress and depression we tend to think of external factors which can contribute to our mental health. By making a few changes to our own thought processes and adjusting our approach to life we can have a huge impact though. I came across these Ten Commandments of Stress many years ago on a course. At the time I was a fairly typical twenty-something:

  • wanting everyone to like me
  • worried about having my hair and make up done perfectly all the time
  • agreeing to do things for people because I thought it would make them like me more and that they would help me in return (NB not everyone does!!)
  • doing lots of things because I thought that was what I was supposed to be doing not because it made my life better or made me happier….

The list goes on and I’m sure I’m not alone.

I also know that, unfortunately, I was not alone in being diagnosed with depression. After only a term in a very challenging inner city school it took hold. I was lucky because I had amazing support and I managed to pull myself out of it within months. Not everyone is so lucky.

What can you do to help yourself and others who may be struggling with stress or depression?

It is so important to spot the early signs of stress and depression before it takes hold of you. If you don’t know how to spot them please read my earlier post: Stress: Do you know the signs?

In my experience teachers are the most compassionate, dedicated, hard working and community minded of people. This can unfortunately lead to them being take advantage of, by the Government, by SLT’s, by parents and even by colleagues. Set clear boundaries and know that it is ok not to be perfect all the time (despite what OFSTED might make you believe!).

Make your mental health a priority.

Set good examples for your peers, children and your class.

Be a better teacher and a happier person.

You owe it to yourself and everyone who loves you.

 

If you are looking for resources to help yourself and your school with relaxation and mindfulness check out my relaxation resources.

Maybe you just want to dip your toes in the water and see how it can impact on your class. Why not try one of my free lesson plans which are available on my blog?

 

How can we save our schools from drowning in assessment?

SATs stressAs I sit in my office this morning, enjoying an unexpected day of productivity (I was called for Jury Service this week but haven’t been required, yet), my mind keeps coming back to all the children and teachers sitting in classrooms this week in the middle of assessments.

My son is 7 years old and consequently is doing his Y2 SATs and honestly he isn’t even aware that they are happening. His teacher is doing an amazing job of staying calm and not letting the pressures impact on the children.

Unfortunately this just isn’t possible with the Y6 tests though as they have to be done in such strict exam conditions you just couldn’t possibly conceal them.

Teaching is widely reported to be one of the most stressful professions and it isn’t hard to see why. As one of our caring professions teachers have not just an obligation to provide the children in their class with an education but they also provide a wide range of social care.

Teachers are highly qualified professionals who spend years training to understand, not just the subjects they teach, but also; child development, child psychology, social expectations, assessment strategies, statistics, reporting, and much much more. Despite this we insist on testing the children in their classes to a borderline abusive level in order to, allegedly, check that the teaching is of a satisfactory standard. In addition to these tests the teachers assessments are scrutinised and then as if this wasn’t insulting enough, we send in OFSTED inspectors with 24hrs notice to check that they are doing their job properly on a day to day basis.

Don’t get me wrong, I am aware that there are some teachers who do not do a satisfactory job. As there are in all jobs. But all too often in teaching, the few instances of lower standards have been caused by mental anguish and unmanageable workload which has either led the teacher to fall out of love with the job or to suffer some form of breakdown, physically or mentally.

We are reading this week about children who have been reduced to tears by the Reading Tests (read the full article here: https://www.tes.com/news/school-news/breaking-news/sats-pupils-tears-after-sitting-incredibly-difficult-reading-test), children who are unable to eat, who haven’t been able to sleep. These are tell tale signs of fairly severe stress and anxiety and yet we are doing all this in the name of education.  This is not my idea of education, this is torture, both for the children sitting the tests and possibly more so for the teachers who are fighting their every instinct to teach to test and who know that they aren’t doing the best by the children in front of them.

Something has to change

AssessmentSomething has to change and quickly, before we lose all our best teachers either through stress or despair, and before we are responsible for a whole generation growing up with mental health issues.

I was delighted to see parents taking the law into their own hands last week and keeping their children at home for a day to enjoy the freedom of playing outside and having fun (more information here: http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/education-36149850), but although they did an amazing job of raising awareness of parental opinion, there has to be a long term solution.

“1 in 10 children and young people aged 5 – 16 suffer from a diagnosable mental health disorder – that is around three children in every class (1).”

http://www.youngminds.org.uk/training_services/policy/mental_health_statistics

 

One in ten school aged children. Three children in every class. And that is only diagnosable mental health issues. What about all the children who are doing an amazing job of hiding it? This figure is already far too high and with the current trends in education it can only get worse.

What can you do to help?

Whether you are a teacher, a student teacher, a TA, a parent, a childminder… whatever your association with children, you can make a difference.

It is important that we join together now to let our children know that scores, results and assessments are only a tiny part of who they are. There is so much more to a child than a test result. Let’s celebrate the personalities, the quirks, the many beautiful things which make our children unique. Let’s remind them that they are special and that they have a wonderful contribution to make to the world whether they come top of the class or not.

Let’s teach them about the many incredibly successful and intelligent people who did terribly at school but who changed the world beyond measure. Einstein is widely held to be one of the greatest minds the world has ever known but he failed miserably at school.

Most importantly let’s teach children how to cope with stress. If we can’t change the world they are growing up into, let’s give them so many tools to help them deal with that world that they can flourish despite it. If we can educate this generation in the importance of love, calm and compassion as well as subordinate clauses and vertices then maybe, just maybe, they can put right all the things that our generation seem to have messed up.

 

If you are concerned about yourself or the children you teach please get in touch with me and I will do all I can to help. I have a wonderful free ebook, which you can download by filling in the box below, which gives simple 5 minute activities suitable for all ages, and there are also some lesson plans for relaxation lessons available on my blog. Don’t forget my Resources page Which has lots of leSson plans, MP3s and worksheets to help.
There are also lots of ideas for relaxation in schools on my Teachers Pinterest board.

7 Reasons It’s Important To Switch Off During School Holidays

7 reasons it is important to switch off during school holidays Ok, let’s be realistic, anyone who has ever worked in a school knows that you can’t totally switch off from school work for the whole of a school holiday, unless you are incredibly organised and work yourself into a state during the last week of term. I’m not suggesting that you neglect your planning and marking, because that isn’t professional and can induce stress which is counterproductive.

So what am I suggesting? It’s simple really, I am suggesting that instead of having work lingering and hanging over you all holiday that you consciously organise your holiday time in order to ensure that the important jobs are done, but so that you also have plenty of time to switch off.

Why is it important to switch off and step away from school work during the holidays? (I’m sure you don’t really need me to tell you, but just in case it’s so long since you’ve managed to do it, here goes!)

  • To allow you to rest completely. When you are at school you are constantly planning and thinking about what you need to do next and, unless you are very careful, that spills over into the holidays. Your brain needs time to rest. Give yourself permission to switch off. You might even find that you get a good night sleep without waking at 3am with a to do list running through your head.
  • To allow your stress levels to reset. Your body needs time to process and remove the stress hormones which build up during the school term and if you continue to add to these levels during the holidays you will return feeling as stressed and anxious as you finished. Allow your body time to do its job and you will do yours better when you return.
  • Reconnect with familyTo reconnect with your partner/children. If you are managing to teach and not letting that affect your relationships and quality time with your loved ones then congratulations, you are truly an amazing human being. Please get in touch and let me know your secret, because I know I never could and most teachers I know will admit to feeling constantly torn between work and family. Your family deserve a couple of weeks every few months to spend time with you. Relaxed, happy, loving you. Give them that time, you won’t be sorry.
  • To remind your friends who you are. There is a reason many teachers have lots of friends who also teach, because they understand the time constraints of the job. Wouldn’t it be lovely to connect with your friends again, even if they are colleagues or teacher friends, without discussing policies and planning?
  • To allow yourself to return to school full of enthusiasm and energy. By stepping away from anything or anyone, we return with a new level of appreciation and enthusiasm. Your class deserve bubbly, enthusiastic you, just as much as your family do. Step away, recharge and give your class the best version of you.
  • To feed your soul. I know, this one sounds a bit airy fairy and hippy, but do you remember a time when you had hobbies other than resource making? Take time to play board games with your kids, go walking, read a book for pleasure, go to the cinema, whatever it is that makes your heart sing. You give so much to others, give yourself the same treat!
  • To give yourself time to do all the jobs round the house you have been putting off. Ok, it might not be the most exciting reason to switch off from school, but even if it is just to make sure that you return to school with an empty ironing basket, the garden ready for summer, the dining room decorated and all the bedrooms deep cleaned, at least you will have had time away from thinking about school. The first six reasons suddenly seem a lot more appealing now don’t they? 😉

The importance of self care as a teacherBeing an amazing teacher is a wonderful thing, but in the same way that you are told to put your own oxygen mask on in an aeroplane before fitting those of your children and others who need help, you have to give yourself some care before you can care properly for your class. Give yourself the gift of a real break this Easter, allocate days when you can get your school work done and plan lots of fun and frivolous days around them.

Have a wonderful break and remember, you are doing an incredible job, you have earned this time for you.

 

Kids Yoga

I was delighted when i was asked to review the new book by Brian leaf “misadventures of a parenting yogi” as i knew that so many of you would be interested to read it. When the book arrived i was even more delighted. I flicked through it to get an idea of the style and before I knew it i was reading excitedly through the pages, smiling and at times laughing at the approachable and easy style. i have been doing yoga for a few years now, i’m no expert but i enjoy the slow, relaxing style and always feel fabulous when i have finished. with anxiety and stress levels on the increase among our children relaxation techniques such as kids yoga are becoming more and more important. THis wonderful excerpt from the book talks about Brian leaf’s experiences of this delightful practice.

 

Misadventures of a Parenting YogiAn Excerpt from Misadventures of a Parenting Yogi

Noah is taking a kids’ yoga class with lots of other two-year-olds. It’s supercute. They pretend to be animals and crawl around the room and hold postures and have imaginary adventures.

But, little kids, I’m convinced, don’t really need yoga.

Older kids and teens, by the way, are a whole different story. They need yoga. Reimagine your teenage years with yoga. Seriously. Picture yourself at age sixteen. What are you wearing? How are you standing? Now insert yoga. You’re more grounded in your body. You have self-assurance. You stand tall. You’re able to identify what really matters in life. Everything from the boundaries in your relationships to your skin is clearer.

But little kids, I think, don’t need yoga. You can do cobra or tree or revolved triangle with them, and it will be fun. They are so cute bending and twisting. I love doing sun salutations with Noah. But, really, we’re the ones who need the yoga. Our kids need to eat less sugar and to frolic in the woods more.

I need yoga to control my fear that Noah will be eaten by a bear or that the sweaty guy on the elevator is going to grab him and run. Or to deal with the panic when he disappears for three seconds behind the microbrewed soap display at Whole Foods.

I do yoga to stretch and to manage stress — neither of which kids need to do — and on a deeper, more spiritual level, I do yoga to open my energetic channels and allow for growth and transformation. And to live my truth, my dharma. But kids are already doing this. I do yoga to become more like them.

I remember teaching a toddler yoga class and being frustrated that the kids wouldn’t do what I wanted. They were giggling and playing. I wanted them to be obsessive, perfectionistic, and neurotic like me.

I can, however, let my yoga make me more relaxed and present, like them. I can let it open my mind so that I see my kids as they are, not as I imagine they should be. I can let it open my heart so that I love my kids as they are, not as I imagine they should be.

We need the yoga. Let them frolic.

 

Kids YogaBrian Leaf is the author of Misadventures of a Parenting Yogi and Misadventures of a Garden State Yogi, as well as the owner and director of the holistic New Leaf Learning Center in western Massachusetts. He has studied, practiced, and taught yoga, meditation, and Ayurveda for twenty-three years. Visit him online at http://www.misadventures-of-a-yogi.com.