What It Really Means to Be a Teacher With Depression
Teaching, on a good day, is a demanding gig – energetically, mentally and physically. It takes up every ounce of the whole self, but generally “fills your bucket” in many other ways. Teaching while depressed? There are no words to describe it, and very little dialogue even exists to discuss it.
So, what is it like to teach when depressed?
It is opening the car door in the parking lot just before the bell rings, and hoping to God nobody wishes you good morning, because you woke up with your jaw frozen in hardness and moving your lips right now would be painful.
It is dragging your feet down the hallway full of high-spirited kids, trying not to make eye contact with any parents who may cross your path. It is forcing the corners of your mouth to tip ever so slightly into a weak excuse for a greeting to those non-depressed colleagues who enthusiastically bound in front of you. Who knows? Maybe they’re depressed, too; their masks are more convincing.
It is entering your classroom (where did you ever get the energy to make it so cheery and beautiful?) and being swarmed by children who love you, who have missed you since yesterday, who want to be near you and tell you all about their precious adventures. They don’t notice anything different about you when you’re like this. They love you, as is.
It is wanting so desperately to be the person they need, the teacher who will sweep them into your arms and give them the hugs they deserve. And yet it is also feeling repulsed by the thought of anyone entering your personal bubble and penetrating the wall that has been constructed between you and the world. “Leave me alone,” your body whimpers. And yet, here they are, yours for the day.
It is struggling the entire day to give what you are there to give: endless amounts of attention, discipline, encouragement and compassion. It is, amidst the exhaustion, having to be mindful of what you say and how you say it because depression can sometimes make you say and do things you normally wouldn’t, in an edgy tone that seems to come from nowhere. On these days, extra patience is necessary to explain things and answer the avalanche of questions that flow out of the students’ active brains. Their curiosity usually fills your heart with joy; on your dark days, each question is another weight burying you further into the ground.
It is teaching a lesson the peppy version of yourself meticulously planned and wondering how you will ever get through it, and why is it taking so long, and how come you planned a game instead of a worksheet, and why is it the smart board is always broken when you need it, and is it really only 9 a.m.?
It is watching the paperwork pile onto your desk as each activity is completed and begs to be check-marked and stickered. It is wondering where and how and when you will have the energy to tackle that mound, or will the pile just keep growing?
It is being profoundly relieved during times of recess and gym and any other reason that brings the children away from the classroom, for even a short period of time. Because, though you love them dearly, you need quiet. You need stillness. You need to not be a responsible, functioning adult for a moment. You need to just be alone with yourself and your internal visitor who is presently consuming your life force. And so you turn off those awful overhead lights, slump at your desk, put your head on the growing mound of work, and stop… for a moment. Everything else can wait.
It is being overwhelmed — totally and completely — by the natural chaos surrounding you. A classroom is hectic, there is no doubt. While teachers generally flow well in this organized chaos, a depressed teacher may very easily get stuck.
Everything is too much: the incessant chatter, the need to be constantly “on,” the announcements cutting in intermittently, the bells ringing, the parents emailing with questions about the next Scholastics order, the secretary buzzing in to remind you to do your attendance, the reminder that the fundraising forms are due tomorrow, and you need to send a letter home about this, and oh yes, don’t forget that the bake sale is on Friday and you’re in charge of bringing cupcakes! Could you make them this time, do you think? And don’t forget about the allergies; no eggs, please!
It is cringing every time you hear a knock at the door, an apologetic intrusion from the teacher down the hall – “Sorry, hope I’m not interrupting anything!” — or a child looking to borrow your class set of glue. You look at them guiltily or angrily or in a confused funk, you’re not sure which. You are no longer in control of your facial expressions, so whatever happens there, happens.
It is, at the sound of each bell, taking a deep breath and wondering where the next period’s stamina will come from, and can you just go hide underneath your desk for a while and sleep?
It is forcing your tired body through the “other” things that constitute a teacher’s life: the meeting, planning, researching, supervising lunch, picking garbage off the floor, mediating drama, drying students’ tears, while your own are on the verge of falling.
It is remembering at the end of the day the mountain of things you didn’t do: the emails you forgot to answer, the reports you forgot to fill out, the letter you forgot to photocopy, the meeting with the guidance counselor you forgot to attend. It is neglecting to assign homework – to the delight of the kids – as it just takes too much brain power to even think about what to send home, and you really, really need this day to be over, now.
It is cutting out right away, as soon as the last little darling has boarded the bus. It is dodging conversations with parents and colleagues, bailing on extracurricular activities and staff functions, brushing people off with excuses: Gotta get to the dentist, gotta pick up my dry cleaning, gotta bring the cat to the vet. Anything but the truth.
It is rushing to the parking lot as fast as your leaden legs can carry you and collapsing into the safety of your car. It is driving home in exhausted tears, knowing that today you failed as both a teacher and a human… but also deeply knowing you really, really tried.
It is falling into bed and letting the rest of your life slide. Your energy limit has long been reached today, and all you can do is lie down in a restless and sad and anxious sleep, until the next day when you will get up and do it all again: a zombie body wearing the educator’s armor of expectations.
Teaching while depressed is not fun.
The masking of the depression is the hardest part. The pretending you are OK. The going along with the schedule you planned when you were feeling well, the daily functioning within the rigidity of an education system that has been designed as a one-size-fits-all structure, without much consideration for shifting mental health needs.
The reality is, as a teacher, there is no room for your depression in the classroom. There is no time to give to it, no space to take extra good care of yourself on those days when it comes to visit.
Although mental health stigma is lessening somewhat, it is largely undiscussed in the context of educators. We talk nowadays of students with depression, and there is, thankfully, some enhanced visibility and awareness. But if you’re a teacher with depression, you learn to keep it silent. It’s as if it shouldn’t even exist. You can hear what people would say if you were to talk about your experiences instead of masking them: “Don’t you love your job? Don’t you love the kids? Isn’t teaching a calling? Shouldn’t this override any low feelings you may have? Can’t you just get over it?” Yes, most days, maybe, no, and absolutely not.
Teaching is a sacred and valuable profession, and teachers are, for the most part, incredible human beings (if you know one, please tell them this). Life as a teacher is generally exciting and fulfilling. But ask any of us who have experienced any degree of depression during the school year… it is very, very difficult on those days when the darkness starts to settle and yet you still must perform your role at full energy.
Some teachers can teach when depressed – it helps keep them from sliding further into the funk. Being with kids can definitely be a way to keep the heavy feelings at bay. For those teachers, I applaud you, because that certainly isn’t easy.
But if you’re one of those teachers who needs quiet and stillness to let the darkness pass, please listen to my words: You need to take really, really good care of yourself. You need to be your own number one. Take your sick days. Use all of your mental health days. Arrange a leave of absence if you need it. It is not selfish, nor is it a waste. Time away from the classroom can be life-giving and soul-restoring. You are bigger than the classroom; you have more to nurture than just your job. Give yourself the self-care you need, and the love and attention you normally extend outwards.
Your students will be fine. They will miss you, but will love you that much harder when you return. And you will actually be ready to feel and reciprocate their love once you’re feeling well again. Plus, who are we kidding? Every student loves a good sub day from time to time.
As a teacher with depression, self-care is not an option; it is a priority. Please remember this.
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Thinkstock photo via DGLimages