That feeling of deep dread

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If you don’t know what I’m talking about then I’m very pleased for you. However, you may want to carry on reading, especially if you’re a leader in a school.

I’m talking about the feeling that many teachers have experienced when trying to sleep at night or when they first wake up or when travelling to school; or all three. A deep, sicky feeling of dread. An inner sadness that won’t be resolved by a cup of coffee or a smile from a kind colleague. In the ‘best’ cases it may last a few days, at worst months and years.

I know this feeling because I have felt it during my career. I am also very ashamed to admit that I know that I have caused (at least) one colleague to have this feeling; they were brave enough to tell me.

It isn’t just being fed-up or not looking forward to a particular class or not getting on with someone or first day nerves. It’s more than that. It usually occurs when a person really cares, maybe too much about teaching and their school. Let’s face it, you wouldn’t feel this if you didn’t really care.

It rarely stems from bad relationships or poor behaviour from students. Yes, they can be challenging and upsetting but most teachers have an invisible barrier like a protective halo around them for this. This deep feeling usually comes from other adults.

The feeling is often created when someone feels or has been told in some way that what they’re doing, isn’t good enough. Whether it be their lesson is ‘inadequate’ or they aren’t fulfilling their leadership role; they haven’t met the necessary requirements.

It is particularly wretched when you know that whatever the issue is, isn’t really an issue. I was once told that my lesson was ‘inadequate’ because I didn’t prove that all students had made progress in 20 minutes to the person that was watching my lesson. I knew it was all nonsense but I suddenly lost all sense of worth and self confidence. I was an experienced teacher with good outcomes and this person suddenly told me I wasn’t good enough. That weekend I seriously considered if I wanted to carry on being a teacher. It wasn’t just me. A few other, excellent teachers, were told the same. I felt sick with dread all weekend. Myself and my colleague texted each other in our dark hours over that long weekend. We had been made to feel failures. We had that deep feeling of failure and dread.

Whilst I believe in that case, that person was seriously misguided, there are times when tough conversations need to be had. There are colleagues who may well need to be told that teaching isn’t for them or a particular aspect of their role isn’t working out. It would be really dangerous to believe that everyone can make it as a teacher, meanwhile allowing students in their care to miss out on decent teaching.

So how can we avoid this feeling? I suspect that schools that have clear systems, expectations and accountability have less chance of someone feeling like this. These systems use structure to take out personalities. There’s less chance of personality clash or nastiness if a process is being followed. If you make stuff up as you go along, it’s bound to have these awful side effects.

It also occurs when something is sprung unexpectedly onto a colleague; they didn’t know it was going to happen. We hadn’t been told that the rules of our observation was to show progress for each student in 20 minutes. If we’d known the rules, we may have played the game and met the criteria. We didn’t know until it was too late. We hadn’t met the grade. Don’t spring things on people and certainly don’t let them hear things from someone else or in an email. Jill Berry coined the phrase at #SLTCamp East in 2014, “Eat the frog”. Don’t avoid telling someone something important. Do it face to face.

Finally, if someone tells you that they’re upset, then have the emotional intelligence to deal with it sensibly. They’ve probably taken a huge leap of faith to say it. They’re trying to resolve the horrible feeling sitting in their stomach. If you don’t care how they feel or have no ability to respond in a humane manner, you need to seriously question your role.

Remember, you will never know how much you’ve affected people you work with and this sort of stuff scars, real deep. Try and make it as humane as possible, even when things are tough.

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