Wednesday, September 12, 2018

Teaching Through Depression

Disclaimer: This ended up being a much more personal blog to write than I expected, since this is something I'm struggling with a lot lately. As a result, I'm not sure it's helpful or coherent, it might just be personal rambling. But for what it's worth... here ya go.

In an effort to start blogging again, I asked folks to anonymously suggest a few things they'd like to see me blog about. Today we'll be tackling this suggestion: "Blog idea: teaching through depression. How to balance the mental health issues with a profession that requires a lot of energy." This is especially fun to tackle right now because I am in the midst of a VERY intense depressive/anxiety period as I'm also preparing to jump with both feet into a new semester of teaching... so some of this is me talking it out to myself and figuring out my answers because some days I just don't know.

Let me start by saying that I feel very fortunate in that my job is people heavy but is also something I really love doing. I truly feel I am called to teach. That love of what I do gives me extra reserves of energy when I am feeling low than I would have if I was doing something I loved a little less. Many of the teachers I know feel the same way, and it's something I just had to trust would be true when I went into this profession in the first place.

My teaching job is also a little bit different from a traditional classroom teacher. Some weeks my schedule is "lesson plan for 6 hours, then drive to a school and teach a 2-hour class," while other weeks it may be more like "teach at one school from 8-2, drive to another school to teach an after-school class for 45 minutes, then drive to the theater to teach a conservatory class for an hour and a half." This means I have both advantages and disadvantages that classroom teachers usually don't, so the advice I give here can only be specific to me and may not apply to any teachers reading this. Sorry if it is ultimately unhelpful, but I'll definitely share what I can.

A couple of things that I use to make teaching easier when depression is not.

I take advantage of breaks as much as possible. Really, this is a pretty typical piece of introvert advice, but it is also super helpful for depression stuff. Bathroom breaks, lunch breaks, the 2 minutes before students come flooding into your room, whatever you can take. When I'm on an all-day teaching schedule, I always try to eat lunch in my car. Shutting myself out for that 30 minutes gives me the strength I need to come back and be my best for the kids again later. Speaking of which...

Don't feel guilty about taking that time. One of the most useful tactics I've found for communicating to people that I need to disappear or take some time to myself is explaining that it's not just about what I feel like doing, it's that I am not at my best when I am stretched or overpeopled. You aren't being selfish if you take care of yourself. If I don't take the alone time I need, I become a worse teacher. I get irritable and impatient. My words aren't as clear as I want them to be. Your quest of self-care is not just about making sure you feel great, it can be just as much about making sure you can be great for others. Teachers are sometimes expected to just give and give and give, and so many of the best teachers feel guilty about not being able to give more. It is 100% okay to tell yourself, "This week, to be able to give, I have to say no to every other non-essential request that comes my way." Ignoring your self-care helps nobody.

I'm careful about criticism. This is one of those things that sometimes gets mocked in the realm of self-care, but I know when I'm in my worse depression times, my brain is ready to twist all the criticism it hears into a scathing indictment of my core identity. It's not rational, it's not reasonable, but a simple "I disagree" can turn into something horrific in my head. Since it's not reasonable to ask others to tiptoe around me when I'm in this state, I do my best to counteract it myself. I put myself out there a little less until I'm feeling better. I hide social media posts and comments I'm not ready to read. (If all my friends weren't online, I'd probably stay off social media altogether.) Just for a little while, just so I can get my thoughts together and react to it all in a way that is helpful and good for everyone involved.

Plan ahead. I'm a teacher. I have depression. Those two things are likely to be true together for sometime, so that means I can plan for when depression gets worse by setting up routines that will make my life easier when it hits hard. For example, I plan lessons out as far in advance as I can when I'm feeling good because when depression hits and I find myself staring blankly at a computer screen for hours, I have a little bit of leeway. While I'm usually comfortable with a little organized chaos in my classrooms, I try to establish set routines and enforce them consistently so that on days when I'm teeming with anxiety, I can relax a little bit and know things won't fall apart entirely. This may look a little different for everyone, as their depression and teaching won't be identical to mine, but the general idea is, I think, widely applicable.

Final thing to note, just one more time: I am not particularly good at this. I say some of this as if I actually have answers, but really these are just a few things I've latched onto that seem to be working right now. Writing this blog during a week when depression has been especially tough and I feel like it's completely robbing me of my ability to teach well has just heightened this for me. So this week I've been trying to hold onto the truth I know about myself: I am a pretty decent teacher. I won't feel this crappy forever. I've managed so far to find enough spoons to give to my students even when I don't have enough to give to myself, and most likely I'll be able to continue.

I feel like this blog has bounced wildly between optimism and pessimism. That's because I'm currently fighting that battle within myself, and I have no idea how much that is going to come across to anyone else.

I will close with this, I guess. Teaching is awesome and great and I'm so lucky to be able to do it and to know that every day I work I have the opportunity to do something really meaningful. And that's nice to remember when I feel stuck in "everything I do is awful" mode as I have been lately.


  1. I expected this to be a wonderful post, and it was.

    I think you're about the best I know at combining three things: being real, giving space to others who think differently, and having truly helpful advice. That's a rare combination, and must be the teacher in you coming out. :-)

  2. I am not particularly good at this.

    Depression is never going to allow you to think you're "good" at this, or anything else. That's an unwinnable battle. I know from what you've shared on Facebook that you already have external validation that you're good at what you do. It's the internal validation that's absent.

    I've been finding of late the value of specificity. I suspect that becoming "good" here really means "good enough for Depression's approval", and there's no such thing. It will always negate and nullify anything you've done and move the goal post to keep its approval out of reach. You know this already.

    Perhaps, then, it's more accurate to say that you're still uncertain about what you do. That's both more specific and fairer. Plus, it allows that you can become comfortable with what you do--without feeling that you're "good" at it being a requirement. Becoming comfortable is doable. Getting Depression's approval that you're good at it is not.

    In this post, you've identified constructive, proactive, and healthy things within your power to do that help. You're doing what you know to do. And you're receptive to learning new ways of doing things. That's a strong head start toward becoming comfortable.