In December 2015, I was diagnosed with emotional burnout / mild depression. My existence was almost unbearable (no matter how trivial it may sound). I was crying 24/7; I felt miserable and hated myself for being weak and pathetic. Life was extremely painful. Everything was painful. Waking up, blinking, breathing. I would not eat for days – just drinking tap water. I would have to make a titanic effort just to open my eyes and get up. The only things that kept me going were my stubbornness and a thought my mom shared with me once about children leaving this world before their parents do being wrong. Every night I would go to bed thinking that maybe tomorrow it will become slightly more bearable. It would not though for quite a while.
I did manage to overcome this. I fought like my life depended on it – and it did, literally. I won that battle.
I am not going to tell about how I felt when I realised that this experience left me completely blank and I had to rediscover myself from scratch. Instead, I am going to talk about what I learnt from it and how it influenced my teaching beliefs.
Back in December 2015, I was not a teacher yet. I became a teacher almost a year after that, in November. In the beginning, I was mostly occupied with sliding into the profession that was new to me and adjusting to it. However, later, after I got into the routine I found myself going through those harsh memories over and over again. I took some time to reflect on it through the prism of ELT. Now, I am sure what I am about to write is in no way new and eye-opening, but nevertheless…
We, teachers, are probably even more vulnerable than people who work in some other professions. We are constantly under the spotlight; we are being watched and evaluated by our students. I am sure there is no teacher who, at the very beginning of their career, never felt nervous or even a little bit scared when entering the classroom. Scared of being judged. Scared of being rejected. Scared of not being liked. Whenever we are not satisfied with our lessons, we jump straight into blaming ourselves – we failed to engage students, failed to think through the lesson, failed to (insert what is applicable to you here). It is always our fault. Or is it?
What depression taught me is that we cannot be liked by everyone. It is simply impossible. There will always be some people who think we are not good enough. The reason is not that we are actually not good, no, the reason is that different people have a different understanding of what is good and what is not for them. We all have our own vision, and other people do not have to match our conceptions. For example, you do not have to match your students’ ideas of what a good teacher is. They might believe that a good teacher is someone who is cheerful and makes them laugh while your personality is calm and serious. It does not mean you are a bad teacher. It simply means that, for this particular student, you are just not what they expected, and expectations do not always meet reality.
Should you try to change your personality and your teaching style to match your students’ expectations? I would not recommend doing so. What depression taught me is that we have right to be the way we are. It does not only refer to our personalities and teaching styles but also to how and what we feel in the classroom. Teachers often tend to hide negative feelings while displaying positive feelings much more openly (Gates, 2000; cited in Hagenauer and Volet, 2013). What I learnt from depression is that you should not be ashamed of experiencing negative feelings and emotions. You cannot always be positive, cheerful, and happy. There are definitely going to be moments when you feel sad, or irritated, or angry, or disappointed, and it is absolutely normal to feel the whole range of emotions, and maybe sometimes it is worth it to let your students know that you are unhappy with their behaviour or attitude rather than trying to call to their reason in a calm and friendly manner.
Around two thousands years ago, a Roman playwright Terentius wrote “I am human, and I think nothing human is alien to me.” However, I feel that we, teachers, are often pushed to supress our true emotions (and emotions are something very human indeed) and wear a mask in front of our students. Inability to be emotionally authentic leads to emotional intensity and a decrease in workplace well-being (Butler and Gross, 2004; Chang, 2009; Lechuga, 2012; cited in Hagenauer and Volet, 2013). As a result, we might end up emotionally burnt out and depressed.
There is only one way out I see: be yourself. Be your real self. Do not worry about how many students like true you. It is their right not to like you. It is your right to be just the way you are. No one can tell you what is right and what is wrong – there are as many rights and wrongs as people around you. Decide for yourself and be content and happy.
Hagenauer, G., Volet, S. E., (2013). “I don’t hide my feelings, even though I try to”: insight into teacher educator emotion display. The Australian Educational Researcher, 41(3), 261-281. doi:10.1007/s13384-013-0129-5