CW: classism, sexism, toxic masculinity, homophobia/biphobia/transphobia mention, mental health
TW: addiction, self-medicating, narcotics, alcoholism
I thought I’d follow on from the theme of my last post.
For a while I’ve wanted to talk about my experiences as an individual, rather than a professional, whilst undertaking the PGCE. However, the last post didn’t seem quite like the place. Teaching is tough, hard graft and honestly doesn’t get the rewards nor the praise it deserves and although I decided not to continue with it, I have respect for those that do.
Coming out of an intense experience like that you’re often confused, memories hazy and you’re just happy to be out – if that was your goal. I did happily leave rather than crash and burn, it would be a different story otherwise.
Handling mental illness, after struggling for so long with its unchecked addons – addiction, self-medicating, disruption to life, relationship issues – makes these big decisions harder. That being said, going into a stressful environment, or leaving it, can be strenuous regardless of your mental health.
But ever since I transitioned from not managing my illnesses, to managing them, I found myself in a peculiar position. It all correlated with me starting university and trying to maintain a full-time job, full-time relationship and enter academia – something I hadn’t been a part of since I was 17 and had not the faintest shred of self-confidence in my ability.
For the first time, I truly knew what it was like to not cope, which went against everything I had painted for myself in being the image of an unstoppable force. My self-defence had cracks. Chasms, even.
Far from being unstoppable, I very much stopped. The start of uni became my first, or at least most damaging, breakdown. I was drinking almost every day, not just a couple drinks, but full-blown nights out. I was doing coke alone or if not, I was doing it 2-3 times a week across different nights out with different people.
I finally found myself, at 13:00 in the afternoon, doing lines of mandy to pick myself up from the anxiety attacks that were occurring from my radical come down off of booze and cocaine. When that ran out I googled what could get you high at home and I tried to pacify myself snorting Benadryl tablets.
I was stopped.
Cliché as it may sound but that was a turning point for me. In hindsight it gave me a good lesson on what I could handle and a shit load of anxiety on what I couldn’t.
Things I couldn’t handle:
- More than one thing at once, be it work, study, relationships. It was too much to emotionally and mentally handle (my first red flag about BPD)
- Drugs and alcohol, I needed to get myself off that, self-medicating wasn’t cute (or healthy)
- Toxic relationships – I had many, still do, but it was around this time I had peak daddy-issues and particularly bad friendships
Things I could handle:
- Holding together some form or semblance of living
- (Kind of) holding a mirror up to myself and at least accepting I needed help
- Confronting the idea of what my problems were (actually confronting them would come over time)
I would later discover that despite university being a trigger to almost every mental illness I suffer, it was also something I excelled at and would become a comfort-blanket of sorts. It allowed me freedom to schedule myself (although compulsory attendance and threat of grade dismissal and punishment if it drops below 100% is utter ableist bullshit – if I can’t wake up due to a depressive episode or can’t be around people due to anxiety/mania, then fuck you I won’t be in), I only had to work part time and I could travel during the summer and half terms.
I was in control, and I have discovered that control is a big thing for me – and my mental health.
When this comfort-blanket was stripped from me after graduation, I felt like I was somewhat prepared. I had applied to master’s months in advance and got into all my choices. I could continue this cushy life of being in control and doing something I was good at, but with one pitfall – finance. Postgraduate study would require me to study, work and attempt (at the same time) to hold down a full-time relationship. I was back where I originally found myself, my original sin of taking on too much.
So, I panic. I decide to do the PGCE and get the best of both worlds. I get some kind of academic stimulation, I work and train alongside it and I am financed by the government. Winner winner, chicken dinner.
As I mentioned previously, training to be a teacher is intense. Being a teacher, I assume, is even more intense. I’ll probably never know that as a career choice, but I certainly empathise. However, I can’t help but raise certain points about schools and teachers which ultimately made me leave the profession.
It’s funny to think that a lot of people’s biggest fear of going back to a secondary school, or becoming a teacher in general, is the kids. I went to one of the biggest comprehensives in London. Over 2000 bodies snaked their way through that asbestos lined death trap and it was the worst 6 years of my life. If I had any fear of children, teenagers or their respective behaviour – it had long since left my soul.
No, what I feared the most about joining the profession were the teachers. I’ve seen the shows, they’re all teacher’s lounge and after work drinks with functioning alcoholics. But, I held out a slither of hope that actually, behind the scenes, they’d be this bunch of well-centred lefties that look out for every student (regardless of race, class, ability or body) whilst also nurturing a place of harmony, at least intra-departmentally, for themselves and their colleagues.
Boy, was I wrong.
Firstly, having a mental illness (in any profession) will either get you discarded from the interview list (if you declare it) or scrutinised to such a degree that you’ll wish you weren’t there. I had to get a health check -as did all other PGCE students – to say that I was fit to be a teacher. Fair enough. I had previously declared my mental illnesses, so I suspected that they would be brought up by the person who interviewed me (I had to pay £40 too, for the honour) .
I spent one hour being patronised by probing, personal and intrusive questions. Questions that, if I were not of such a high-functioning state in general, would have destroyed me. Questions that he must have been reading from a “mental health 101” book or “how to find a psychopath” questionnaire. But nonetheless, I persevered.
Then, I was thrusted into an environment which, having worked in a high intensive, corporate-like industry, was one of the most aggressive and soul sucking I’d ever faced. Despite the teacher’s best efforts, every conversation and every meeting was about exam practice, progress and making sure they met targets. If that fell off the agenda it was funding, or lack thereof, and how we would cope without certain things.
Now, I’ve always known it, but the vast majority of teachers are white and middle class – especially with the levels of teachfirst and teachdirect teachers around – who are almost all from Russel Group universities with the appropriate background. Obviously, that changes from area to area, especially in London there is a certain level of diversity, but what I was surrounded by was institutional racism, institutional sexism and institutional prejudice towards the LGBTQIA+ community and those with special needs/mental illnesses.
It was hell.
Teachers have this old trope that they like to throw around, it basically follows the line of “boys are more…”.
Boys are more… aggressive.
Boys are more… talkative.
Boys are more… energetic.
Boys are more… hard to control.
You’ll have more luck with them, as you’re a man.
You’ll be fine with that class, you’re a big tall man.
They’ll respect you more, because you’re a man.
But what no one was addressing, was that they were just following the cycle of enabling toxic masculinity in their students. Suggesting that everything was aimed at the boys and created around their interests – football and action movies, respectively.
Everyone would just sit around and say “yes, Craig/Ahmed/Terence are all problems, such horrible little shits, let’s just send ‘em out to inclusion for the remainder of the week”. There was no dissection of their actual behaviour or questioning why, perhaps, they were little shits.
This also varied depending on their race, if they were white they’d have a fair amount of time to carry on their crap or get away with different things. If black or brown, instant dismissal. I had multiple white teachers tell me that “oh, the worst behaved are the black-Caribbean boys. When I confronted them with “I think what you’re meaning to say, is that it is a working-class problem? Most of my worst students are white-working class” I’d be met with confusion and that awkward white person whisper of “Nah, you know what I mean…” no, Annie, I don’t. White people love making other white people complicit in their racism.
Groupthink of white middle class teachers, in a white middle/upper-class run institution in a white-middle/upper-class government – you get my point – is the very definition of a hostile environment and institutional discrimination.
I had watched it as an outsider when my younger brother, who has mental health issues, was kicked out of three schools to avoid disruption or bringing grades down – which I’m sure would have resulted in him being sent straight to a referral unit had he not been white.
He now barely has 3 GCSEs. Little shit.
The disdain in which middle class teachers spoke and acted around their working-class students appalled me. I’m not going to say that having every teacher be working-class in a state comprehensive, in an almost predominately working-class/mixed demographic area, would solve anything (although, it really would). What I’m going to say is that the systemic demonisation that the working class has had to endure – arguably forever, but let’s say since Thatcher – doesn’t just come from government and society, it is also from those in power and in control of these kid’s everyday life. They predominantly happen to be, white middle class people.
People who have never and will never understand the day in day out life of someone who’s parents have to leave before they wake or come home once they’re in bed.
The children whose family have no money to buy school equipment or books or the (extortionate) uniforms that they have to wear like prison overalls.
The families that can’t help their kids with their homework due to language barriers, or in the case of my parents, their own lack of education because they both left school in their early teens.
The children that grow up without a single book in their home, never having stepped foot in a museum, exhibit or ‘cultural’ event – the children that don’t even have computers or the internet to google simple things that might help them with anything mentioned above.
These children exist but aren’t seen because there is no shared experience between educator and student, but also, the children aren’t seeing themselves in their educators because they either don’t speak like them, don’t look like them or flat out throw shade at them.
And that shade is palpable at schools. It borderlines on hatred.
However, on a more personal level I had to deal with other things like hearing homophobic aggression, I constantly witnessed transphobic rhetoric and had teachers using mental illnesses as insults and adjectives all day.
One teacher thought it appropriate to make a game where all students they assumed were young women and all students they assumed were young men were threatened with having to kiss people of the same-gender if they didn’t answer questions correctly – which led to many people shouting out homophobic comments.
One teacher would name all of their SEN children by their visible or invisible disability. Often describing difficult kids as “bipolar” or “schizo”
Another would belittle and suggest young boys were gay if they saw them acting up with their friends.
I had to vehemently argue with two colleagues in the department office that them being taught about LGBTQIA+ community issues and vocabulary (on in-set days) was important because not every child in the school would turn out cishet like they were “but, why can’t we transcend labels and love each other as the human race?!” because, Gary, we’ve tried that kumbaya shit and it doesn’t work with angry white males.
I had three out of 11 of my colleagues (across two schools) stop talking to me, wouldn’t even say hi to me in the hallways, because I called them out on their shit. One of which tried to make life difficult for me after – trying to force my grades down, having secret meetings with my mentor and being non-responsive when trying to communicate.
It was a rollercoaster to say the least.
So, I left this for a day that wasn’t teacher appreciation. This one is a general shout out to anyone, especially my white peoples, to call out racism when you hear it. Don’t do that awkward white people stuff where we just grit our teeth and move the conversation on – if you hear it and don’t speak, you may as well have said it.
Correct people on LGBTQIA+ things if you can or get people to reflect on their problematic behaviours and explore it together – be it race, gender, class etcetera.
This keeps getting thrown around a lot but:
It’s 2018 and we got google – it ain’t cute to be ignorant.