At the beginning of August 2012, I left the University of Warwick. I had been living ten miles away in Leamington Spa, for the duration of my time at Warwick, but I moved into a flat in Cryfield village for a couple of weeks. I continued to work on my Masters dissertation, before heading back to North Norfolk, to complete it. The above photo was taken at Lakeside – close to Cryfield – on 1 August 2019, seven years later. This is my brief story of the intervening years (the past), before bringing it up to date (the present) and looking to the future
When I think about the time that has passed since I completed my MA in English Language Teaching, I reflect upon on the mixed experiences in my life and career. Whilst the degree certainly helped me gain work that I otherwise would not have obtained, and opened up my personal / professional learning network greatly, I also suffered from poor mental health and have left many jobs early, often after just one week. In particular, I suffered badly immediately after handing in my dissertation in early September 2012.
Faced with a sudden void, I went into a great downward spiral. It probably was not helped by the end of a long distance relationship around this time. I can’t remember exactly the sequence of events, but I remember ending up in the Priory Clinic in Chelmsford, Essex, later that month. I think I had ‘lost it’ at home and become impossible to live with. Anxiety and Panic attacks on a daily basis. I know I put my family through a lot of worry. The Hellesdon Crisis team, in Norwich, were called. Only now, on reflection, can I see what might have been going on. Instead of attending my graduation ceremony back at Warwick, in January 2013, I decided to accept a job at a language school in Cambridge. I was not well enough. I found both the institution and my accommodation, off Cherry Hinton Road, claustrophobic. At the start of my second week, instead of turning up for work, I found myself in hospital. I wrote about this in a post soon after. I mentioned that sometimes things become too much for me and I felt the need to run away, rather than sticking with things. In heavy snow, I was driven by my mother back to Norfolk, to the Crisis team in Norwich. The next month, following an incident back home, I was admitted to a psychiatric unit in King’s Lynn. I spent my 42nd birthday there. This was neither the life I wanted, nor ‘the answer to universe and everything else’. My future prospects looked bleak.
“the result of this is that I returned to the UK with the aim of seeking professional help with my recurring problem. If I am to teach again then I need to crack this. Three times in 2013 and on three further, previous occasions this condition, whether it gets a label or not, has prevented me from continuing with a newly acquired teaching position. It seems, strangely, to have gotten worse since I graduated from Warwick. There are deep, psychological reasons why this keeps happening. There are many factors at play. I am seriously questioning whether I should really be an EFL teacher or whether I just need to properly learn some techniques to get through the first two weeks of any new situation.”
In 2016, I counted the number of times that I had started a new job, or course, or attended an event and suffered from anxiety or had panic attacks and had to leave early. FLIGHT! I have previously mentioned these short-lived experiences in this post, when I first ‘came out’ about my poor mental health and how it had impacted on my career.
To this, I can now add short periods at my local authority during the past two years – including a ‘breakdown’ during one of Driving Theory lessons when an impromptu lesson observation completely threw me – and just before this summer’s pre-sessional at INTO UEA. After two very successful and fantastic summers at the University, a prolonged period of anxiety going into this summer would not relent. I struggled through induction week and eventually took the personal decision not to continue. I was due to meet my new classes the following day and considering that pre-sessionals need consistency and reliable teachers, something a former pre-sessional programme manager pointed out to me in Glasgow, 2017, I pulled out. It was the same person that also happened to be the tutor at NILE when I could not continue with an English for Academic Purposes course in March 2014, which caused me huge distress, not least the money I had spent on the course and homestay accommodation. I had already been offered EAP work at the University of Sheffield for that summer – and I, subsequently got a serious case of ‘cold feet’ about it and pulled out just before induction week. Déjà vu!
However, it is not always work itself that is the cause. Often anxiety comes from an underlying worry or factors away from the workplace. Relationships and financial worries, for example. I have had both of those over the past ten months.
At Warwick, as part of one module on my MA, ‘Teacher Education and Development’, I submitted extracts from this audio-visual recording, with four understanders, including Jo Gakonga. It reveals some of my personal and professional overlap and how I struggle in certain situations, with difficulties faced, and excel in others. This video tells you everything you need to know about my ‘problem’, which has being going on for years.
Before I left Norwich, I did one more IELTS invigilation and double-checked there was no pre-sessional work available at UEA. As one door closed for this summer, another one opened – as I was suddenly very motivated to get some work – and fortunate to spot a tweet from one of the tutors on the Presessional at Warwick. I asked whether there was any possibility of teaching on the 6-week course, where there are 46 classes and over 700 students in total. Before long, I had an interview and a confirmed offer. It was a fairly quick turnaround and potentially saved my summer. Finding a couple on the INTO UEA presessional willing to rent the flat, while I was away, was a bonus. They moved in as I spent my first night at Heronbank East – student accommodation close to the Lakeside at Warwick.
It was a real buzz to be back on campus after seven years away. This excitement, enthusiasm and reassurance of a familiar place potentially added to my wellbeing. Unfortunately, it did not last. So what went wrong this time?
I got overwhelmed. It happened very suddenly. My overactive ‘chimp’ brain kicked in. It is not always easy to explain why I implode. But it is about perception. About not being good enough. My mantra of the last two summers, ‘good enough is good enough’ was temporarily forgotten. A lot of it is private, external factors. But it is definitely about perceptions, not least the infamous ‘chimp’ – and the paradox written about by Steve Peters – which I’ve read half of. I often think it’s like the line in ‘I Don’t Like Mondays‘ about the ‘silicon switch’ that gets ‘switched to overload’… well, for me it is ‘overwhelm’, which I have only just started to accept can be used as a noun.
A period of putting my own wellbeing first, including daily activities, talking to friends, reading and a bit of Cognitive Behavioural Therapy – thanks to my recent employer, had all helped me to feel a lot brighter in July. However, despite plenty of opportunity for exercise and a lovely lakeside view, I panicked. Uncontrollable anxiety, which meant I couldn’t plan my first lessons, I did not know what I was doing and, subsequently, missed my first class.
During Induction on 3 August, it was confirmed that I would teach Text-based studies (mostly reading and writing) to a group of 15 students – all given an offer to study (Automated) Cars / Cybersecurity with Warwick Manufacturing Group. My co-teacher had experience of teaching these topics last summer and had been studying cybersecurity over the past year. Despite my technology knowledge, I suddenly felt inadequate. By the Friday of the first teaching week, I was given an ultimatum in a very gentle way. I knew that my reliability was being called into question. A guarantee was needed that I could teach without support on Monday. I couldn’t give that assurance, so I decided to leave.
Conclusion – The Future
So looking to the future, what have I learned from the latest experience of what has become my recurring nightmare? Well, I worried my family – again. I was not as mentally tough as I thought I was. My perception and the reality are still two different things. I am good enough, but sometimes I believe that I am not. In addition, ‘Pride comes before a fall’ – maybe I should not have been so vocal about my excitement about being back at Warwick and stating how ready I felt. Finally, I need an environment where is always support, colleagues or friends who can truly understand what is going on and can actually help rather than heap more pressure on me.
Nonetheless, things are looking a lot brighter. Within a week of returning to Norfolk, my mood has brightened once again. Hopefully, my immediate future will be one that is less ‘tense’. Geddit? I am now focusing on promoting and working on designing a new course, based at a language school in Norwich. I have proposed to teach a 4-week filmmaking class, which will draw on all my skills and experience! Had I been teaching over the summer, I would not have had the capacity to make a promo video or the time to prepare for this. This time it really should be different, because I am not fitting into an existing scheme of work, or the pressures of a presessional. I will be creating the syllabus and writing a lot of the material, integrating the resources by Kieran Donaghy. My next post will probably be about this. Wish me good fortune!