“It’s Okay to Not Be Okay” – Is it, though?

(Content warning: Depression, anxiety, self-harm, general mental health.)

I read a really interesting article the other day about toxic positivity and how it permeates school culture. In particular, the article was discussing educator mental health and how we can’t, really, be open about what we are going through, no matter how much we hear from school boards on Bell’s spectacularly successful (and incredibly frustrating) “Let’s Talk” campaign.

I am someone who has lived with depression and anxiety for most of my life. It’s only recently that I’ve felt like I can speak openly about it with my colleagues, and that mainly has to do with more of them opening up about their own experiences first. I’ve been fortunate to work with some amazing people who really make me feel supported and safe.

Still, even in this supportive school, this quote from the article stands out to me:

“So let’s instead talk about the explicit and implied professional expectation of classroom teachers: a collectively rock-solid, unblemished, psychological “mask” of sanity and stability.”

I have felt this. I imagine we all have, at one point or another. We’re expected to set aside our personal lives when we enter the building and put on a “brave face” for our students. We’ve taught through tragedy, loss, anger, pain, fear. I have educator friends who have taught through a miscarriage, the loss of friends and family, immense personal trauma.  

It feels like there’s no room for us to have the full range of human emotion in the classroom for fear of “taking away” from our students’ experiences. Damaging our reputation or the reputation of public education. Damaging “public trust” in our field.

And yet, it’s precisely those human emotions that help us build connections to our students. While I don’t share the full depth of my experiences with my students, I do share bits and pieces – enough that they don’t feel alone with their feelings.

I have a long history of self-harm, one that started when I was fairly young and continued for many, many years. I wear the evidence most prominently on my arms, but there are other scars that are more hidden. 

When I first started teaching, I chose to wear long sleeves to “hide” my scars. There had been some people in teacher’s college who had put it in my head that I would never be hired if I had obvious signs of self-harm, no matter how old they were or how stable I was now. A few years in, I gave up the charade and just started wearing whatever I wanted. 

It was scary, at first, to open myself up in this way. By and large, most of my colleagues and students don’t notice the scars at all. I’m sure there are people that I’ve worked with for ten years who haven’t ever seen them even though I almost never wear long sleeves now.

What’s most telling, though, is that most of the people who have noticed them have assumed that they were from some kind of accident. It would never cross their mind that I have a history of self-harm. They are universally surprised when they hear me talk about my experience with depression because – wait for it – I “seem so put-together.”

I’m not, though. I’m not put-together. While I feel like I have a very good handle on my mental health now and manage it very well from day to day, it is a conscious thing to counteract my brain chemistry and instincts. There is not one day that passes where I don’t think about my anxiety and depression.

I seem “put-together” because I work incredibly hard to make people think that. I do it because that’s the culture of schools: stay strong, stay positive, smile, be brave. You’re made to feel that being open about your struggles would somehow influence your students, that you would project your experiences onto them.

That isn’t what really happens, of course. There was a year where I had a group of older students who were very observant and compassionate. One of them asked about my scars one day, and we had already spent a lot of time talking about mental health that year as a class, so I told them a little bit about my history.

It was terrifying to tell them anything. I worried about backlash. I worried about them treating me differently. My students, of course, didn’t do anything like that. Their parents didn’t call my principal and demand my resignation. Nothing happened except that my students knew something about me as a human being who has been through some very human experiences.

Several months later, a student came to me to talk. They were worried about their friend, who was saying and doing some worrying things. The student felt that they could approach me, they said, because of what I had shared in class. They knew that I would understand. A few months after that, another student came to me. This time it was about them – just wanting to talk to someone who understood what it was like to feel these things.

Because I wasn’t wearing my mask, my students knew that I was safe to talk to. I saw them. That was huge.

Like so many of these blog posts I make, I don’t really know where I meant for this to go. If I had infinite time, I could refine this and make it some kind of cohesive whole, but here I am writing my blog post at the eleventh hour (… literally, it’s 11pm and I have to get this done by midnight!).

I guess I just want us to think about the message we are sending our students, consciously or otherwise, when we are forced or encouraged to “put on a brave face” for our students.

By putting on that mask, are we doing a great disservice to our students, instead? We think we’re being “strong” for them, that it makes us do our job better, but I fear that many people haven’t stopped to consider the message this sends to our students.

At the height of my depression and self-harm, I felt isolated. Broken. Wrong. I felt like I couldn’t talk to anyone because no one would understand. I didn’t know how I would explain it to anyone without sounding “crazy,” and I worried that I would be seen as a failure if anyone found out. I couldn’t let down my family, my teachers, what few friends I had.

Because everyone always seemed so put-together, I felt like I had to be an outlier. I had to be an anomaly. And that meant telling anyone was not an option.

This same thing happens with adults. It’s so hard to sit in a room and feel like you’re the only one who isn’t okay. But you’re never alone, and we owe it to ourselves and to each other to stop pretending that we’re all fine all the time.

It’s okay to not be okay. We’ve heard it a thousand times in the past year. But are we going to see meaningful change within our profession?

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Updated: January 31, 2021 — 11:22 pm

The Author

Shawna Rothgeb-Bird

Grade 4/5 Middle French Immersion teacher from Ottawa. Passionate about teaching (naturally!), board games, video games, music, and TTRPGs. Former member of the ETFO New Members provincial standing committee. Current member of the OCETFO Collective Bargaining Committee, among approximately one thousand other things that I am always doing. No, I do not actually have spare time, I am just perpetually putting off things that I *should* be doing. @rollforlearning on Twitter.

2 Comments

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  1. Jennifer Titley says:

    Excellent article, Shawna.
    Thank you for articulating.
    I feel this strongly myself…
    Letting others in on our own struggles.. sharing the journey.
    Thinking you are alone is definitely the worst lie we tell ourselves.
    I have always told my students.. when you are feeling down and think you are alone.. I want yo to know I have too and it was a lie.. there are many other people that have experienced what you are going through… you may not hear them say it until you are a bit older but let me tell you.. you are not alone.

  2. Curlyn Britton says:

    Wow! This resonates with my current experience oh so much. Thank you for sharing. I am about to embark on my second LTO and it’s scary because the first one ended with heartbreak! Although, we can only move forward and continue learning.

    All the best

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