Teaching and Mental Health: Part II

Sometimes life can seem like an uphill battle

Sometimes life can seem like an uphill battle

This post is dedicated to friends who suffer from anxiety disorder, OCD, mania, depression, and any number of other mental health issues. You have been inspirational examples of how one manages the unmanageable, oftentimes in inhospitable environments.

The end of term brings both relief and frustration along with it: relief that you made it through all that teaching, and frustration at the large pile of marking and sometimes less-than-stellar essays and final exams. If you add cold and flu season to the mix, it can be one hell of a wild ride. This is especially true in my case, since I have the world’s worst immune system and always end up bed-ridden by the holidays. Overall, my mental health is pretty good, but I’m not immune to depression either, and ‘tis the season for that sort of thing.

December is also the time of year when those on the job market are finding out via the academic wiki that their hopes and dreams of finally landing a tenure-track job have been quashed once again. And when your value as an intellectual fails to be recognized and rewarded in the form of employment, time and time again, it can be incredibly hard to muster the confidence and authority to finish up fall teaching commitments and start thinking about winter term.  I am no longer on the tenure-track market, and I am targeting my job-search efforts elsewhere, but it is hard to ignore the anxiety, depression and desperation I see around me right now.

So here are a few things to keep in mind when it comes to finishing up those classes:

1. Don’t fight how you feel. Rather, work on how you respond to those feelings.
When it comes to mental health issues, and depression in particular, I could pull the “you shouldn’t let yourself think like that” thing – but I’m not going to. You know why? Because we’re all human and that means that we can know something to be true in an intellectual/abstract way, and yet be totally incapable of acting on that knowledge. In other words, it’s impossible to say something like “it’s stupid that I’m worrying/anxious/depressed, and I need to snap out of it,” and then magically change your mood.  All you can do is acknowledge that you feel a particular way and then try to manage how you respond that feeling. So yeah, be however you need to be. But then try to move forward from there in a productive way. This path will be different for everyone – the key is finding what works for you and then doing it, whether or not you want to in that particular moment.

Personally, when I get stressed or start to overthink something, I head for the gym and hit things. I have anger-management issues, I know, but Kickboxing/Muay Thai has been the best thing that ever happened to me. I also try to remember that feelings of self-doubt about my abilities as a pedagogue are seasonal. That is to say, there are regular ups and downs in how I feel about my work as a teacher that follow the same pattern every semester. I start out hopeful, then have that “oh God, oh God, am I doing it all wrong” moment, and then settle into a more level plain. Then, there’s usually another crisis moment at the end of term after which, at some point, I get an email or student review that says the class changed somebody’s life, and everything seems right in the universe again. If I can remind myself that things will pass, it’s easier to cope.

2. Set goals, but also limits.
We all go into the classroom wanting to do a bang-up job. And that’s a good thing. But it’s important to set boundaries when it comes to our performance as teachers as well. First of all, if you turn out not to be the best teacher that ever roamed the earth, that’s ok. Since most intellectuals are also perfectionists, we naturally set the bar very high. But I think, at least in this case, it’s better to set the bar at a more reasonable level. Instead of being the “best” teacher, aim to be a “good” teacher, and think about how you can meet that goal. Set achievable, concrete measures of success and focus on the intellectual development of your students, not whether or not they “like” you. If you make a genuine effort to teach them, liking you will follow naturally anyway.

For the sake of your sanity, you will also need to set limits regarding your availability and output. As much as you may want to be there for your students whenever they need you – and I mess this up all the time too, don’t worry – you need space for yourself as well. Teaching is f@&!ing exhausting, and you need time to recharge and/or get your research work done too. It is OK to not always be in your office, and it is OK to not check your email for several hours at a time. This principle also applies to the amount of commentary you can put on student assignments. There is absolutely no way you can edit each paper as extensively as you would like, but you can decide to write something like 2-3 substantial comments, or whatever seems right to you. Once you have made this decision, do not feel bad about sticking to it. Reasonable boundaries are just that, reasonable.

And finally, you need to set limits regarding your involvement in students’ struggles with their own crises and mental health issues. You are not a therapist – you do not have the skills to help, even if you had the time. As I said in my last post, one should always listen. But whatever you do, don’t over-empathize and take the student’s burdens upon yourself.  You did not create the conditions that sent the student into crisis and so you cannot be the one to set things right. Provide the support that makes sense – accommodations with course work, etc…  – but do not try to become either a parent or a best friend. Your students’ struggle is as personal as your own, and they need the time and the space to walk that path alone.

3. What you do has value, even if no one seems to recognize that sometimes.
Thanks to the mainstream media, I now know that I am a lazy, good-for-nothing, leech on society who gets 4 months off every year and doesn’t pay enough attention to my students. This is both infuriating and exhausting, and I will never get used to people who think that teaching is easy, unskilled work. So as an aside, I challenge anyone who writes this type of garbage to get up and give a coherent talk about something in an engaging way to upwards of 100 people and not pass out. Public speaking does not come easily to most people, so put your money where your mouth is and then we’ll talk.

Anyway, my point is, it’s very easy to let this sort of thing get to you. But the truth is, what we do in the classroom has value. Perhaps we need to be better about articulating how and why this is true to the general public, but it is true nonetheless. If you want to know the details of why I think the humanities matter, you can find them here. For now, I will restrict myself to pointing out that assisting in the intellectual development of future generations seems like something worth doing. Period. And if you can remember that what you do has value, the ups and downs of the job market and the stress of the classroom will weigh less heavily. As my aunt used to say: “Don’t let the bastards get you down.”

This will be my last post of 2013, after which I’m going to take a short break for the holidays (and catching up with my research). PhDs and Pedagogy will, however, be back to its regular schedule as of January. There will also be some really great guest posts coming, so keep an eye out for those too! See you on the flip side.


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