READY FOR INSPECTION?

For the first half of next week, it is inspection time at the school where I work. It has been six months in the making; lessons and accompanying resources are planned (for the most part), data has been analysed to death, middle management (like myself) have been ‘coached’ to understand how example questions could be asked, assemblies have been given to the entire student body to remind them of their role and responsibilities as school ambassadors, and there have been overnight appearances of new health and safety symbols, including new fire hydrants.

With the way that this week has gone, I thought that I would need to spend some or at least a portion of today doing some more bits. However, it has worked out that I am for the most part organised and there really isn’t much more I could do (without re-planning everything and that isn’t going to happen).

During the hustle of the past few months, and in particular the few short weeks since returning to work following the Christmas break, I haven’t paused for long to take a breath. But something happened yesterday afternoon that has stuck with me.

I was sat in my classroom checking through some of the finer details for some lesson materials when my immediate boss walked in, to check how I was feeling and if I was ready for the following week. I was, just about. He laughed and said that he was confident in my work and had no concerns. A relatively quick conversation ensued where he shared some of the details for the following week and I asked him how he was. Similar to me it transpired, a little anxious but he had also reached a point where he couldn’t do much more without going crazy. He left and I got back to my work, but something was different. A bubble of something, a feeling that I hadn’t experienced in some time had formed inside of me, I felt appreciated. And I took that away with me when I left for the day.

During the late 1940s, B. F. Skinner developed the work of behavioural psychologists arguing that existing models were too simplistic in explaining human behaviour. He developed what became known as operant conditioning and he believed that observable consequences can have an impact on behaviour. Simply put, some sort of positive reinforcement such as the example with my boss complimenting my work, provided me with a reward, an intrinsic one, but a reward nonetheless. The sense of appreciation that I felt motivated me and I left work with a smile on my face and I genuinely feel a little more positive about the upcoming inspection.

Skinner also believed negative reinforcement can also impact on behaviour and this works by the removal of a negative reinforcer. For example, I have a phobia of spiders, not so much the tiny money spiders, but anything remotely bigger than this. Even thinking about them now is causing me some mild anxiety… so rather than focus on this, I will get to my point! If I find myself in the presence of a spider then I do my darndest to either remove myself or more likely remove the offending spider… yep, I kill them if I have to. Now, diminishing spider populations aside as a result of my violent behaviour, the removal of the negative reinforcer (the spider) removes the unpleasant experience for me and therefore I feel better.

Finally, Skinner argued that human behaviour can be influenced by punishment. I imagine that we are all familiar with this, certainly in the context of education. If we do something bad, we may receive an admonishment from a teacher and perhaps in more ‘serious’ cases some other form of punishment, so that we are less likely to repeat the behaviour. Skinner concluded that it is possible to gradually change behaviour through a delicate balance of reward and punishment, as this amusing clip from The Big Bang Theory shows.

However, Skinner also conducted his research on non-human animals (rats and pigeons), including delivering electric shocks to encourage certain types of behaviour. Suffice to say, humans might respond a little differently under similar circumstances.

But I guess where I am going with this post is that that simple and relatively quick conversation with my superior made me feel valued. That the hard graft that I have been putting in along with my colleagues was worth it. I just wish that it didn’t take an inspection for the management to finally recognise some of this.

Advertisements

JUST ONE NEW YEAR’S RESOLUTION THIS YEAR

It’s December 31st, 2003 and I am in a wine bar in my hometown. Unfortunately, I am not there to drink or party, instead I am working. The bar provides a paycheck and therefore a vital lifeline to some much-needed funds during my holidays whilst studying at university.

It’s the second year that I have worked on New Years and here in actual fact. It’s a ticket only event so although it’s busy, the faces are the same, which adds a nice level of familiarity to the evening. Plus, I get paid double my usual hourly wage and the sneaky glasses of wine (paid for by some generous and drunk customers) help the evening run pleasantly.

The big boss is also here. He runs the wine bar and the restaurant next door and so he can usually be found barking orders at people there. I don’t particularly like him and I think that the feeling is mutual, though he is gruff and obstinate with everyone – who work for him that is.

He makes me nervous and when I am nervous I make mistakes. A case in point was on my first shift at the bar a little over a year earlier; where the manager of the wine bar had asked me to take some drinks around to the restaurant via a connecting tunnel between the two buildings. On my arrival to the restaurant I am greeted by the big boss of whom at this point I was yet to meet. He glares at me and rushes me to provide the drinks to the guests, it turns out that one of the waitresses is sick and so I am helping to cover when the restaurant was busy. It was heaving. I duck under the bar and turn to grab the tray. Except I didn’t. In my haste I had put the tray on the edge of the bar and the tray along with its contents come crashing and spilling to the floor. The noise reverberates around the restaurant and I swear the music momentarily stops. It leaves the big boss and I staring at one another. Me, feeling like an absolute idiot and wanting to crawl away. Him, wondering who idiot was who hired me. He shouts at me in one of those ways where he doesn’t actually raise his voice, it’s more body language and facial expression and I practically run back through the tunnel to the bar to make another tray load of drinks.

If it wasn’t for that incident, in my time since I have also locked myself out of the cash register so that he had to help me out, failed miserably at a cocktail training class (which he organised and was present for also), shattered more glasses and just generally messed up when he’s been around. I really didn’t make a good waitress.

And now back to New Year’s Eve in 2003. Despite the big boss’s presence; things are going ok: he hasn’t glared at me or even spoken to me for that matter, as much like our first encounter, the place is heaving. However, my optimism is short-lived when we have our eventual but inevitable clash. I am serving a customer when I manage to lock myself out of the cash register again. This isn’t an issue that happens solely to me, but in my rush (seems to be a pattern here) I fail to input my login code twice and it freezes. This creates a hold-up and he charges over and shouts at me. From what I can recall he says something like:

“I thought it’d be you, it’s always you.”

It was my turn to freeze as he continues to berate my crap skills as a waitress in front of customers. I say nothing and when he finishes fixing the register he marches off. As I hold back tears and continue to serve customers, a dark bitterness overcomes me, I make a resolution that I would never return to work at the bar after I head back to university.

However, much like many of my other New Year resolutions throughout the years, it didn’t stick and I was back at that wine bar at Easter doing my best to avoid the big boss again and because I needed the money.

Throughout my 20s, I usually made grand New Year’s resolutions. Epic you might say, including things like buy a new car, lose weight, buy a house, go travelling, quit my soul-sucking job (whatever it was), just for starters. Anything that would take me away from where I was and who I was at the time. And back in 2003, I didn’t know who the hell I was and it couldn’t have gotten more epic than sticking two fingers up at my boss, metaphorically speaking rather than literally.

Losing weight, getting a ring on it or going travelling are all worthwhile if they are truly what you want, but in my case I was making grand resolutions to help me escape myself.

I hate to sound like a cliche, but both time and age have made me realise two things; making grand resolutions are a bad idea and if you are going to make any then you have to keep working on them. So this year, I just have one resolution and I see it more as a work-in-progress for hopefully years to come: to stop being so hard on myself.

This is in regards to the things that I want to achieve and to acknowledge the things that I do manage. If I manage to finally finish the book that I’ve been working on for the past two years? Amazing! But I am going to try and not let the fear of not achieving this ruin me. If I manage to make a move finally out of teaching into something new? Yippee! But I acknowledge that this is a road that I have been on for some time now and like many paths there are quite a few turns on the way.

LIFTING THE FOG

I have found it difficult to write over the past few months.

Although I don’t want to link it entirely to my mental health, I feel as though it has been a significant contributing factor in the steady reduction in the quantity and quality of my writing. Any writing for that matter.

These are some of the words I wrote in my diary only two weeks ago:

It’s Sunday and I have woken up early and I feel that familiar heavy feeling inside. A multitude of emotions are consuming me that should be oh so recognisable that I shouldn’t question their presence as I have grown so used to them over the years, but that doesn’t help. I am sluggish, teary, and angry at myself. I thought that by now, I would have some gotten my shit together and have some fucking strategies in place: is this the best I’ve got? To spend the day alone? Again?

That was it before I spent the rest of the day driving myself insane (and experiencing a mild anxiety attack in the process) as a result of intense self-loathing.

During this time, work had been all-consuming to a degree that I couldn’t manage in a healthy way and therefore I felt myself slip into some familiar and unhealthy routines in my personal and professional life: excessive rumination, shutting myself away from others, skipping the gym, eating one too many takeaways, and just generally being the cause of my own frustration. My gremlins and the cloak of fog that they pull down over me took hold of my shoulder a little over a month ago, though I know they’ve been lingering in the background for longer than this, and despite my best efforts, they are real fuckers at letting go. But also, I was also feeling incredibly lonely. The ‘work’ I am working on and hoping to move on from next year, but the loneliness is a whole different animal. I knew that at the time there were people I could turn to when I go through this, but when I have decent to some of the lower depths of my mind, I truly can’t see this.

So I really was ready desperate for a break.

Some time out has done something remarkable in a short space of time (despite gaining a cold almost as soon as landing in the UK), I already feel re-energised. Quality sleep, good food, fresh air, exercise and seeing family and friends are all helping with lifting the fog.

In contrast, yesterday I spent practically the entire day writing when I wasn’t with family. It was heaven.

MAKING A CAREER SIDE SHIFT

I have been relatively quiet on the career change front on my blog for awhile now as I didn’t want to somehow jinx (damn, those gremlins again casting doubt on my actions) what I have been working on.

So what have I been up to?

An actual career shift…well, the first tentative steps.

Yep, I’ve said it and no whispering here! I have even said it out loud, admittedly to myself as evidence of things ‘happening.’ I have been working on something concrete, totally tangible and I have actually received a little money for some of my efforts.

So let’s go back a bit.

Around four months ago, I got in touch with a company that make resources for teachers and students for various academic subjects. My original intention for reaching out was simple; I wanted to find out whether if they would accept some of my academic blog posts to publish on their website. I certainly didn’t expect any remuneration for it, it was more about seeking recognition in a different sense – it was about getting my name out there with some of my work. I guess part of me would have hoped that this would progress to something more, but writing for the love of writing was/is the priority. 

After a few emails going back and forth between myself and the company, a Skype meeting was arranged and to my surprise, I found out that they wanted more; not just blog posts but they wanted physical teaching and learning resources produced that then would be available for purchase.

In the few months since, I have written a number of blog posts, produced some resources and began preparing some training materials that will be delivered in 2017. Baby steps, but they are in a different direction.

There is still part of me that is still cautious about saying too much right now, even to loved ones and even to myself about the work involved, as those gremlins have a habit of tipping huge buckets of water over my parade. But suffice to say, I feel excited and also valued in my contributions so far and I am looking forward (despite some of my gremlins saying things to the contrary) to what 2017 will bring.

AND WHERE HAVE YOU BEEN?

It’s been a good few weeks (cough… months…) since I last posted but I have good reason or at least that’s what I am telling myself.

Life kinda got busy.

The new academic year began in earnest and in what seems like a blink of an eye I am already a whole two months and a bit in. And whilst I have welcomed new students, greeted those returning, and got stuck into my planning, I have been reminded of some of the lessons I learnt as I worked through the course with Careershifters. Primarily, I have been wondering where do I want to be, as I have felt myself sink pretty quickly into a familiar malaise with my job once more.

I expected this. But it doesn’t mean that the discontent gets any easier to experience. 

The malaise is nothing new, the chain of thoughts attached are relatively similar to those that I have experienced for some years now but once again I am finding myself struck by some familiar thoughts bubbling to the surface associated with frustration by what part of me sees as a lack of tangible progress.

But if was only one thing that the careers course taught me and it’s that I have made progress. And a few events recently at work as well as the general malaise have led me to make a pretty bold decision. I am finally ready to try something new.

TIME FOR CHANGE

In my current teaching position I am required to provide one years notice to my employers of my future intentions. One. Whole. Freaking. Year.

I can certainly see it from their side, they want to advertise early, interview candidates, essentially find the right people for the job. Be organised and all that.

But a lot can happen in a year! And unless you are sure of wanting to stay (in which case it’s a case of signing on the dotted line and handing in that intentions letter immediately) then it leaves you in a conundrum. For me, it was a case of do I let them know that I have intentions of leaving hoping that something does come up, or do I hedge my bets, see what jobs arise and then hand in my notice if something significant comes up? And potentially have to stay a further year before I can hand in my notice? 

Well, I opted for the former. And I have discovered that my job has already been advertised! A cynical part of me screams, ‘You’re dispensable! I thought you knew that already?!’

So that’s me, dispensable but oh so very happy with the decision. Freaking nervous to the very core. But grinning from ear to ear.

BURNOUT OR DEPRESSION?

Melancholy, the darkness, the blue funk… just a small selection of the ways to describe depression but for me, the most appropriate is how Winston Churchill related depression to that of a black dog. Although he wasn’t the first person to describe the mental illness in this way, it is certainly something which I can relate to. Much like a dog, depression can be brought to heel and controlled. Other times you feel like it’s running rings around you.

I know when the dog has one up on me when I feel completely and utterly drained, almost devoid of energy. I feel like I am walking around in mud, and the harder I try to move the faster it holds. The most challenging aspect to grasp is that I genuinely don’t know how to feel, or how I should feel during these times – as I struggle to feel much.

Roughly five years ago, I went to see a doctor during one of my darker times. I had felt down before, sad even but I assumed that like all of our emotions they ebb and flow depending on our current situation, our experiences with those around us and our hormones. However, at this point in my life something felt different. The mud was thicker, the rings being run around me were created faster, and I simply kept falling over.

So I made the call and booked myself in.

My experience however wasn’t wholly positive; upon describing the reason for my visit the doctor asked me some standard questions about my recent medical history and emotional state and then recommended… doing more exercise.

Yes, exercise certainly can help. I know.

I enjoy exercising and it was something that I did quite a fair bit of at the time. Working in the field of psychology, I was already familiar with the symptoms of depression, which include prolonged periods (at least more than two weeks) of low mood, tearful, lacking motivation, change in appetite, lack of energy and sleeplessness (or conversely, sleeping a lot more). And I was also aware of the things that could help alleviate these symptoms such as exercise, spending time with loved ones, getting outside, taking up a hobby and so on.

I left the doctor’s practice feeling misunderstood and a little angry. Had I not explained myself sufficiently? Perhaps my symptoms weren’t ‘severe’ enough to be anything significant? Simply, I doubted that there was a problem in the first place and so I tried to put it to the back of my mind and tried to get on with my life.

At the time I was coming out of an emotionally challenging relationship and with few other choices I had moved back into my parent’s house (in my late-20’s, not fun). Initially, it provided familiar comforts but at this point, I had turned inward and aside from going to work and seeing friends, I shut myself away and therefore I shut my parents out. My mother had always been fond of my ex (I truly believe that she thought we’d get married, live ‘happily ever after’ that sort of thing) and she couldn’t understand what had happened. She wanted to know more, demanded even at various stages. I knew her questions were only out of concern, but I couldn’t even muster the energy to retrace the steps in my mind to address my unhappiness.

At its worst, I broke down at work. Initially behind the closed door of a toilet cubicle and then it became larger and I was holding back tears whilst in the office. I knew at this point I needed to do something more. Doing more exercise wasn’t going to cut it.

I revisited the doctor (the same one in fact due to no-one else being available) and this time, he recommended speaking to a therapist. He provided me with a few numbers, but it transpired that all but one no longer practised in the area. The remaining one had a full client list for the foreseeable future. It could have been easy to retreat further at this point. However, something pushed me on and a Google search provided me with some contact details for another private practice in the city and I managed to get an introductory appointment for the following week.

In all, I attended only a handful of sessions with the therapist. Unfortunately, they ended due to the therapist moving to another area of the city. At the time I couldn’t afford the additional transport costs on a regular basis. Looking back, I wish I had made more of an effort to continue to see her. She did more for me in those few months than she probably ever realised.

So why is now familiar to my experiences five years ago?

With the benefit of hindsight, I have been able to pinpoint one of the main reasons for my current state and that it relates to a degree of burnout regarding work. I feel utterly uninspired by my job for a variety of reasons and have done for some time, although it was in a recent training session with colleagues (which coincidently focused on motivation and importantly understanding how to stay motivated) that was my wake-up call. So although the time and situations were very different, I was experiencing similar symptoms as to before.

However, unlike five years ago where I kept a large part of myself hidden away, this time I reached out and spoke to a couple of close friends to let them know what was going on. Their support was invaluable as has help from a local therapist whom I connected with through Facebook.

Like depression, burnout has some similar characteristics such as loss of appetite, anxiety, lacking energy, forgetfulness and so on. Researchers from the US and Switzerland led a piece of research to address the link between symptoms of depression and traits of burnout through a study on teachers. In short, the researchers found a pattern between the two, with women more likely than men to experience both*.

This doesn’t come as much as a surprise. Whether you are burnt out by your job, family commitments or money worries, for instance, the result is the same – you are not able to ‘function’ at a level you were at an earlier period. Therefore, some things have to give.

One of my first steps to regaining a better sense of myself was to get back into writing (i.e., spend more time doing it!) Writing is perhaps one thing that provides the proverbial light at the end of the tunnel, where I am able to express and explore aspects of myself and my environment. Furthermore, the support that I have received since speaking out to close friends and a therapist have reminded me that I am not alone. Although both not panaceas in themselves, I am becoming more aware of what I ‘experience’ and so I can address the symptoms in a healthier way.

I am not in no way out of the woods yet, but I am now in the position of considering how to address my burnout and other symptoms. And I have also slowly accepted that the black dog may follow me around for the rest of my life. It’s how I deal with it that makes the difference.

* A greater proportion of women were surveyed 75%.

References