“It’s probably an infection.” A week later, and 30 minutes after an ultrasound that the doctor had sent me for as a precaution, the doctor rang me to come in to see him. It was 7:30 pm on a Saturday, the last day of the weekend in the Middle East. I knew something was wrong.
The ultrasound had shown a tumour; I had testicular cancer. Fortunately, after a week of blood tests and various scans, it was confirmed that the cancer had not spread and was Stage 1. A small operation and two rounds of adjuvant chemotherapy, and that was cancer and me done. Thankfully, I have been in remission since July 2019.
While I had beaten cancer, no one can ever really explain its impact on you, both mentally and physically, after you think it is finished.
“I came back fighting in September 2019, albeit with no hair.”
Since the start of my career, I have been incredibly passionate about being an educator and have always committed myself wholeheartedly to the students, school, and broader community that I worked within. This is nothing special in teaching, as we tend to be in the profession due to intrinsic motivation. In the early days, it was about crafting my profession at a classroom level; then, it was about widening that circle of influence as a department head and finally at a whole school level as a vice principal.
After I missed the third term of 2019-2020, and after what I thought was a restful summer holiday, I came back fighting in September 2019, albeit with no hair. Doing what I had always known, I jumped straight into “normal” life, and my role as vice principal of teaching and learning at Doha College, one of the world’s leading 3-18 British International Schools.
If I am honest, I turned down the offer from my principal to return on a phased basis, as I felt guilty for having missed so much school the previous year, and I didn’t want to “lose face” or be seen as “weak” by not returning like the old Neil. The truth is, after a severe illness, the old you does not exist anymore.
The Christmas break approached, and I was exhausted. All teachers are tired at Christmas. It’s the end of a mammoth term, and you want to watch films, eat mince pies, and crash out. However, in all my previous 14 Christmas holidays, I had never felt so wiped out. All my joints ached, I felt sick all the time, I wasn’t eating correctly, and I had no energy.
“All my joints ached, I felt sick all the time, I wasn’t eating correctly, and I had no energy.”
Apart from the physical issues, some of which were heightened by onset fatigue from the chemotherapy, there were also the mental aspects. Worryingly, I felt that whatever I did within my role was not enough; I felt empty inside and devoid of any motivation for the job and career I once loved so much. I didn’t want to return in January; I didn’t want to go to meetings; I didn’t care anymore; and I had a constant high level of anxiety – pulling out of several staff presentations at the last moment.
Between the mental and physical exhaustion, I was wiped out. I was no good to anyone. If I’m honest, I was constantly on the verge of crying. Looking back on pictures of me during this time, I looked pale, withdrawn and not at all well.
“I felt that whatever I did was not enough; I felt empty inside and devoid of any motivation.”
The critical point for me was identifying that I was suffering burnout instead of being stressed. Looking back, there were several signals that my body was giving me signs that I was burning out before I broke down in a meeting with my principal.
Burnout signs felt like:
- Inexplicable tiredness
- Constant aches and pains
- Twitching in my eyes
- Trouble sleeping
- Constant dread about opening emails, messages or interacting with colleagues
Burnout signs looked like:
- Little patience
- Over socialising / Withdrawing
- Undereating / Overeating
- Breakouts and skin complaints
Burnout signs sounded like:
- “Everyone thinks I’m useless.”
- “I’m too [insert every innate personality trait I have].”
- “I’m going to be fired.”
- “I don’t belong here.”
- “Taking a break looks lazy.”
A key indicator of whether you feel stressed or have burnout is to identify whether you can imagine the endpoint and, once you get things under control, you know you will feel better. Within our profession, this often ties in with you getting to the end of a half-term, knowing that you will have a one or two-week holiday to relax and, ultimately, get on top of things before starting the new term fresh.
“A key indicator of whether you feel stressed or burnt out is to identify whether you can imagine the endpoint.”
Teaching is an incredibly rewarding job. However, our intrinsic values of wanting to help others, which make us so good at our jobs, can also be our biggest enemy. While schools are responsible for providing the structures to ensure that staff wellbeing is more than just a token gesture, individuals also need to be self-aware of their situation.
Everyone’s position will be slightly different regarding what is causing them to feel the way they do. Still, it is essential to identify the issues and then approach these sensibly and logically. My number one piece of advice is to TALK. Seek the support of others to help you, a friend, or a colleague, for example. The very best schools will also be supportive if you approach your line manager or a senior staff member.
“Be kind to yourself.”
Sadly, having taken a logical look at my situation and spoken to my incredibly supportive head of school and principal, I still had feelings of never being enough, not wanting to be present and lacking motivation. This led me to identify that I was suffering burnout.
In July 2020, after nine wonderful years in Doha, we returned to Pembrokeshire in Wales without a job. I needed to stop. It was a gamble, but I am delighted I made it, mostly because I am in a significantly better place mentally and physically.
Be kind to yourself.
This article will be published in the next edition of Wellbeing in International Schools Magazine, out in December.