After more than a decade as a primary school teacher, you get used to tears. They are part and parcel of the ups and downs of growing up and of the hustle and bustle of classroom life. You see a lot of eager faces and willing smiles. Many run through the door bursting with excitement and, every day, you answer a million questions from a sea of raised hands. But if you look a little longer and perhaps a little harder, you start to notice that some tears are different, and some smiles more fleeting. Some hover outside a little more cautiously and spend a little longer looking back over their shoulder as they’re dropped off. Some hands never go up and some questions remain forever unasked. Or at least, over time, that’s what I started to notice… It didn’t seem to be a one-off and, if anything, it was happening more often. Of course, there were always children who had additional support, whether in school with colleagues or with other external professionals, but that took time, was often reserved for those with the highest of needs and didn’t always seem to translate very well back to the classroom. What about the others? Those whose anxiety was enough to make school hard and to affect work and friendship but who perhaps weren’t getting any extra help? I knew there was probably more I could and should be doing to help them, but what? How?
“With time, and as a result of working with a couple of children and their families in particular (without whom I don’t think I’d be doing my DPhil now!), my interest in supporting children’s mental health (especially anxiety) grew to a point where I no longer wanted to rely on instinct alone.”
I took a year out of teaching to do an MA in Education, where my final dissertation looked at how school-based counselling interventions could help children with anxiety in primary schools. Returning to the classroom after that year, I became more intentional in thinking about how I could change little things in my teaching to help those who perhaps found it harder to ‘shake off’ the worries that their peers seemed to take in their stride. I found myself talking more about it to colleagues and, when the Head asked for someone to take on the role of School Mental Health Lead, I jumped at the chance. Working with parents, other colleagues, and outside agencies to support children was at once a privilege and a wakeup call. The issue was far bigger than even I had imagined but even with more direct routes and renewed focus on mental health issues, support wasn’t immediate. Surely there was something else that we could do, day to day, that would make a difference to these anxious children? After all, as primary teachers, we spend a lot of time with them and get to know them better than many others.
And so it is that I find myself doing a DPhil trying to find out! Compared to many other postgrad students, I’m a little late to the party… Working now in Psychiatry and Psychology, I’ve also entered a field in which I have no prior academic grounding… I can’t pretend that these weren’t concerns, nor that they no longer surface every so often. But, as I look to research and develop tools that help teachers manage their classrooms in ways that best support children with anxiety, I keep reminding myself that my teaching experience and my knowledge of the joys and challenges of classroom life perhaps gives me a level of understanding I wouldn’t otherwise have.