Technologically and linguistically adventurous EFL teacher, trainer, writer and manager

Posts tagged ‘mental health’

The costs of ongoing health problems

A few weeks ago, a friend who was staying with me saw me after I’d come back from the pharmacy with a stock of tablets for my colitis. I pulled around 15 boxes and packets out of my bag, and she asked me how much I’d spent on them. Looking at the receipt, I realised that Polish pharmacies helpfully tell me not just how much I spent, but the full price of the tablets. For 75 Polish zloty, I got around 1200 PLN worth of medicine – full price would be about 1/2 of a first year teacher’s monthly salary at our school.The year after I was diagnosed with the colitis, I made the mistake of working out how much money I’d spent on my health that year, and realised it was upwards of £1000. Is it any wonder I don’t have any long-term savings?! Right now, I’m on steroids for a recent flare-up, but I shouldn’t really be – I’ve had too many courses in too short a time, but being away this summer means I can’t start the alternative treatment yet. That alternative is a one-year course of medicine that would cost around $5400 in total if I had to pay for it in full (at least, that’s the figure I found) and there’s no guarantee I’ll be able to take it, or that it’ll work. I’m incredibly lucky to live in a country with a good national health service which subsidises my medicine, and to be able to afford all of these drugs. I’ll be on them for life, unless somebody magically comes up with a cure for ulcerative colitis at some point.

I’ve also written previously about the problems I have with my leg following an accident in 2006. Since September last year, I’ve been seeing a private physio pretty much every week. Over the course of a year, that works out at around a full month’s salary for me. Again, I’m lucky to be able to factor in a cost like that into my life. It’s a cost that won’t be going away any time soon, but slowly, very slowly, I’m seeing the benefits.

A third long-term health problem I have is connected to my sinuses. For as long as I can remember I’ve had problems breathing through my nose, especially the right side. I’ve been variously diagnosed with cough asthma and nasal sinusitis, had tablets, nasal sprays, inhalers…I’ve lost track! And all of them cost me at least a little money. Now that I’m more settled in Poland, I’ve been following up on this over the last academic year, and have now had allergy tests (dust, grass and wheat – nothing that would explain it), an X-ray, a CAT scan, and an endoscopy. The upshot is that one of my sinuses on the left is very small, and the right is overworked and inflamed (I think!). I can have a simple operation called ‘FESS’ which should hopefully sort it out. That’ll have to be completely private though. As the doctor said: ‘If anyone asked if you’re sick, I’d say no. But it’s clearly causing you discomfort and we can try to treat it.’ So that’s 6000PLN (around £1200) I need to save to get that sorted…theoretically. Maybe this problem will go away one day.

It’s not just the money though. None of these low-level health problems stop me from being able to get on with my life, but they do eat into my time. Here are some examples:

  • 30-45 minutes every morning doing physio for my leg and hand (too much computer use!), plus 2 hours every Wednesday when I’m in Bydgoszcz to get to and from the physio and have my appointment
  • Working out food so that I can eat 6 times a day – thankfully not as carefully as when I was on my strictest diet, but it still takes time and mental effort, especially if I want to not be lazy and just buy stuff, but actually eat some form of balanced diet.
  • An average of one visit to a medical professional every couple of weeks, dealing with one or another of these problems (not counting physio). That’s up to an hour for the visit plus the waiting, plus an hour or so to get there and back.
  • Time to get to the pharmacy, pick up the tablets, and (often!) go back a second time when they haven’t got what I need in stock. That’s a good 30 minutes per trip, sometimes more if there’s a queue.
  • Planning time to organise said visits to the doctors/pharmacy and/or to work out what I’m supposed to do next in my quest to improve my health at least a bit. Thankfully I have some amazing colleagues and friends who help me out with those bits.
  • I don’t know how much time each day being frustrated because I can’t breathe properly…

So I reckon that comes to about 12-15 hours a week on average, or at least one day a week! That’s 52 days in a year, or about 1.5 months, give or take.

Mostly I don’t think about all of this too much, because if I obsessed about it, it’d just be depressing. But sometimes it does get me down, especially when I’m already tired, or ill, or stressed, or all three. It’s not the end of the world at all though: I’m organised, I have coping strategies, and I’ve learnt more and more about what I need to do to keep going. They are all a normal part of my life. I distract myself by filling my time with other things. And I focus on the positives as much as possible: these are all investments of my money and time, fending off to some extent what could be much worse if I didn’t make these investments. At least I can afford the money and the time to deal with these problems, and live in a place where it is possible, and have the good fortune that these are low-level health problems. Those things aren’t true for so many people.

If you have your health, enjoy it to the full. Appreciate it. You may not realise just how free you really are until it starts failing you.

Further reading

Kirsty D Major’s fabulous post, ‘I’m tired – the disability reality that people don’t talk about‘ prompted me to finally write this today, a few weeks after the initial conversation with my friend. There are whole paragraphs in there I wish I’d written, but she did it first and better. Here’s one:

On some days, all this extra work builds up. If I’m tired anyway – because life happened that way, it can make me feel exhausted. Most of the time I just take it in my stride, but each of these things saps a little bit of energy, and when you add them all together, it accumulates.

I don’t want to whine about it. I don’t want others to feel sorry for me. I don’t necessarily need people to come up with solutions because chances are I already have one.

And another:

It doesn’t last long. A good night’s sleep, a good distraction – and the next day I’m ready to face the world again with new energy. But on a particularly tough day a couple of weeks ago, I did ask the question as to why we never talk about this.

‘Why do we never talk about this?’ is the reason I keep sharing things like this post on my blog. So many of us think that what’s happening to us is our problem, but if we hear other people’s stories, it starts to normalise experiences, and people can talk about them more freely if they want to.

Please read the whole post, and others on her blog. Kirsty has done more than any other person I know to show me the everyday realities and normalities of being blind. She has shown me what is and isn’t possible for her, and made me try to make sure that my blog is as accessible as I can make it, to try and remove those little stumbling blocks where I can. One example is providing text alternatives for non-text content (those alt-text things in images). I don’t always manage it, but I try!

Another person who has written about the problems with her vision is Joanna Malefaki. I’ve learnt a lot from her about colour blindness, how it affects her life, and what other people can do to help. Her recent post on achromatopsia was particularly important.

Three teaspoons lying side by side, each with a raspberry hat, a face painted on, and a little silver bow

Finally, for those of you who have never heard of spoons and how they relate to energy, please read this article by Christine Miserandino. I’m lucky to have a lot of spoons, but sometimes they start to disappear faster than they might for other people.

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Staying healthy

I’ve written at length (when don’t I?!) about the fact that I have ulcerative colitis, and how it affects my life.

Having a stress-induced illness means that it’s particularly important that I find ways to manage how stressed I feel to avoid a flare-up of my colitis. September and the beginning of October are by far the busiest times of our school year, and can be very stressful for me at times. For the last two years, I was quite bad for most of this six-week period. Since Christmas last year, I’ve been on immuno-suppresants, which have stopped me from having any flare-ups (yay!) and seem to be keeping me mostly healthy right now (double yay!) I can still feel some of the symptoms though, and I need to look after myself to avoid the other pitfalls of a weak immune system, like catching every cold that passes through the school (!)

Here are some of the things I’ve been trying to do:

  • Making sure I stick to my morning routine as much as possible, doing physio exercises and spending 20 minutes or so doing cross stitch, both relaxing activities in and of themselves. I listen to podcasts at the same time to give me something to think about other than work.
  • Keeping active by aiming for 10,000 steps a day, which equates to about 100 minutes of exercise a day. When you’re sitting a desk doing timetables and setting up electronic registers all day, that’s not always easy!
  • Eating healthy food. I bought a slow cooker a couple of weeks ago, which has helped me to cook in bulk and not have to worry about exactly when the food will be ready. So far I’ve made soup and lasagne, and am happy to get any other suggestions (though I can’t eat anything spicy because of the colitis, so no curries!)
Soup in my new slow cooker

It might not look very appealing, but it tasted delicious!

  • Switching off the computer and blue screens by 9:30, before going to bed at 11pm. Having always been lucky to sleep fairly well, I didn’t think this would make much difference, but I feel much more refreshed by my sleep if I haven’t been using screens late at night.
  • Noticing when I’m stressed, particularly if I’m moving faster than I need to be, taking a deep breath, and consciously slowing down. For example, I realised I was rushing when I was washing my hands this afternoon because my brain was very active and I felt like I needed to get things done. I realised that taking an extra 30 seconds would calm me down a bit and make my work more effective in the end.
  • Blogging 🙂

I’m also really looking forward to my first flamenco class of this year – our lessons restart tomorrow night.

What do you do to stay healthy and to de-stress?

IATEFL Glasgow 2017: Miscellaneous

This post is for the talks I attended at IATEFL Glasgow 2017 which don’t fit neatly into any of the other categories I’ve chosen this year.

Connecting minds: language learner and teacher psychologies (Sarah Mercer)

Sarah’s plenary discussed the importance of ‘psychologically wise’ teachers, who both understand the psychology of their students, and look after their own mental health. You can watch the whole plenary yourself, or read my summary below.

There’s also an interview with Sarah recorded after her plenary.

Sarah started off by telling us that psychology is not just motivation, cognition, or the abstracted, internal mind. It’s about emotion. We can have the best resources and technology in the world, but they can’t replace humans. She showed us a video of Mr. White, a teacher in the States who has created a personalised handshake with each one of his students. I really like this quote from him:

I feel like every student needs a little bit of joy in their lives. Every student.

Psychology is about the heart and soul of teaching, and psychologically wise teachers can make a huge difference to the lives of their learners. They develop positive relationships, focus on positivity and growth, and nurture their own professional well-being. Hattie’s (2009) meta-analysis lists teacher-student relationships in position 11 of 138 of importance of factors affecting learning. Rita Heyworth points out in her TED talk that kids don’t learn from people they don’t like. Language teaching is inherently social, and requires collaboration, communication, and socio-cultural competence. Psychology is a key part of what we do, but we rarely focus on it explicitly in training or our own practice.

Sarah Mercer and Christina Gkonou published a 2017 British Council Research Paper entitled Understanding emotional and social intelligence among English language teachers. I haven’t read it yet, but will, having had it recommended by the people I was sitting with during the plenary. Another book that was recommended was Better Conversations [affiliate link] by Jim Knight.

Covey (2004) talks about the emotional bank account. Positive actions in a relationship are like deposits and negative ones are withdrawals. How can you make deposits in your emotional bank account?

  1. Work on mutual trust and respect.
  2. Be empathetic.
  3. Be responsive to learner individuality (names, micro conversations). Communication is key.

Remember that learners are much more worried about speaking in front of their peers than the teacher. Do they know the names of everyone else in the group? Proactive discipline: if you build good relationships with students, you need less reactive discipline. You don’t earn trust just by being a teacher, you need to deserve it.

Sarah also talked about Carol Dweck’s Fixed and Growth Mindset theory. Research shows that you can shift your mindset, but it requires training and support. This connects back to James Egerton’s talk at the Torun Teacher Training Day last month. You may not ever be perfect at something, but everyone can improve on where they are now if they have time, motivation and opportunities.

Whether you think you can or you think you can’t, you’re right. – Henry Ford

Mindsets are domain-specific: you might have a fixed mindset about speaking or pronunciation, but a growth one about your ability to write in a foreign language.  Lots of teacher trainees believe that they can develop their methodological knowledge, but not their interpersonal skills (Mercer’s study, my experience too!). Neuroplasticity supports the idea of a growth mindset. As teachers, we have to own up to mistakes, and show our own growth mindset. We should also think whether we talk about language learning as an ability or talent (fixed mindset), or as a process (growth mindset). Make sure you praise the process and effort, and give *informative* positive praise that is deserved, not empty words. The mindset alone is not enough though. We need to develop learning strategies and support our students.

If we build on weaknesses only, we become average. If we build on strengths too, we become A+ – From Average to A+ [affiliate link] by Alex Linley (2008)

It’s important to recognise our strengths, both as learners and teachers. How often have you ever sat back and really reflected on what you’re good at? Sarah asked us to share two or three things we’re good at as teachers with our neighbours. We need to consider building positive emotions in the classroom explicitly. Positive emotions help us to learn more!

Most importantly, we need to look after our own mental well-being.

You can't pour from an empty cup. Take care of yourself first.

Our psychology as teachers is mirrored in our students through mirror neurons – if we’re happy, they’re more likely to be happy too. Holmes and Rogers, 2012 talk about the burnout cascade and the virtuous cycle of psychology and motivation – it can be a vicious or a virtuous circle, depending on where you start. This MUST start from us: we must start creating the positivity in our classroom. Happy people have more energy, better motivation, are more creative, are more productive, and are healthier. The very first thing a teacher should do in the classroom is smile.

When we talk about CPD it’s important not to add too many ‘shoulds’ – a lot of frameworks don’t include wellbeing, meaning teachers may not end up prioritising it. I’ve been trying to drastically reduce the amount of times I use the word ‘should’ – every time I do, I ask myself ‘Who said?’ It’s taken off a lot of the pressure I’ve previously felt. In her 1990 book Stress Management for Teachers, Sandra Mills breaks down health into physical condition (rest, diet, exercise), mental condition and emotional condition.

Self-compassion means knowing when enough is enough, when perfectionism isn’t appropriate, when to use positive self-talk. Don’t overstretch yourselves, learn to say no and set boundaries to protect yourself as a teacher. Professional well-being is not an indulgence, it’s a necessity. As Sarah said:

Pyschology matters. Relationships matter. Positivity matters. YOU matter!

Blog posts following Sarah’s plenary:

Aligning parents’ and caregivers’ objectives with young learner programs (Shay Coyne)

Shay noticed that she was only doing needs analysis for adult groups, not for young learners. She made a Survey Monkey questionnaire in Spanish to send to caregivers. They wanted a communicative focus, moving from receptive listening towards speaking, a broadening of their future prospects, more study than fun (see below for activities for each of these three areas), and they wanted English only. Shay challenges the last point, as most of the world is now bilingual, and we should bring the students’ two languages together. Students have opportunities for huge amounts of contact with English outside the classroom. By accepting the students’ own language, we’re modelling tolerance and diversity and establishing a collaborative, equal relationship between the mother tongue and English.

Caregivers want to be involved. They may have had bad experiences of language learning themselves before. Caregivers form a key part of the child’s life, so we need to keep them involved: parents as partners. Home and school are not two separate bubbles for children, they’re all one big learning experience: it helps you to be more collaborative between home and school.  They give a different perspective to tests and assessments, and can, for example, explain why a child has suddenly started to behave badly. This kind of partnership also improves social skills and behaviour of the child, as it provides a model for how to collaborate. Finally, it leads to better education outcomes. The child becomes more well-rounded and can navigate a multilingual, multicultural environment more easily. On another note, if caregivers are involved, children’s test scores will improve too.

Parents can be involved through governance (like textbook selection), meetings, volunteering for activities in the classroom. Caregivers can be invited for open days. We can train parents and caregivers to be able to form realistic goals, and retrain misconceptions like English only. Teachers should be trained with strategies for how to deal with caregivers, such as how to positively deliver messages, and how to deal with any potential conflict. Communication should also be two-way, both to and from the school. We should make sure that there is variation in how you interact with caregivers, and give them the option to decide how they want to be contacted.

To develop communication skills, why not try an English/Australian/Scottish corner in your classroom, use role plays for developing empathy, and discuss learning to bridge the gap between home and school.

To help students broaden their future prospects, work on projects, try out ‘genius hour‘ so children can do whatever they want for that hour (practises research and time management), work on videos (through e.g. Skype which they may have to use for job interviews in the future), try out My Language Passport from p98 of Teaching Children How to Learn [affiliate link] to acknowledge different languages.

To work on language, use songs, choose topics of interest, choose practical tasks that encourage experimentation with language and try Knowing your class p71 of Teaching Children How to Learn [affiliate link] so you can learn more about your students to make things more relevant to them.

Shay would like us all to foster caregiver involvement in education. Maybe we could create a framework for involving them. There is a potential negative reaction initially, but research shows that it’s worth it and quality improves because caregivers are involved.

Shay recommended the following books for further research [all affiliate links]:

  1. The Primary English Teacher’s Guide by Jean Brewster, Gail Ellis, and Denis Girard
  2. Teaching Children How to Learn by Gail Ellis and Nayr Ibrahim
  3. How Children Learn by Linda Pound
  4. Teaching Young Learners English by Joan Kang Shin and JoAnn (Jodi) Crandall
  5. Introducing English as an Additional Language to Young Children by Kay Crosse

She has also written a related article for the IH Journal about bringing parental objectives into YL lessons.

Teaching grammar for all the right reasons (Danny Norrington-Davies)

We try to contain the language with rules but the language keeps running away. – Andrea Bossato

Danny encourages his students to explore reasons for grammatical/linguistic choices, not rules, moving from examples to reasons. Why start with reasons, not rules?

  • Language existed before rules!
  • We can explore how meaning is created.
  • Students can make genuine discoveries about language by thinking about reasons.
  • We can see how different forms interact and we don’t just need examples that fit the rules.
  • We can explore similarities not exceptions, and give learners some ownership of the language.
  • We can use this approach to exploit any text or any communicative task, and avoid ‘sometimes’ rules. Pedagogic rules are often qualified with words like ‘usually’, and we write them as if they’re true, but they’re not.
  • We can avoid artificial simplification and rules that are not true.
  • Students can put reasons into their own words, rather than being given rules that aren’t always true.
  • Although it’s hard for students to create rules, it’s worth it, as they start to understand why language is really used, not just learn rules by rote (he got this as feedback from one of his students).

There’s nothing wrong with language; the problem lies with the rules we’ve created as shortcuts. Diane Larsen-Freeman emphasises that reasons underline rules.

Research shows that a lot of early learning is lexical, not grammatical, which is why it works well for functional language. He’s also used this approach successfully with modals. The lowest level he’s used it with himself is pre-intermediate, though he’s also seen it being used with elementary.

For example, to focus on relative clauses, give students a text with them and rewritten without them. Ask them to compare the two and say why the writer used them in the original text. Maybe to get students to actually use relative clauses, we should just keep making them notice them instead of doing exercises – Danny has found this has really helped his students.

Danny has recently published a book along the same lines: From Rules to Reasons [affiliate link]

Tweets from other sessions

Lindsay Clandfield and Jill Hadfield talked about activities you could use to promote interaction between participants on online courses. They were promoting a new book they’ve written called Interaction Online [affiliate link]. You can watch a recording of the full talk.

Lorraine Kennedy presented about the effectiveness of feedback. The session was recorded.

A useful poster:

Useful links on Mental Health in ELT

Panic attacks can affect anyone. After my interview for the CELTA course which I was trained on, probably the easiest interview of my life, I was walking to my friend’s house thinking it over. As I walked I started to hyperventilate, and I thought I might be having an asthma attack. I couldn’t understand what was happening because although I have asthma, it causes coughing fits, not ‘normal’ asthma attacks. When I got to her house, I couldn’t really talk, and I couldn’t calm down. I started to get pins and needles in my fingers and toes, gradually moving up my limbs. She phoned 999 because neither of us knew what was going on. When the paramedic came, he gave me oxygen and explained what was happening. It took at least 15 minutes for me to start breathing normally again and for the pins and needles to go away. I suspect the thought that triggered the attack was probably me worrying that they wouldn’t accept me onto the course, though I already knew they had: it was my final year of university and my entire plan after my degree was based around getting a CELTA and becoming an ELT teacher. It has only happened to me once so far. I had the first steps towards another one when I was ill at New Year a few weeks ago, but thankfully my amazing best friend was looking after me, and falling sleep due to exhaustion meant I didn’t go all the way into the pit this time.

It's time to talk

Apparently, 2nd February is Time to Talk Day 2017, a UK event “to get the nation talking about mental health and keep the conversation going round the clock”. For a combination of reasons, mental health is an area I have become more and more aware of over the past couple of years, and I’ve been thinking of putting together a list of connected resources for a while. This seems like the perfect opportunity.

Two years ago, Laura Patsko described the conversation starters which she was given for Time to Talk Day 2015, something which you could use yourself or with students.

Phil Longwell made me aware of this year’s Time to Talk Day through his very open interview with teachersasworkers.org about how mental health has affected his life and career.

My panic attacks they come from the tiniest smallest thoughts—and if you don’t know anything about panic attacks you tend to think that panic attacks are something huge—that they are huge, really life-threatening situations but for me they can be the smallest things. It starts from a tiny thought—and that thought can be a trigger which sets you off. Then you’re into a cycle. A panic cycle, they call it.

The UK’s NHS website has a page explaining the symptoms of a panic attack, with a video showing how to tackle the vicious circle that starts it, and a link to tips for coping with a panic attack if you’re having one now.

Rebecca Cope has also had problems at work caused by anxiety attacks, and has written about them very movingly. If this happens to you (and I sincerely hope it doesn’t), you are not alone. Please please please do not be afraid to talk about it. There is nothing wrong with you. If you talk about it, then we can all help the stigma to go away and we can all try to move towards supporting each other and being there when things happen. By the way, as well as being a great writer, Rebecca is a talented artist, as can be seen here:

Four panels by Rebecca Cope: 1. A girl I once knew who always felt blue told me once with head bowed she was trapped by a cloud. 2. She said

Elly Setterfield talks about her self-confidence issues and offers advice on what to do when you can’t stop criticising yourself, in which we learn about the inner critic, and how to respond to it constructively. She has also created an A-Z of self-care for teachers.

Not specifically ELT, but the ‘Behave‘ episode of the language podcast The Allusionist is about how to defuse the power of words going round in your head. James Egerton has a post about ways to help students diffuse exam anxiety, which I think could be useful at other times too.

For those on the outside looking in, first, consider how lucky you are that you don’t have first-hand experience of this. Then read about how to support a friend who is struggling with their mental health.

A management perspective comes from The Secret DoS in You don’t have to be mad to work here, but it helps, which includes some key advice at the end of the post, and the important line:

Let’s be clear…mental health issues are simply health issues.

One of the things Phil mentioned in his post was the extra pressure that those of us living and working abroad add to our lives by choosing to move away from home, often into places where we don’t speak the language or understand the culture. Here’s an 8-minute talk on helping teachers settle in, which I did at the IH DoS conference a couple of years ago based on my own experiences of arriving in many a new place. It was designed for managers/employers and not directly related to mental health, but it might give you ideas of what to ask for/about on arrival, especially if anxiety is a problem for you. Working with difficult colleagues can also be problematic, so here are some tips from Chris Wilson to help you.

Another area that can cause a lot of problems is work-life balance, which I have a lot of bookmarks related to. They include tips for getting a better balance yourself, information about the importance of planning breaks into your day and examples of what other people have done. This is one of my favourite reminders of what you can do to help yourself take a break:

50 ways to take a break

Sarah Mercer did an excellent plenary talk at IATEFL 2017 about psychologically wise teachers. The third section includes tips on how to look after yourself. OUP have a webinar called ‘Destress your classroom: stress management and wellbeing for teachers and students‘.

Burnout is also an issue which can affect people in many professions, particularly the so-called ‘caring professions’. Clare Maas has quotes from various teachers on avoiding burnout, and a list of tips and suggestions, of which I think the final paragraph is particularly useful. Roseli Serra describes her experience and those of teachers she has interviewed, then offers advice on how to reduce the likelihood of burnout happening to you. Andrea Camara also has advice about how to reduce the stressors in your life that may lead to burnout. Chris Mares, Theodora Papapanagiotou and a teacher with ADHD also contributed articles to the iTDi (International Teacher Development Institute) issue on Mental Health at the same time. Other people who have talked about their experiences of mental health issues as English language teachers include Lizzie Pinard, and the podcasters at TEFLology.

If you’d like to discuss mental health with your students, AllAtC has a B2+ level lesson plan based around mental health and employment. The Mental Health Friendly Initiative has run competitions for mental health lesson plans, though I’m not sure if they’re available to download. They have various resources for promoting social inclusion on their blog (thanks for recommending it Phil).

Phil Longwell used his IATEFL 2018 talk to describe the findings of research he has done over the past year about the mental health of English language teachers. You can read about his findings here. The recording is here:

He also did a 10-minute interview for the IATEFL YouTube channel:

The 8th March 2018 Twitter #ELTchat was about Teachers’ well-being and mental health, including stories, possible causes for poor mental health, and how things are slowly starting to change.

If you know of any other useful links or if any of these don’t work for you, please let me know so that I can update the post. Together we are all stronger.

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