3 Things Teachers can Learn from a Mental Breakdown

bonnie & Carole

It was a Tuesday, about midday.  The sun was shining on a beautiful spring day in Alabama. I went to the office with a little to do list tucked in my folder, along with papers to be signed and turned in.

Both of the administrators I came to speak with were busy, but the admin in charge of scheduling had her door open.  So I stuck my head in to ask a quick question.

Before I get into what happened next, let me give you some context:

This year was great, but somehow it was still overwhelming.  Then we got down to the last couple weeks of school, and five of us were moved out of our rooms to accommodate AP and IB testing.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m totally a team player, so when I was asked (told) to move, I said “sure, of course, no problem”.  Unfortunately, I didn’t realized how much this was going to stress me out.

Three weeks before school got out–May 1st, to be exact–I moved to my new “classroom”: the right side of the library for periods 1, 2, and 3.  From there I would bounce around a lot.  I went to one friend’s classroom during 4th (off period) to hang out and eat lunch, then I’d head to another friend’s classroom for the first half of 5th period (my other off period), and then I’d move to yet another friend’s classroom for the second half.  Finally, my 6th and 7th period would meet in a baseball coach’s room on my hall.  (I know I could have spent those periods in the break room, but let’s face it, that’s just depressing–there aren’t even windows!)

Whew.  Talk about a nomadic lifestyle.

(In her defense, the admin–who is so sweet all the time–did have me originally assigned to one classroom for the whole day; however, it was the foreign language lab in which kids sit in individual cubicles with computers in front of them, and I just couldn’t figure out how we would read Streetcar Named Desire in that space. So I was floating by choice–sort of.)

For almost two weeks my friend Kristen and I wandered around the school with all of our teaching stuff in one bag, mine a backpack and hers a leather behemoth that probably required a massage and chiropractic adjustment to its damage.  (My students liked to joke that I looked like a student with my Thule backpack, jeans, sandals, and ponytail–haha!).  The stress of trying to make sure I had everything I needed, monitoring my kids in new spaces, and not having a home base was really starting to get to me. I’d been a floating teacher in the past, but with that you get an office, a central location for your stuff and for your off periods, so this was very different.

It was also the end of the year, so my patience was dwindling and with it was my sanity.

By the time this sunny Tuesday came around, I wasn’t just on the struggle bus, I was driving the darn thing.

The Breakdown

I stuck my head in the admin’s office and casually asked, “do you think we’ll be back in our classrooms next week?”  She glanced up, shrugged a little, and said something like “I’m not sure, depends on if testing is done.”

“Oh, ok”, I responded.  I could feel a shakiness rising up my torso, threatening to shake all the way up and spill out through my eyes. I started to walk away, but she continued.

“I’m not sure about make-up testing.  You should talk to the AP Coordinator.”

“I did.” She looked up, waiting for the response.  “She said to talk to you.”

By this time my voice is shaking a bit, and my face probably betrays the fact that I’m barely holding myself together.  The suddenness of this unexpected reaction was a surprise and was not helping me hold it together.

She says something else, but I couldn’t tell you what because I took one step into her office and just started crying. Like, boo-hooing.

Now, y’all don’t know me, but if you did, you would know this is NOT like me at. all.  So, on top of already crying, an overwhelming sense of embarrassment has come over me.

She shoots up, probably bewildered, and ushers me to a chair while closing the door.  “What’s going on, Kristy?”

Through my tears I share that I’m not 100% sure…I remember saying “I feel like a basket case”.  I go on to explain how I’ve already been questioning my career choice, how tough the end of the year is, and how stressful it has been to travel around without a home for a week and a half.

I felt like a giant whiny baby, but she was SO supportive.

After several minutes of trying to pull myself together, she encouraged me to take the rest of my off periods and go for lunch, get outside, try to relax a little.  She even offered to have someone cover my last two periods, but I was sure I’d be fine by then. She also promised she’d get the situation fixed.

Thankfully, I have amazing friends, and when I texted them to tell them about my mental breakdown in the admin’s office (of which they were astonished, by the way), they offered to cover my classes and convinced me not to come back to school.

So, for the first time in eleven years, I just left school and didn’t come back! I went to lunch and then I went to see Beauty and the Beast–by myself–and it was the best day ever.

It also began my recovery process.  Thank goodness.

The Breakthrough: Or what I learned from this embarrassing meltdown

Okay, so breakthrough is a bit of a stretch, it was more like a cleanse.   The next day I gathered all of my strength, and despite feeling the prickle of tears behind my eyes when I stepped into G Hall, I bucked up and made it down the hall and through the rest of my day unscathed.

While I still find this incident quite embarrassing, I learned from it–as all good teachers do, right?  Always a teachable moment! Even when you’re ugly crying in the admin’s office, there’s something to learn.

  1. Sometimes you need to let it all out- My plan when I went to the office, was definitely not to have a breakdown.  I wasn’t even going to complain, or ask for anything at all.  I simply had questions for two different admins.  But you know what I realized?  Sometimes we let all of our frustrations, concerns, and even ideas build up so long that they overwhelm us and we must let them out.  Bonus advice, try to do it before you reach the point of uncontrollable sobs.
  2. The administrators don’t always know what’s going on in our classrooms- I don’t know about you, but I try not to be the squeaky wheel (even though I get jealous when those folks get what they want).  I often assume that either a) the administrators already know what is going on and are working on it or b) my ideas are not really worthy of sharing because I’ll just sound like a whiny, needy child.  But what I learned is that these things are not true (well sometimes they might be).  The administrators had no idea that a couple of us were struggling so much with our displacement.  How would they know?  Generally when asked, we all smile and nod and say we’re “fine”.  They’re super busy, and they probably assume that since we’re adults we’d tell them if something was up.  Oops.  On top of that, I have to feel like a competent adult and at least give voice to my concerns, just in case no on else has.
  3. Don’t be afraid to give yourself a break- Never in eleven years of teaching would I have imagined that one day I would walk out of school with my keys (which I had because I was traveling with a backpack of all of my belongings) and not come back for the rest of the day. What a weird (and freeing) feeling.  I felt like a rebel, but it was amazing.  I read the news while leisurely eating my lunch in public.  Then I boohooed some more while sitting in the theater by myself.  It was sort of heavenly. Cathartic. And I needed it.  Clearly.  Teaching is hard and I think sometimes we just work ourselves in to the ground, but we have to take time for ourselves (so we don’t have to walk out of school for half a day!!)

That sunny Tuesday is still pretty vivid for me.  It was embarrassing and so completely unlike me, that when I told my close friends and family, they incredulously responded “wait, you cried in her office?”  Yeah.  Yeah, I did.

But, it was worth it.  Mostly.  Sometimes we have to lay ourselves bare in order to move on.  I didn’t exactly have a breakthrough afterwards, but I was able to finish the year strong.

This job we have chosen is tough.  It wears us down.  Others just don’t get it, but don’t forget why you’re doing it.  Stay strong. 🙂


One thought on “3 Things Teachers can Learn from a Mental Breakdown

  1. Thanks for sharing your breakthrough! So often we only see the perfect “happy” side of teaching, but it helps to know that other teachers have days like this. Thanks again for being so real!

    Liked by 1 person

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