We rarely talk about mental health problems in ELT—the stress, anxiety, the hidden injuries of bureaucracy. Yet these are problems experienced by grassroots teachers across contexts and cultures.
In the build-up to UK Time to Talk Day 2017, I interview Phil Longwell on his personal battle with mental health problems—and what might be done to address these problems within ELT.
When did you first start having mental health problems?
I first got depression when I was 17 years old and a student at a college in Kings Lynn. I wasn’t diagnosed then. I just knew I wasn’t feeling right. I was very socially withdrawn.
Was there a certain trigger?
Possibly the separation of my parents and teenage growing pains. I lost contact with my school friends. I was unable to speak to them and drifted apart.
How have mental health problems affected your work life?
On several occasions before teaching English I struggled. I worked in insurance and often had low moods throughout my 20s. When I came to work for The Stationary Office in 1997 I found this depression grew and I was unable to converse easily with colleagues. During that time, I had my first doctor’s sick note, which said ‘stress’. I later had a disciplinary procedure over my behaviour at Ofsted in 2003 caused by ill health. I was eventually fired, but won an appeal.
With teaching English, I’ve had to leave jobs early because of anxiety I’ve suffered on arrival. When I came back from a recent trip, I wrote down all the separate times anxiety had impacted on my work. It has happened eleven times in total [see below].
I’ve wasted a huge amount of money and lost a lot of earnings. I’m still not paying off my old student loan from my days at Anglia University because there hasn’t been a year when I’ve earned more than the threshold for repayments.
Have you confided in colleagues about your mental health problems? What was their reaction?
Occasionally. I tried to do it at Ofsted but there wasn’t much sympathy. I’ve told some colleagues in my teaching career but rarely my line manager. In the past 10 years it has been anxiety more than depression, although the two are linked.
On one occasion I told my interviewer – for a role in Dalian, China – that I had problems. He was grateful for my honesty but said it would only concern him if I couldn’t do my job. Then he wasn’t very understanding when it happened. There were factors when I got to China which affected me badly. A lot of it had to do with not knowing enough Chinese to navigate around. And teaching right next to an airport with planes taking off every five minutes.
Paul: Can you describe a classroom incident which illustrates the problems you’ve had?
So, it was 2013, the summertime. I was working at a university in Leicester, England. It was a five week, pre-sessional course for international students, mostly Chinese. It was the first day of the course. The students had just arrived, we’d registered them, and they’d had a talk from the head of languages.
Then all the teachers had to go and get the textbooks for the course—and I can’t remember exactly why, but I was the last one to get hold of the books. So by the time I got there, there were only 10 copies left. So with my class of 25 students, there were only 10 books to go round.
I knew full well that everybody else had enough copies for their students—so I immediately apologise … say to them ‘Well, you might have to share … we’re going to get some more books … they’ve been promised.’ But I knew that there wasn’t enough books. We didn’t have any more books—that was it! I dished out all the books I had, and I just looked at their faces…and I don’t know why but I just froze…I just came over all…I started to have palpitations…my heart rate increased, I started sweating. Even now I tremble thinking about it [laughter]. My mind was going what are they thinking of me, what are they thinking of me. I got really paranoid.
They could see I was struggling as I couldn’t speak. In the end, I had to walk out of the classroom, ring up my line manager and say ‘Sorry, I just can’t teach—I can’t do this.’ I was having a panic attack. My line manager took over, carried on and I felt terrible. I went away, I went back to my room and I just felt terrible. And I never properly recovered from that moment. We did eventually get the books a few days later but because of that moment – in my head – I never quite recovered my confidence.
It’s like a footballer who lets in a goal in the first five minutes of the match, then spends the rest of the game worrying about the goal he let in and not the other 85 minutes.
It’s the not being able to verbalize something which causes the panic attack to a large extent.
How do you look back on that incident now?
Well it was silly. It was silly that I had that reaction. The rational part of the brain says ‘These things happen. Just move on and don’t worry.’ But I don’t know. 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.
And it’s hard to get out of that cycle presumably?
It can be very difficult yeah.
Do you think that the way ELT teachers work – where, for example, we’re often thrust into new teaching situations and new cultures – can exacerbate, or even cause mental health problems?
Yes, undoubtedly. Sometimes you’re surrounded by another language which isn’t English. I’ve taught in Saudi Arabia, in China, in South Korea, and Vietnam. And sometimes the culture is very different as well. You’re overwhelmed, you’re taking in lots of different things. So I’ve often struggled in the first week of arriving in a new place. Not the first couple of days but when I get into a teaching situation and I’m not fully prepared when I come to teach because I’m having to deal with passport issues, accommodation, travel—like getting to work!
In Dalian, China, I was put up in a hotel near the airport and I had to order my own taxi to get round the other side of the airport to the university. And because I don’t speak Chinese I had to write the address out … and if I couldn’t get understood by the taxi driver I’d get anxious. So I would arrive at the university already anxious because of the journey.
I can relate. I remember in Saudi Arabia, my taxi driver told me he could no longer pick me up—I thought I was going to die! [Back to standing in the dust at the edge of a motorway with my thumb held out.]
We’re put in some very unsettling situations. But it’s hard to change that. They want teachers there just before you’re due to start work—to start quickly.
Sometimes the language issue isn’t a problem, but it’s something else. It’s some factor and it can be a very small thing … I’m very organised. I take pride in being well-organised. If I go into a classroom and I don’t have a list of students’ names or a textbook or something isn’t working – a bit of technology isn’t working – or there aren’t enough pens, or I have a beautiful whiteboard but not any whiteboard markers.
Tiny little things … I can dwell on the tiny little things and forget the bigger picture.
It sounds like control of the classroom becomes very important … more than it might need to be. You need control over the equipment: the pens, and so on.
I hate it when you get a very well-funded department, and you know they’re getting a lot of money because their parents are paying a lot of money, you know ‘bums on seats’, and they don’t have basic things like a pen or an eraser for the whiteboard—silly little things that can annoy you. But sometimes it’s not the fact that they don’t have it. It’s sometimes that you have to sign a release form to get a marker pen or something ridiculous. Things like that which can infuriate you.
Do you think the bureaucracy can drive people over the edge sometimes?
I think so. I think when you have to sign for things and somebody somewhere is accounting for every little thing you have out of the stationary cupboard …
Some people get angry, some people get frustrated, some people get annoyed and they let their feelings known. For me, I tend to bottle it up – or have bottled it up – and I let it ruminate. So there’s no release. Sometimes the panic attacks are a kind of an outward expression of what I’m feeling inside—something I’ve not been able to verbalize. I know I’ve had panic attacks, and even family have been around me and they say ‘What can I do?’ and I can’t verbalize what’s going on. It’s the not being able to verbalize something which causes the panic attack to a large extent.
Have you had support in the workplace in dealing with these issues?
I’ve not always had support in the workplace from the people that matter: line managers, directors of studies, or the head of the language centre.
Don’t get me wrong—some places have been great. I had a good line manager in Saudi Arabia. My director of studies in Beijing was also very good. I lasted 10 months there.
How could mental health issues in ELT be addressed?
I know there’s plenty of campaigns here in the UK – like Time for Change – that ask people to go into the workplace and start a conversation, ask people how they’re doing – and don’t just accept OK as an acceptable answer. Sometimes you need to dig deeper because people will say ‘I’m OK,’ or ‘Fine, thanks,’ but they’re covering something up perhaps.
Not everyone will want to talk, that’s fair enough—you can’t force people to talk. But I’ve never come across a situation over 10 years of teaching English where there’s been direct support for mental health. I’ve never seen that.
I’ve been on professional development weeks at work and there’s never been anything about health or well-being or anything like that. It’s all been about How to use the Tech or something completely unrelated to well-being.
I think before starting work you have to think about teacher well-being.
So many hours are lost in the UK by people being off work because of mental health, or stress or anxiety. If there was more support within the workplace then a lot less hours would be lost and the economy would be better for it.
The times you hear a politician—be it David Cameron or Theresa May say ‘Yes, we’re going to do more for mental health because it’s an important issue.’ All talk. And then there’s no action because there’s no funding. They’re not prepared to fund it.
The problem is when you address these issues you open up a Pandora’s box. It throws up questions like: ‘Why are we all working so hard?’ or ‘Why aren’t we paid enough to take time off and rest?’
And it does connect to the pressure on teachers to work long hours, that includes marking and feedback outside of the class, meeting targets, deadlines and report writing—all those things that come with teaching. Which is not just in ELT, but teaching in general.
A lot of campaigns say that at some point in their life 1 in 4 people will suffer from a mental health problem. I’d say for teachers that would be higher than 1 in 4.
Last question. What would you say to any teacher suffering from mental health problems now?
If you’re suffering yourself, I would say approach somebody you can trust. It’s not always your line manager, it may be a work colleague. And make sure it’s face-to-face as well. A lot of communication is in your body language, your intonation …
And simply have a conversation. The whole thing about Time for Change – the organisation behind National Time to Talk Day – is just having a conversation over a cup of tea. You know, just ask if somebody’s alright.
And if they say ‘I’m alright’ but don’t look it, just dig a little deeper.
Phil Longwell has a CELTA and M.A. in English Language Teaching from the University of Warwick. He started teaching in Tanzania in 2006 and has worked in South Korea, Vietnam, China, and Saudi Arabia. He now lives and works in the UK. He has recently started one-to-one tutoring and volunteers with refugees and migrant workers as a mentor and teacher.
Everyone involved in TaWSIG would like to extend our thanks to Phil for agreeing to be interviewed. Has this post inspired YOU to write for us? Then take a look at our submissions criteria and send in a pitch or an article.
Why not submit? Join the conversation about change in ELT.
CALM – The Campaign Against Living Miserably – A charity dedicated to preventing male suicide, the biggest single killer of men aged 20 – 45 in the UK.
Good for Nothing by Mark Fisher – Connecting neoliberal politics with mental health.
Psychiatry Disrupted – Theorizing Resistance and Crafting the (R)evolution