What the teachers in my practice have taught me

This post is part of the series Wisdom

Other posts in this series:

  1. What the teachers in my practice have taught me (Current)
  2. What the nurses in my practice have taught me

Through the years I have had a few teachers in my psychiatric practice. They have been a varied group of people, vulnerable to the same mental health issues as the rest of us.

I have noticed in more vocational professions, careers to which people feel they have been “called”, that there is a higher rate of burnout. It holds true for the teachers whom I have treated. It seems like a process people with a deep calling have to go through. They give too much, then crash and burn, Part of their healing is learning how to return to teaching with better boundaries and personal balance.

The teachers in my practice have taught me a lot about life:

  • They taught me about boundaries with connectivity

There have been times when I have tried to get hold of a teacher, maybe to discuss a blood result or an appointment. You cannot get hold of a teacher in the morning. You can phone them, email them, text them; they will only get back to you after school hours. So many of us carry a great deal of anxiety because we can’t get our work done because of all the intrusions. Teachers have taught me to turn everything off while I am working.

  • Teachers are super organised

I always imagined that teaching was a half day job. My teachers have described the hours which go into lesson preparations. As one teacher said: “I prepare my lessons so that I’m free to teach”. They are so organised that should they go off sick; the substitute teacher will smoothly be able to continue with their lesson plans.

  • Teachers think in terms of systems, not goals.

One teacher told me that students always want to know what will be in the test. That is goal orientated thinking. Teachers are far more concerned with putting systems and structures in place to ensure that the kids in their class can learn. Things like having posters and books available, and class discipline. Teachers consciously create their class atmosphere. I have translated this wisdom into my own life. Having goals, for example, I want to run a half marathon can be overwhelming. Having a system in place, like I must train three times a week, becomes doable.

  • Heterogenicity works

I have been in private practice for over 15 years. During this time a bit of a teaching revolution has occurred. Teachers now tend to group the kids in their classes. Within the groups are a mixture of weaker and stronger kids. Initially, this way of doing things felt intuitively wrong to most teachers. They felt that streamlining the stronger and the weaker kids would make more sense. But they have come back and said that the heterogeneous groups work. The stronger kids help the weaker kids and become more adept in the process.

  • Show up and give your best

I have had depressed teachers in my practice, so sick that I have wanted to book them off work. The answer is always the same: “I have to finish the term.” Sheryl Sandburg, CEO of Facebook, coined the term “leaning in”. It basically means putting on your game face and giving your all, no matter what. Teachers have been doing this without a sexy tagline for millennia.

  • Teachers want the kids to succeed

Teachers relish it when they can help kids outgrow them. It does not threaten them; it makes them proud. Previous finance minister Trevor Manuel did his schooling nearby. I have two patients in my practice who give different vignettes of how they helped form his mind around maths and social justice. I do not doubt that if I had the opportunity to speak to Mr Manuel, that he would give veracity to their claims.

I remind myself of this when I go speak to the teachers at my kids’ school. We are on the same side.

I have a wonderful career as a psychiatrist.  It allows me to glimpse into people’s lives. The teachers in my practice have taught me things even when they are not teaching.

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  1. I can corroborate what you say. People in the vocational professions have degrees and diplomas and yet they are some of the worst payed employees, so clearly you would have to be “mad” to choose such a profession unless you felt called to do so. What you say about lesson plans is also spot on – if I prepare properly, sometimes verbatim, it allows me to speak freely and sometimes off the cuff in the actual lesson so that it breezes by without a hitch.

    I wish however you had said something more about the very serious matter of burnout, which isn’t even recognized in the DSM-V bible of psychiatric diagnosis. Perhaps that can be a future topic. I think that people in vocational occupations whose task is to care, suffer the worst of it and that nurses in particular with their long shifts, arrogant superiors and difficult patients are especially vulnerable. The most upsetting thing about burnout is that you lose the capacity to be empathetic and effective; which were the very traits that got you into a caring profession in the first place.

    • Thanks, David. You make a very good point. Burnout is a real burden. If I am forced to code burnout for medical aid purposes, I tend to pop it under “adjustment disorders”, DSM’s catch-all for what they have not defined.

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