Sunday, 24 October 2021

Waiting for the upswing...

I meant to publish this post to coincide with Mental Health Awareness Day which was earlier this month but then I dithered, edited, and then delayed, dithered some more, made further edits and delayed again. Why the reticence? Well, despite having relatively few readers, to publish a deeply personal post about mental health still feels very much like an exposure - it's putting yourself out there, allowing yourself to show your vulnerability and, potentially, invites judgement, accusations of attention-seeking, or worst of all... disbelief.  

Though there is much helpful information about mental health, and a barrage of hashtags on social media, there is still a stigma attached to it and many misconceptions. I have struggled with bouts of recurring depression for over 20 years and yet if I ever admit this to people they are often surprised and some do not understand at all, diminishing the condition entirely with lines like, 'I get a bit down sometimes too'. Feeling a bit low is not the same as experiencing the overwhelming, persistent and  oppressive, despairing sadness of clinical depression. Recognising this, and talking openly about mental health, not only raises awareness but helps to give a voice to those struggling to express what they are feeling and that's the reason I finally published this post - not for attention or pity but just in case it helps someone else.  

Each person's experience of depression is, of course, different but there are three main ways that depression affects me, and many others. I have summarised these under the headings  - distortion, disengagement and dissociation - all appropriately enough beginning with the negative prefix 'dis':

Firstly, depression affects cognitive processes - it hijacks your ability to reason objectively and distorts your reality. Almost everyone experiences these types of thinking errors at one time or another but with a depressive disorder the thoughts are constant and, for me, include: 

Emotional Reasoning - an entirely subjective viewpoint where you think that if you feel something then it must be true. For example, you might feel that you made a bad job of something - a task at work maybe - and so because you think this, it must be true.  You can't apply any logical reasoning but rely on emotional judgement instead.

Mental Filter - the feeling of gloom and hopelessness dulls everything around you so you can no longer see any light or pick out any colour. Everything darkens and the only details of any situation or event that you can focus on is the negative and you will dwell on this exclusively. Like Alice, you fall down the rabbit hole but instead of seeing Wonderland you just see the hole.

Mind-Reading -  where you make negative assumptions and conclusions about other people's actions without any real evidence to support them. For example, if a friend is busy and can't make a get together then you might wrongly conclude that they don't want to see you at all; someone delays answering your text, or gives an unusually brief response - they must be angry or upset with you. You don't question your mind reading ability or bother to check out your assumptions.

Depression creates disengagement from friends and family and from any previous source of joy and inspiration. You cannot fully engage socially with people you would normally enjoy spending time with. You feel too emotionally distant and numb to initiate a conversation and too physically exhausted by the mental process of appearing 'normal' to engage in any activities or hobbies.  A close friend observed that she knew I was depressed when I said that I hadn't been able to read; this is coming from a voracious reader who generally has at least two books on the go at a time. If I picked up a book then I would feel like a machine reading - I read fluently but the words meant nothing. There's a disengagement from day-to-day living too - you cannot find the motivation to meet needs with action. You need to get up, you need to take a shower, you need to work, but you stay buried alive under the duvet, reach for the dry shampoo and don't bother with the makeup, then sit almost catatonically at your desk unable to engage your 'work persona', feeling instead like an useless imposter.

Dissociation is a term that encompasses a number of conditions. For me, dissociation is the most distressing part of depression. It is the unsettling experience of depersonalisation and derealisation. You become so disconnected that you feel that you are literally not yourself. Trying to manage depression for any length of time means having to do things on autopilot and this creates a sense that you are looking at yourself from a distance - an observer in your own life. Not feeling connected to your internal dialogue makes your thoughts seem as though they come out of nowhere and sometimes they become bizarre, random and intrusive. Everything around you feels artificial. Bad dreams seep into waking life and flood your perception, meaning that you have to actively question what is real and what is not. 

I think, ironically, that I've managed to write a thoroughly depressing post when that wasn't my intention! One thing that I have learned about these bouts of depression is that there is an upswing - you just have to be patient. But it's not something you can manage alone. Your instinct is to shut down and retreat into yourself but you need to be brave enough to reach out to those around you for help and support to give you that necessary push. 

Sunday, 9 May 2021


How to define 'nostalgia'? Looking back at the past through a warm golden filter? Sentimental longing? Wistful affection for the past? The word's etymology is interesting - from the Greek nostos meaning 'return home' and algos meaning 'pain' - and it is exactly that bittersweet nature of nostalgia that I've been dwelling on recently. Because nostalgia is much much more than just remembering, it is a feeling. We transport ourselves back to a time in order to feel pleasurable emotions and sensations again but, in doing so, we are also reminded that we can never have this again in the present. 

Why have I been musing on nostalgia? Well, there's nothing like a pandemic, with its threat and uncertainly, to make us collectively crave the familiar comforts of the past and, with the introspective nature of lockdown, it is not surprising that nostalgia has become a current preoccupation. Almost everyone I know has revisited their own personal archives over the last year whether sorting through the wardrobe and remembering the last time you wore something, clearing out the loft of sentimental possessions or going through old photographs and reminiscing. I managed to find a random collection of photos from decades ago when I was a similar age to my adult daughters now. One showed me getting ready to go out, hair in heated rollers (remember those!) with a good dollop of make-up. Although I'd say I'm more introvert than extrovert, that image brought back all the carefree excitement and abandonment of a good night out. How thrilling it was to mingle on a crowded dancefloor, socially undistanced, get swept up in the music at a live gig or laugh so much with friends that you lost the ability to stand unaided! Those photos made me smile but also reminded me, sadly, that I am in my fifties and not my twenties - how quickly time passes! And it's not that I would want to go to a nightclub necessarily when restrictions lift or experience sensory overload at a music venue or, indeed, suffer a vodka induced hangover at 54, but the seclusion and social isolation that lockdown brings does make me wistful for the happy clamour and closeness of other people. 

In Covid confinement, nostalgia also manifested itself as a return to old fashioned analogue hobbies. I haven't been the slightest bit tempted by baking, knitting or gardening (I seem only able to bake scones, I'm more of a knotter than a knitter and gardening to me is just housework outside) but I have re-read old favourites and completed one ridiculously difficult jigsaw puzzle. Nostalgia is not just limited to pastimes either, it's affected our media consumption too. TV habits changed with many re-watching events such as the opening ceremony of the 2012 London Olympics or starting on old box sets once more. I started Homeland again but once I got to Season 5 I couldn't cope any longer with the sheer bonkers plot lines! Spotify reported a 54% increase in listeners creating nostalgia-themed playlists in April 2020 alone and I'm guilty as charged having created more than one of these - surprising myself that I still know all the words to Are 'Friends' Electric...'It's cold outside...' 

So all this retrospection must be a coping mechanism of some kind and in this sense it is a positive one as it reinforces a sense of continuity when everything around us feels fragile and disrupted. Feeling insecure and anxious about the present sends us scurrying back to the past; nostalgia - the security blanket of adulthood. But there is also a negative aspect to nostalgia, one that doesn't help promote good mental health. Going back to its etymology, nostalgia can evoke 'pain' as well as comfort simply because it induces longing. In the words of Shakespeare,  'there's the rub',  for when indulged in in isolation, nostalgia becomes too inextricably tied up with loss and its equally miserable bedfellow - regret. We are painfully reminded of what, and who, we have lost and the more we long for them. If we cocoon ourselves in the past for too long then we distance ourselves from appreciating what and who we have now. Nostalgia is a poor proxy for happiness in the present. 

Wednesday, 10 February 2021

Lessons in the Time of Corona

So, back in lockdown again and this time I've been able to reflect more on the weird experience that is remote teaching. First time around there was no time to plan; back last March, with about a day's notice, it was all I could do to hastily throw whatever resources I could into a shopping bag and decant the classroom plants to the car, saving them from certain arid death. It was all a bit like a classroom trolley dash and once home I discovered that I had few of the things I really needed for virtual teaching survival and, also, a horrible realisation that I had left a half-eaten banana to ferment in my desk drawer. 

This time we were prepared (well, as much as we could be) - no matter how much the government would repeat the optimistic mantra of schools being 'Covid-secure' it was easy to see from inside education that, being in contact with potentially hundreds of households a day, schools would surely provide a conduit to transmission despite their best efforts otherwise. I'm very fortunate in that the school I work for provided every teacher with a more than decent laptop and I have room at home to set up my home classroom. We use MS Teams and Firefly to deliver live teaching and collaborate and I'm defnitely nearer to the top of that steep learning curve in learning how to use both than I was; as for the the myriad of add-ons, apps, tools etc. I'd say I'm still sliding about in the pit at the bottom!

What lessons have I learned then about, well, 'lessons' in the time of Corona? Here are four of my observations about online learning and teaching so far:

1. Teaching the void

(Image credit: New|York Times)
As a specialist teacher, I teach a variety of age groups. The younger pupils are all for the novelty of appearing on camera, often with their pets or younger siblings, whereas older pupils, particularly early teens, are for the most part more reluctant. This results in lessons where you feel you are very much teaching to the void - a silent, blank virtual space with live teenagers replaced by initials or bitmojis and avatars. This is very disconcerting. A good teacher works on 'reading the room', working to keep engagement high - how do you engage in a vacuum? 

It's not difficult to understand the reticence; I think anyone can remember how painfully important peer acceptance is at this age and so letting your entire class into your home and to be staring at each other face-to-face on screen for extended periods is uncomfortable - like sustained eye-contact. I've found some compromise so far to be to encourage interaction at the start with an unmuted video check in so I can at least ascertain who's there - a game, quiz, emoji rating for objectives - all go a long way to break the ice. I've also taken my cue from them - teens prefer the Chat bar on Teams and even the most wallflower student will use the 'raise hand' function. Zoom are, apparently, introducing the option of students only appearing on video to the teacher/presenter - a welcome development indeed. Of course, there will always be the exhibitionists, and future social influencers, who love to appear on screen and it's not gone unnoticed when there is a budding flirtation between teens going on either (cue endless hair-flicking) - just imagine how distracting it would have been to have your high school crush, in their bedroom, on your screen...for hours!

2. I'll show you mine, if you show me yours

The art of seamless screen-sharing during remote teaching is essential as well as learning how to incorporate various other apps and links. It should be simple, but to start with I found this difficult to get right, sometimes with amusing (possibly compromising) results such as sharing my Amazon basket with my class rather than the PowerPoint! At least I am not alone, as a quick poll from teacher friends and social media confirms this is a common issue as we grapple with screen multi-tasking: teachers being embarrassed by majorly cluttered desktops, private emails, cringe-worthy notifications coming up and, for one poor soul, the big reveal of their Harry Styles obsession with their screen background. And, for heaven's sake, remember to stop screen-sharing when you're done!

3. Video killed the teaching star

Teachers are often surprisingly introverted - I have colleagues who come into their own commanding a classroom full of rowdy pupils yet shudder at the thought of ringing a parent and feel physically sick giving a presentation to colleagues. I think this is even more the case in Higher Education where the sudden change to broadcaster and online presenter has been stratospherically out of the comfort zone. Almost overnight, teachers and lecturers have had to become both online course designers, video producer, editing specialist and live streaming star. Before all of this, the terms 'synchronous' and 'asynchronous' meant nothing to me whereas now I am 'in the mix' and able to at least consider how these might fit online pedagogy even if I haven't fully mastered breakout rooms, chat bars, online polls and collaborative spaces such as MURAL and Padlet! Personally, I'm of the opinion that less is more - too much technology and the lesson becomes an overwhelming multi-sensory circus. I've not forgotten the first live teaching experience where I played it safe and just focused on having a check-in with pupils and spending time talking over what they were finding difficult; one pupil at the end exclaimed genuinely, 'Oh Miss, it's just so nice to see you!' 

(Image credit:

4. Private versus public

Perhaps the biggest change with remote learning is the way the gap between public and private worlds has narrowed. Pupils perceive their teachers within the confines of the classroom; they are surprised to see you outside of that realm and realise that you don't pack yourself away in the classroom store cupboard at the end of the day. Bringing the classroom into your home, and for pupils to bring you vitually into theirs, obviously needs careful safeguarding. Teens do so much of their socialising online that, for many, virtual learning seems like an extension of this. It's easy for them to forget protocol and need direction about what is and isn't appropriate - this has mean a whole host of sentences I never thought I'd hear myself say in the context of teaching: 'Please wear actual clothes not pyjamas'; 'I can only see your feet, please can you sit the right way up'; 'Can you mute your microphone - the slurping of noodles is very distracting' - being just some. In now crowded lockdown homes, often with two parents trying to work and a whole host of other children, trying to find a quiet space to concentrate is as difficult for pupils as it is for their teachers and I feel nothing but admiration for the educators with young children. Improvisation is the name of the game and I've seen colleagues with ironing board desks set up in the hallway, or using a corner of the kitchen with the side of the fridge making an impromptu whiteboard and children sat cross-legged on the floor of a cupboard or round the table on their phone with the whole extended family, even grandma, on theirs.

That said, for all the distractions and interruptions that home learning brings, there has been something heart-warming too in rediscovering just what a privilege teaching is, and, that successful learning and teaching, however it might be delivered, is very much reliant on the quality of the relationship between teacher and learner. Pupils having insight into more than your teaching persona - hobbies, pets, interests and family - has not been the infringement on privacy that I thought it might be but instead a way to build common ground and increase the trust needed for the learner to tell you what's missing from their understanding. Finding out your teacher is a secret gamer, hence the headset, or that they support the same football team does much to increase that bond. In the same way, having parents be around, or even join in lessons does not seem like an observation or judgement but instead an opportunity to work in partnership to support learning. There is so much humour in the situation we find ourselves in too - my husband said just the other day that what surprised him the most about remote teaching was the amount of shared laughter that dominates the majority of lessons in lockdown. In the middle of such an uncertain and anxious time for our young people, school continues to be the stablising influence, all that has changed is its physical location.