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The compassionate teacher

siteadmin 26 May, 2019

Are you a compassionate teacher?

My job nearly took everything from me.

This time last year I didn’t want to be alive: teaching was the cause.


It’s not particularly comfortable to think about how I was feeling this time a year ago as we began our Easter holidays. I was a term into being a Head of English, and I’d plummeted from enjoying the thrill of it all to wishing I was dead. Literally.


What a difference a year makes: I’m delighted to say that we’re now expecting baby number two, and I cannot wait to get stuck in all over again. And I will never, ever take that feeling of hope for granted. It’s worth reflecting, though, on what led me to that place, and what’s led me out of it.


My school was in disarray, my team was experiencing a gargantuan turnover, and I was expected to deliver in spite of everything going on around me. The moment that scared me most that I recall so vividly was receiving an email asking about cover work just as I logged onto my computer. It was the most ludicrously tiny of all straws, but it broke this camel’s back. I burst into tears and sobbed uncontrollably in my classroom, desperately hoping no one would come in and find their department lead in such a mess. That night, I woke up in the early hours, drenched in sweat and shivering; my chest had a tonne weight on it, and I felt utterly, utterly sick.


Things about teaching which used to give me a thrill began to fill me with dread: Twitter had always been a source of inspiration and warmth, but now whenever I saw a useful idea, it was just another thing to add to my ‘to-do’ list, and another thing I wasn’t doing for my students. I was an epic failure. I even began to feel ashamed of being a teacher- and not even a very good one. My brother runs a successful franchise cleaning business, as I was beginning to feel better again, he said: “My God, I knew you were struggling the moment you asked me about opening up your own franchise- no one in their right mind would want to be in this game- it’s horrendous!”


My depression began to impact my home life; my little boy had stopped sleeping properly about four months previously, so I was running low in terms of energy. At one stage, my wife left me standing in the middle of a Sunday morning stroll because she was sick of me talking about work. If I heard my son cry, it would fill me with dread and uncontrollable sadness: I didn’t want to be near him.


I’d become totally and utterly overwhelmed by everything, and my mind had decided that enough was enough. I stopped eating, and dropped over two stone in about a month.


A talking therapy that focusses on compassion was my way through. It helped me reframe how I speak to myself, and how I see the world around me. It basically says that we’ve got three parts of our brain- a threat, a drive and a soothe: if that gets out of sync, then we’re in trouble. It uses evolutionary psychology, so the brain parts are all scientifically sound.


It got me thinking not just about my own situation, but education as a whole: have we become so defined by results that we’ve lost our drive? Our core purpose? A book pitch later, and I’d found an amazing publisher who supported me through my writing, and The Compassionate Teacher was born! It’s out now, and it basically takes the notion of compassion, and applies it to education and school settings in the hope of helping teachers to support themselves, their colleagues and their students’ mental health more effectively.


The book is available here:

Andy Sammons is a Team leader for English at a large secondary comprehensive in Wakefield.