Return to the classroom: Overwhelming


There is something so horribly physical – actually painful, often acutely so – about post-traumatic muscular kick-back. It is a form of anxiety with which I am all too familiar – and it is, to me, utterly overwhelming and very difficult to handle in any kind of mindful, let alone insouciant, way.

Let me explain: The whole process of resuming my teaching career, albeit on a part-time basis, has been overwhelming, both emotionally and physically. I became incredibly tense beforehand, on both occasions, and was very nervous, and barely slept, the nights before going into previously-unknown schools. The disruption to my routine (in so far as I have had one) has been a huge shock, and I have known, at some level, that my muscles and nerves would, inevitably, have their say eventually; they always do.

Both teaching days, I was up by six in the morning. It all felt so weird, as if I were a different person, an Alienora I thought I had left behind. Climbing into formal clothing felt strange. There was a stiffness about it, a lack of freedom, a tension – and the old pull between understanding that I need to look professional and wanting to simply be my usual self.

Adrenaline surges were vast throughout both days – but, while Tuesday was good, Thursday was the kind of nightmare all teachers, no matter how experienced and talented and able, face from time to time and dread with every fibre of their beings. I had occasion to comment in a recent post about the effects climatic conditions have upon teenagers – and Thursday was rainy with a high wind, absolutely the worst kind of weather in which to meet unknown children and attempt to teach an unfamiliar subject.

I shall say no more in terms of detail, concentrating instead upon my own response. I felt completely overwhelmed, terrified, so tense that I could have been carved from wood and bubbling up with oceans of tears. Failure seemed to be staring me in the face. My new start, I feared, would finish prematurely.

When I got into the car, to drive home, I had to stop after a few minutes because the tears started and would not stop. My teaching blouse was sodden within seconds. But, back driving again, I realised that this sorrow had touched a spring far more profound than the immediate incident; I knew that I had been feeling overwhelmed for a very long time, and for a variety of reasons – and that the loss of control in the lesson actually triggered, and echoed, a far wider spectrum than that produced by a less-than-successful teaching experience.

We teachers fear losing control of our classes. It is, perhaps, the most fundamental fear in teaching. For all our bluster, and education, we are one against many – and our bluffing teeters on the edge of profound vulnerability all the time. We are open to abuse, even assault. Being adult, having degrees, trying to engage with the children – none of this guarantees our success or our safety. It it, consequently, very easy to feel very small and easily broken when things get tough: To feel totally overwhelmed by the strain of having to keep the wild animals in their cage. As it were.

Fear of abuse lies at the heart of it, I am certain. And this is very painful territory for me, for many of us. Being overwhelmed by stronger, more ruthless adversaries has been a constant theme in my life in recent years – and the fear of certain personality types is an ongoing battle. It is easy, when threatened, for me to slide into a state of paralysis, to see myself as weak, useless, ineffectual, doomed to fail: To become, in a nutshell, overwhelmed by past programming and unhelpful habits.

Today, the pain has been bad again, as my muscles – so cramped through fear yesterday – spasm and whinge and moan. This morning, walking Jumble, I had the closest thing to a full-blown panic attack I’ve experienced since moving to Glastonbury – and, yes, I was tempted to give up my teaching plans, to give in to the fear.

But, looking at it logically, I have a 50% success rate thus far – and I can hardly make a valid judgement of anything after only two days. I am, as I have intimated on here many times, easily overwhelmed and very prone to a strong, usually unpleasant, somatic response. My body screams when my mouth cannot.

To me, one thing is very clear: It is time I faced this fear of being overwhelmed, of losing control, of being attacked and abused, laughed at and ridiculed. It is time I realised that the bad moods, nastiness and malice of others directed at me do not mean that I am necessarily at fault – or that I am a feeble, pathetic human being.

We all feel overwhelmed at some time in our lives – and often expend great energy trying to pretend that this is not so; trying to put on a brave, or hard, face; hoping to convince others, if not ourselves, that we have rhino-thick hides and are tough as the proverbial old boots.

So, this time, I am facing it: Yes, I felt, briefly, not just overwhelmed but, actually, obliterated. It hurt, horribly. It was a blow to my self-esteem, my confidence, my security. But, glancing back over the past year or so, such blows have been frequent – and often far more truly devastating than Thursday’s moment of misery. Of course, my body has no sense of relative values when it comes to threat: It clenches the muscles into excruciating knots, and pours out the gallons of adrenaline, regardless..

I will not flee, however. I will not run away from this fear of being overwhelmed by a stronger, attacking other human being. I will not back away from my terror of losing control in the classroom of my life. I will not give in, even thought the orcs of pain pull viciously at me and waves of anxiety climb and climb.

Better by far, I say, to be capable of being overwhelmed by life than to live in a constant state of unfeeling satedness, underwhelmed by everything.


19 thoughts on “Return to the classroom: Overwhelming

  1. Your article is so full of honesty and I am proud of you. I was in your position for very long. Not because of the children but because of management. Everyday became a day to proof. Let me tell you… whatever you do, number one take care of yourself! Don’t loose yourself or who YOU want to be. Your body will take revenge on long term. You are not alone out there and being a teacher can is a profession out of the heart … but this is why it can break our hearts too. Step back, take time for yourself, take courses, give private lessons to children you choose… I did my Montessori Elementary Diploma which showed me a different way to teach and opened my eyes to new ways. But never give up on yourself because of others!

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Julie

    Rather than get exhausted by a daily classroom fight, why not change tack?
    A friend of mine, demoralised by the constant tension her pupils put her under, decided to retrain as a University assistant. She thrived. Before that she tried her hand at teaching in a private school (against her principles) and found that she was valued as a teacher rather than as a ‘policewoman’. You could also teach in prisons or hospitals.
    There is a lot to be said for facing up to a battle: it toughens us up and that is exactly what is needed sometimes. But why not also take advantage of your strengths and teach those who will appreciate the quality of your teaching? It does wonders to one’s ego and it is much more fun and rewarding than a gladiatorial job!

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  3. David Greenway (Town Crier and Honorary Bard of Glastonbury) .......also weekday wizard.

    Been working as a supply, with one or two bouts of “full time” for about 8 years. Now and again, (well, quite rarely these days) I encounter an unruly class. I tell myself it is not “me”. Sometimes it is the weather. Usually, it is the person I’m covering for that has such low expectations in terms of pupil behaviour and who regularly accepts bad behaviour which causes me to struggle to maintain order. Might be worth having a chat some time …… with my 8 years experience at it, (I survive it and actually enjoy it!) all in local schools, I may be able to share a few of my coping strategies! Just a thought……

    Liked by 1 person

  4. “My body screams when my mouth cannot…”
    Those words stopped me in my tracks and the tears welled up unexpectedly, as I realised that was what happens to me almost on a daily basis. There was me, thinking it had to be old age. Never once considering all the distressing things I successfully keep hidden from the world.
    I hope you manage to conquer this latest trial, Ali. Not really the job I would have chosen!

    Liked by 1 person

  5. After the year you have lived through, wound tight as a spring by circumstances imposed upon you, culminating in a complete lifestyle change, I’d be more surprised and definitely worried if you didn’t have the odd crisis moment! You have already achieved so much in the face of awful problems… You’ll do this too. You are a teacher…and one of the memorable good ones to judge by the comments of your old pupils when the books came out too. Strength doesn’t come from feeling little and fearing less, but from facing life and living it. You are stronger by far than you give yourself credit for ❤ xxx

    Liked by 1 person

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