ATA Magazine

So, how's it going?

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I’d begun to feel a sense of dread while awaiting the bell announcing the end of each break.

I’m sitting in my vehicle crying on speakerphone in a parking lot. My former partner teacher and mentor remains silent at the end of the line. A part of me is mortified with embarrassment and screaming at me to pull it together, but the release is so unexpected and powerful that I have no hope of reining it in. I can’t imagine what Michael is thinking on the other end of the call. Our relationship is friendly, but not really crying-in-front-of-each-other friendly. After all, we’re a couple of Albertan middle-aged, male, construction teachers. The trigger for my emotional outburst: Michael’s simple question, “So, how’s it going?” 

I had just finished a workday teaching construction, technical theatre and cabinetmaking in an urban high school. The day was typical. I’d catch myself unconsciously pausing and holding my breath as I observed each group of students cheerfully working, relaxing only when I was satisfied they were following our safety protocols correctly. At the buzz of the lunch bell, I headed upstairs to the shop to print off safety tests, check emails, plan tool demos and drink as much coffee as needed to keep me standing through my afternoon classes. When a colleague checked in, I gestured at the messy shop and piles of paperwork to mark and replied, “living the dream,” and we laughed resignedly at the enormity of the work. 

I was living my dream, but the complexity of modern trades education was taking an invisible (to me) toll on my health. Each buzz of the bell brought a fresh opportunity to share my love of carpentry, art and design, but each bell also brought fresh opportunities for student and staff injury, equipment failures, changes to support staff, new products to assess, new projects to plan and new materials to purchase.

I had noticed that I’d begun to feel a sense of dread while awaiting the bell announcing the end of each break, and I’d begun to wear hearing protection even when only doing paperwork. I had assumed this was because the bell sounded so loudly and abruptly in my shop, but in retrospect, I can see that I was desperate for quiet and dreading the return to chaos. 

At any rate, by the end of this particular school day, the sunset glowed in the distance as I lowered and locked the overhead doors to close up for the weekend, shrouding myself and the shop in silence. I felt relief that I no longer needed to be continually evaluating every sound in a busy shop for signs of danger. I felt the comfort of knowing no one had been hurt. I felt like I had things under control, and I was proud of making it through another week. The familiar knot of anxiety in the pit of my stomach had untied itself and wouldn’t begin to tangle again until Sunday night, when I would mentally agonize over my preparation for the next week. I got into my vehicle and headed for home, which is when I received Michael’s call and pulled into a parking lot to pick up. 

As I write this story, it occurs to me that I was so isolated in my stress that I didn’t even allow myself to acknowledge it as stress. When I was asked “So, how’s it going” by someone who I knew would understand, the façade I had been maintaining crumbled instantly, and everything that had built up over my first few months just poured out: assessments, attendance, IPPs, safety concerns, equipment maintenance, material orders, shop budgeting, project plans, deciphering outcomes and parent contacts. Michael just listened. 

As the wave of emotion subsided, I was able to regain my composure.  

“Michael, I don’t know what I’m doing,” I said. 
 “Everybody feels like that. You’re doing a good job,” he said. 
“I’m worried that somebody is going to get hurt,” I said.  
“Well, they still have all their fingers now, don’t they?”  
“As far as I know,” I laughed.

After my discussion with Michael, I felt confident enough to open up and begin revealing aspects of my struggle to my colleagues. It turned out that some of them were also looking for solutions to support high enrollment in our heavy shop offerings. Working together, we identified an opportunity for a shared support: an instructional support worker (ISW) stationed in one of our computer labs, supporting up to ten students from each heavy shop with the computer-based, theory components of our courses. Our students were now able to complete their necessary theory work in a quiet and supported environment, and our in-shop student numbers were effectively reduced by up to 30 per cent, allowing for targeted instruction and decreasing the scope of supervision.  

It's difficult to ask for help. Teachers feel an enormous burden of responsibility to their students, and many feel, as I did, that requesting support would undermine confidence in their capability as a teacher. Even now it’s difficult for me to make my practice vulnerable to others. But once I do, I find there are so many different ways colleagues ca help: maybe by listening and commiserating to start, but also by suggesting or providing supports, equipment or techniques I might not have thought of on my own. 

Let’s keep on being there to listen, share strategies and offer a compliment. Even if you don’t
know quite how to help, you could start by asking, “So, how’s it going?”

Myths about mental illness

Myth: If I seek help for a mental health issue, others might think I’m a wimp or even crazy. 

Reality: Seeking appropriate help is a sign of strength, not weakness. No one should delay getting treatment for a mental health problem that is not getting better, just as one would not wait to take care of a medical condition that needed treatment. The wisest, most courageous way to cope is to seek help, especially since early treatment can produce more positive results. 

Information compiled from Compassionate Classrooms, published jointly by the Alberta Teachers’ Association and the Canadian Mental Health Association. This resource is available from the ATA. 


CTS Learning Leader

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