Teaching means passing knowledge on, and setting a standard. A teacher is both a role model and a figure of authority. I am who I am because of my brilliant teachers – at school, university, work and in pole dancing. But how does teaching feel when you have depression? Can you be a role model and do such an intense people job when your mental health is taking a hit? In this post, I talk about my experience with teaching (both at university and at pole) and my mental health.
*minor trigger warnings about MH if you’re having a hard time*
My Mental Health
I’ve talked about my mental health a lot on this blog so I’m not going to go on and on about it in this post – if you want to read more, you can check out these posts about being diagnosed with anxiety, performing with depression and this page about my pole journey.
To make it super short, I have generalised anxiety disorder and PTSD, which often trigger depression. I’m pretty sure I already had undiagnosed anxiety as a child, but everything else is the result of an abusive relationship I was in and of work burnout.
As a result of my mental health, I fluctuate between super high-functioning, productive people days and days where I just need to hibernate at home and not see anyone. Social interactions often drain me, make me tearful and emotional.
Luckily, throughout 2019 I went through a very intense therapy cycle made of talking therapy and CBT (cognitive behavioural therapy), both massively helpful to cope with my troubles. I feel like I’ve been healing, and I’m now well enough to trust a new partner. BUT I have to deal with a lot of economic and professional uncertainty – not great for anxiety – and things have triggered my anxiety and depression recently. From more and more work and media commitments to competitions, to random stuff like the life and economic uncertainty of Coronavirus and the company my parents have worked for all their lives closing, the past year has featured a lot of instances of really low mood and helplessness.
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I feel really sad today. This is a #throwbackthursday – me at 11 with my mumâ€™s then Meridiana uniform. The company my parents have worked for all their life – now called AirItaly – is closing down. The owners donâ€™t want to put in new money & without the Stateâ€™s help this will be our Thomas Cook. My mum is retired, and my dad doesnâ€™t have long to go til retirement, so weâ€™re relatively ok. But this – the closure of Italyâ€™s #2 airline because the new owner doesnâ€™t want it anymore – is a tragedy for #Sardinia and for Italy. Sardinia was a relatively unknown and isolated Italian island before the Aga Khan prince opened this airline, then called Alisarda. With Alisarda, and with my townâ€™s surrounding areas being turned into the new Cote Dâ€™Azur, Sardiniaâ€™s economy got a huge boost and our island became what we know & love. Jobs were created, and families were able to thrive. AirItaly put me through my Journalism BA here in London and through my MA in Criminology in Sydney. It helped support me during my PhD. It gave my dad a job since he was 16, and heâ€™s been able to grow so much professionally heâ€™s been sent from Colombia to Africa, from the US to Germany and more countries for work. I have memories of holidays in Barcelona, London, Paris, all thanks to my parentsâ€™ job – either due to them being there for work, or due to company discounts. Through those discounts, I was able to go on lifechanging and life-saving trips to the US and Cuba when I was at my lowest. I am who I am because of this background – and AirItaly is the reason my parents met. The reason so many families in Sardinia came to be. With AirItaly closing, so many of those families will now be left jobless. Sardinians may now have to pay much more to reach mainland Italy. Tour operators are struggling to book flights to the area. This is a tragedy, for Italyâ€™s economy, for Sardiniaâ€™s economy, and for the history of this company and of Sardinia. I am sad that my dad will not get to celebrate retirement properly after decades of hard work. Iâ€™m sad so many families are left with nothing. Iâ€™m sad for Sardinia. My ðŸ–¤ is with everyone struggling with this right now ðŸ’”
Challenges of Teaching
I realise I have always put my teachers on a pedestal. By seeing them as someone imparting knowledge and acting like a figure of authority, I stripped them of their humanity. And by forgetting my teachers were human, I managed to put a lot of pressure on myself to be equally superhuman.
This was obviously very silly, but it has contributed to my anxiety when it comes to teaching. Here are the main things I struggle with.
Both as an academic and as a pole instructor, I had to find my style. In academia, that’s explaining complicated concepts in accessible language, mediated with a lot of gifs and videos. In pole, it’s about making silly comparisons when I am teaching moves – because I first learnt from teachers saying stuff like “sniff your armpit” or “squeeze for dear life”, and I want my students to learn like that too.
This means that generally, my teaching persona is quite upbeat and bubbly – partly because this is what I become when I am nervous and partly because I actually want to be that teacher. I think someone excited and a bit bubbly is nice to be around, whether you’re in a uni lecture room at 9 am hearing about cybercrime or at a pole studio, upside down and fearing for your life.
So I feel that I have to be very engaging, partly because of the persona I’ve chosen and partly because of the nature of teaching. Sometimes, when I’m down, that is very hard. There are days when I can’t show up for myself, and having to show up for other people and keep my weekly teaching commitments can be a struggle.
Especially at university, when students don’t necessarily want to be there, when they’re coming from years of stricter high school teaching and they’re not necessarily prepared to engage, getting something out of them can be like pulling teeth. This can make classes very depressing, and the idea of even getting there really challenging.
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Did you know Iâ€™m also on @tiktok? Iâ€™ve been experimenting with it for the last month or so, ended up doing a viral and Iâ€™m at 3K followers and counting – amassed all of those way quicker than I was ever able to on IG. Iâ€™ve written a blog post about your very own #poledancing #academicâ€™s first WILD month on #TikTok and you can find it on the link in my bio. Itâ€™s about community guidelines, how it deals with #poledance content & video removals. Looking forward to hearing what you think of it! If youâ€™re on TikTok, give me a follow (handleâ€™s the same) ðŸ“·: Some very expressive shots by @missafterglow from my @feministinternet guest lecture at @ual_cci ðŸ˜‚
Pressure of Doing Well
I am and I have always been a massive nerd and an overachiever from my early student days. As a teacher, this means I feel pressured to do extremely well, and if my students don’t engage at uni or look a bit sad and disheartened at pole I feel like I have failed.
When I first started teaching in academia I felt outright inadequate. I didn’t have a PhD, I was teaching something that wasn’t my 100% my field, I had never had students before, and I was 25 – I didn’t look like society’s idea of someone powerful and experienced. So I over-prepared.
I ended up doing the same as a pole instructor. I was trained for over two months, but I used my own training time to overdo it. So my own anxiety triggers me into doing too much to the point of exhaustion.
You never stop learning in life. But because of the superhuman status I’d attributed to my teachers, I never thought I’d have to explain something well even when it was new to me. Knowing this, especially at the start of my teaching career, made me feel very inadequate.
As a result of a variety of traumas, I don’t deal well with feeling trapped – in whichever situation, whether it’s a pole dance move I am super scared of or a problem I can’t solve – and with situations in which I’m expected to deal with huge crowds. Some shows, films, books or news reports can also be extremely triggering for me, but as a criminology lecturer I have to read, watch, engage with and explain a lot of sexual assault and domestic violence material – not great for someone with my background. This drains me and makes me very scared and tearful, too.
Physical, Social and Mental Strain
Last but not least, teaching (both at university and at pole) can be physically and mentally taxing. Especially when I teach a lot of hours in a row, my body starts hurting and I just need to lie somewhere to recharge.
This can have a huge impact on my social life and in my teaching days, so much that I try not to plan anything big when I know I’ll be working because I don’t want to overdo it. The amazing Peach Lee Ray from Feelin’ Peachy perfectly explains this from a studio owner’s perspective:
Why I Am Teaching: Things That Help Me When I’m Not Feeling 100%
So what does this all mean for my coping strategies? Why do I keep teaching in the first place?
Well, because I love it.
I remember when I used to work in PR, a job filled with fun times and with life lessons, but that wasn’t for me. I remember my first internship, when I was yelled at because the ribbon on a goodie bag was facing left instead of right. More often than not, I felt like I was doing and selling something that did not matter.
Now that I am teaching something like criminology or pole dance, I feel like I am doing a job that matters to me and to other people. Sure, before I was helping businesses grow. But now I see the happiness on my pole students when they get a new move, or I get to hear the conversations and theories my criminology students come up with in seminars and lectures. I feel like I am passing some knowledge on and making a difference in someone’s life, however small. This makes me really happy, especially if I’ve had a difficult day.
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Should have gone to Berlin tomorrow and had to cancel for bloody Coronavirus. Even if Germany hasnâ€™t been put in lockdown, cases both here and there are increasing. I didnâ€™t wanna risk being stuck, considering Iâ€™m paid by the hour in most of my work. The health minister there is now advising people to stay indoors as much as possible and knowing my crippling anxiety it wouldnâ€™t have felt like a holiday. Luckily my lovely students at @exoticapoledance Hackney Wick cheered me up. These girls are beginners but theyâ€™re doing such hard moves! They make me a very happy and proud pole mama ðŸ’• will spend the weekend self-isolating with carbs ðŸ˜‚
In the days when I’m feeling really awful, I try to remember why I started teaching in the first place: because it matters to me, and because I want to be what good teachers were to me throughout my life. I remind myself getting to the class is the hardest bit, and that it’s only a few hours of my day that I have to deal with. Generally, when I leave the class I feel happier than when I arrived.
When I feel like over-preparing, I try to tell myself that there’s only so much I can do. That the more experience I have, the less I will be scared about teaching new things.
If I feel really overwhelmed by the social side of teaching, I try to block down at least one day a week of complete ‘me’ time, and I try not to have teaching/ people commitments back to back.
Ultimately though, everybody reacts different to mental health issues. My coping techniques for teaching might not work for you – but the essential thing is to remember whether the pleasure of teaching outweighs the fears and the tricky times. For me, it does: I feel like a useful human being when I teach, and my students make me happy. But as always, look after yourself first.
- Remember you’re doing something meaningful that helps people
- It will become easier with experience
- Book some down time after teaching
- Getting there is the hardest bit
- Teaching = only a few hours of your day
- Look after yourself first