The Wayfarer's Book

How I Survived Teaching with Depression

How I Survived Teaching with Depression

Keeping life abroad, soul-sucking depression, and a high-energy job from becoming a total recipe for disaster.

Oh hello.

Well, this is a bit awkward. I mean, I know I’m the one who brought this up, but depression is still something not talked about. Except, we’re going to talk about it today.

First, talking about depression is weird. It’s weird and stressful and embarrassing because depression, for me at least, also induces imposter syndrome. I mean, I’m not actually depressed, right? I’m just really really sad. I’m just going through a low period. I’ve just picked up a new hobby – lying in bed staring at the wall mourning the death of a hopeful future.

And maybe that’s true. I am definitely fortunate in that I don’t suffer from chronic or clinical depression. I’ve always been on a bit of the blue side, with a cheerfully melancholic spirit, but that means I can also identify that what I’ve been through the past several months, edging on a year, is something different.

And also, I feel like when you start paying someone to help you through it, you’re allowed to call it depression if you need to.

Teaching with Depression _ I Hate Everything

I love Kamianets-Podilskyi but also I hate everything else.


So, now that I’ve gotten that out of the way, addressing whether or not I can “claim” depression (ugh I have so much more to say about that, but for another time), depression is miserable wherever and whenever it strikes. Whether you’re a student struggling to pay attention in class, a parent pouring all you have into your children, or an office employee resisting the mind-numbing hypnosis of your computer screen.

And then there’s teaching with depression, a total beast to deal with.

For the record, this isn’t a post on about how to manage teaching with depression. I would recommend, first of all, finding a professional therapist to work with, no matter where you are and what you’re doing. But this post is about how I felt/feel teaching while depressed. This is about opening up a conversation to de-weirdify depression. And while I break the past months down into ‘stages,’ I’m not suggesting that there’s a progression, or that even if there is that it’s a healthy one, because experiences like grief and anger and depression are often cyclical and unpredictable and generally not a joy.

But here’s how I lived it.

Stage 1: Distraction

Everything is the worst. I drag myself to work, flip listlessly through textbooks, and hope my skull doesn’t implode under the drudgery of lesson planning.

But as soon as I step in the classroom and look into the faces of my students I can put it aside and focus just on them. Outside the classroom, depression threatens to unhook me from reality. But in the classroom, we can focus on details like differentiating between past simple and present perfect verbs or the correct pronunciation of “clothes.” Narrowing my attention to these details ties me down, anchors me, and for ninety minutes, my depression is outside the scope of my world.

Teaching with Depression _ Beautiful Boardwork

You can also focus on how amazing your boardwork is. No need for improvement here!

Work becomes a relief, a bubble where most of my relationships are positive and affirming. And yes they may be superficial, but swimming up to surface emotions and interactions is a blessing.

Stage 2: Lethargy

Lesson planning is still miserable but now so is teaching. I can barely muster up the energy or even the desire to smile at my students when I walk into the room. Teaching is now just going through the motions, relying on my training and experience and common courtesy to provide students with the education they need. In an odd twist, my lack of enthusiasm for teaching makes my lessons even more student-centered and more focused on developing student autonomy. Perhaps teaching with depression is even making me a better teacher?

Screen Shot 2017-05-27 at 5.33.35 PM

But teachers don’t get to be lethargic in the classroom. For several hours each day, you’re the center of attention and you have to be on. Since I teach adults, I’m often expected to have a personality. (I don’t blame students for wanting an enthusiastic, charismatic teacher. When it’s Thursday night and you’ve just finished eight hours of work and you’ve got two hours of English lessons to look forward to, you want a teacher who will re-energize you, not suck the life out of you).

With teenage students I can ease back into authority figure. Except that enforcing rules and staying fair and being cleverer than they are is actually really draining. What’s the classroom management strategy for students whispering in their L1 throughout class, telling each other to shut up, and also reading Mein Kampf during the break?

I survive classes thanks to the sheer force of time, which I trust to move on just as steadily as ever, dragging me and my students with it.

Stage 3: Action

Ah, the stage that’s most productive and also the least visited. Different than distraction, because it’s not just about escaping into class. It’s the rare glimpse that I could be doing something better with my time and energy. I could be reading methodology blogs or adding new games to my repertoire or personalizing my classes or giving presentations – and then I actually take the initiative to do it.

Teaching with Depression _ Presenting

Laughing to distract myself from stage fright during my first conference presentation.

And I know that focusing on professional development isn’t a fix for depression – it’ll still be there, chilling in the corner eating sunflower seeds and littering the ground with shells – but I can, for a bit, put it aside, reminding myself that life goes on with or without it.

Depression Sucks

The only parting advice I do have for teaching with depression (besides the aforementioned professional counseling) is to prioritize self-care. I know “self-care” has become a hip millennial first-world-problem buzzword, but the little things I’ve done to elevate stress or manage depression or diffuse anxiety have been crucial to getting through life. Chilling in favorite cafes, allowing myself to spend money on books, indulging in a piece of cake mid-afternoon – relaxing into those ‘happy places’ has provided limited relief from the overhanging gloom.

And that goes for all of us. Whether you’re a teacher or a student or a manicurist or an astronaut – take care of yourself, friends.

Teaching with Depression _ Friends

And get yourself some people who love you.

Have you ever grappled with traveling or teaching with depression? Do you have any extra advice to add to those going through it now?

How I Survived Teaching with Depression

If y’all feel me!

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5 thoughts on “How I Survived Teaching with Depression

  1. Chris

    I’ve been there!

    I’ve been battling MDD since I was 17 and I’ve spent four years teaching in South Korea and China dealing with that nagging presence.

    It’s good to know I’m not the only one who has dealt with it, and refreshing to read that you’ve had similar coping mechanisms.

    All the best in fighting the black dog.

    1. Amy Post author

      Thanks for commenting, Chris! It’s always a relief to hear you’re not alone. I hope you’ve found the support you need!

  2. Pingback: New Teacher Tales - Amy - What Kate and Kris did

  3. Omar

    I have quit my job as a teacher because I was afraid it would bring back my depression. I was just getting back to being me when I started the job, and then 3 months later I wasn’t able to feel alive anymore. The fact that you have to be on for the better part of the day was draining. Depression and teaching are a great recipe for suicide. I’m glad it’s over.

    1. Amy Post author

      Thank you for stopping by and sharing. You’re absolutely right — it’s awful when you have to pretend to be something you’re not, and sometimes the best thing to do is stop teaching. It’s good that you were able to recognize that and make that decision. I myself am anxiously waiting for the holidays; I’m going to have at least a month away from teaching, and I think it’s going to be really good for my emotional health. People should remember to take care of themselves first. Work will figure itself out after.

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