In this special series, we chart one secondary teacher’s journey back from rock bottom, sharing the strategies, insights and knowledge she’s gained as she took back control of her mental health and regained a sense of fulfilment in the classroom. Here’s Part 1...
English teacher Sue Webb was behind the wheel on a motorway driving her daughter to Saturday sport when severe paralysis stuck.
It was a panic attack – the ultimate mental health red flag – although Webb didn’t know it at the time.
“My body literally froze. I couldn’t remember where I was going. I couldn’t see properly, I couldn’t hear properly. It took all of my concentration, really, just to keep the car on the road.
“I look back now and I shudder at that – how easily that episode could have ended badly,” Webb tells EducationHQ.
Only fragments of the harrowing experience remain lodged in her memory.
“I blanked out, I don’t remember getting home. In fact, the next thing I remember was finding myself crying on the bathroom floor,” Webb recalls.
“So that’s a fairly severe, traumatic episode that seemed to come completely out of the blue for me, there wasn’t any kind of lead-up to it, so I really didn’t understand what was happening.”
The year was 2016 and Webb, who'd been teaching for 26 years in Queensland schools until that point, returned to her classroom the following Monday.
Blind to the creeping signs of burnout she was experiencing, she could not foresee the terrifying trajectory her life would assume.
Over the next ‘chaotic’ four years, Webb’s often insidious symptoms worsened and intensified significantly, her brain hijacked by a clawing web of paranoias and compulsive, intrusive thoughts.
Her job, once a pleasure, felt akin to a daily torture regime – but one she felt she must protect at all costs.
“The wheels fell off for me,” Webb says.
“I developed OCD behaviours that really stemmed from obsessions that I developed around safety, needing to feel safe and needing to know that my students were safe, that my kids were safe.
“I developed paranoias and memory loss, cognitive impairment, so I really struggled to make decisions.
“My anxiety and stress levels were through the roof, really. And on occasions, I heard voices.”
Experienced teacher Sue Webb developed a string of avoidance strategies to mask her burnout at school.
Known by her colleagues as a highly capable and ‘can do’ educator, the alarming cognitive fog was utterly foreign to Webb.
“All of it was really out of character for me; there’s no history of mental illness in my family.
“I’ve often heard people talk about operating in a constant state of high alert, and that’s what I was doing. So, it was a chaotic and scary time.”
And yet Webb kept teaching. Desperate to mask the reality of her mental state from her employer and school colleagues, she relied on pre-established routines in the classroom to get by, developed a string of avoidance strategies, and regularly spat out vague excuses to cover her tracks.
“You can imagine teaching is a pretty tough job when you can’t remember things,” Webb shares.
“I couldn’t remember people’s names – teachers have to make so many decisions during the day, but when we’re struggling to make those decisions, the job became really, really difficult…
“In the classroom I operated mostly on autopilot. And the classroom was a place where I managed OK, because it's a highly structured environment.
“But If I had to go to things like carnival days, or school camps, or retreat experiences, where it was a less structured environment – and therefore I had to deal with the unexpected – that really threw me, that was almost beyond my capacity at the time.”
When inevitably faced with these circumstances, Webb retreated into excuse mode. It was an extremely isolating and distressing position to be forced into, she reflects.
“I’d say, ‘Look, I’m not well’, or, ‘I just can’t make it’.
“And I didn’t go because, a) I didn’t think I could cope with it, and b) because when you go on school excursions and camps, of course, you have a duty of care.
“And I felt like I didn’t trust my own judgement enough and didn’t have the cognitive ability to deal with kids who get sick, or the possible accidents, all the parameters that you’ve got to be in control of when you are supervising other people’s children…”
Webb was also holding onto her leadership position as a pastoral year level coordinator.
Eventually, years after the panic attack had clearly signalled things were less than OK, a growing realisation came – “What I’m doing just isn’t sustainable”.
Don’t miss Part 2 of our series on teacher burnout next week, when we dive into the second chapter of Webb’s journey and highlight the precise measures she took to recover.
Webb’s Instagram page @teacherscrytoo offers a place of support and advocacy for teacher wellbeing. Her book, Teachers Cry Too, was published in 2022. She also works with schools and teacher training organisations to help teachers recognise the symptoms of burnout and to develop intervention strategies to minimise the risk factors. Webb also facilitates teacher wellbeing and induction programs designed for early career teachers. You can find out more by emailing email@example.com