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How a Perfectionist Confronted Their Mental Illness

This story is inspired by our community of teachers, who dedicate their lives to their students. 

I never thought I would be here.

A teacher who wanted to quit teaching. It’s a scary thing to realize about yourself, especially for someone in their 40s. After all, who would I be if I wasn’t a teacher?

But I was done. I was ready to say goodbye to the only job I’ve ever really loved or saw myself doing.

Let me explain how I got here.

Growing up in a small town outside of Montreal, I had a great family and life. I loved school and did very well, especially since I had very high expectations of myself. My parents and teachers always said I was a perfectionist. I never thought that was a bad thing as high expectations are what helped me achieve so much. I didn’t know it was linked to anxiety. In the classroom, my teachers always liked me. I was that keener who was organized and never caused too many disruptions.

With so many teachers as role models over the years, I knew I wanted to become one.

So I worked hard, got my degree and became a teacher.

At the start of my career, things seemed on track for the most part. There were ups and downs while I learned the ropes, but my life was moving along smoothly. I felt that I had everything I wanted: a new house with a loving partner, students who valued and respected me as their teacher, and a close group of friends I got to see often.

But over the last 10 years, it all started to change. The change was slow at first but then nosedived until I crashed. I had a lot of issues at work and at home. I felt like I was in the middle of a storm, hoping it would pass. My classroom composition was a nightmare for five straight years. With so many resources being pulled out of classrooms, it was up to me to work harder so that each class would be successful by the end of the year. It was hard. I had a lot of students with behavioural issues that I would consider to be extremely disruptive. My guilt grew every day because I never felt like I had the energy or time to help students who actually wanted to learn.

I was also wearing too many hats. I was an educator, counsellor, parent, coach, cheerleader, event planner, and mediator. Two years ago, I made the decision to stop coaching the girls’ soccer team. That sport has been such a huge part of my life; I felt like I was letting each of those girls and the team down. It can be a lot for one person to take on, but this was just the tip of the iceberg.

What really got to me were things beyond my classroom. My students’ parents were gossiping about me whenever things didn’t go their way, my closest colleague was having suicidal thoughts, and our administrator wasn’t supporting us. I was also having conflicts with a fellow colleague who I couldn’t respect because he just seemed to dial it in every day without any passion for their job. But things really started escalating when he contacted the board to complain about me, leaving me no choice but to share my grievances as well.

Outside of school, my personal life was also hanging by a thread. I had two children and a partner who wanted my time, even though I was exhausted after work. My mother was diagnosed with cancer a year ago, which has put a real strain on my siblings and I. Around the same time, my best friend from high school also passed away.

With all of these things happening at work and at home, I had a hard time preparing my lessons for my students. I was a lot more anxious and stressed in my classroom. I could tell that my students knew it. I couldn’t help but feel like I had failed them, and that this may not be the profession for me anymore. This feeling snowballed into shame as I had devoted my life to becoming the best teacher I could be. I felt like I had failed at the one thing I’ve always wanted to do; I couldn’t even recognize myself anymore.

But, what if I quit teaching? What would I do? What would I tell people? I didn’t know where to start even if I wanted to.

Looking back now, I had no idea that I was sinking so low. Each time I slid downwards, I adjusted to a new normal even when it wasn’t healthy.

I know for myself, I always put everyone’s needs first. I think it’s in our DNA as teachers. We keep giving and pushing forward until our batteries are completely drained.

A visit to my family doctor forced me to admit that I was struggling. I didn’t have much hope at the time but he convinced me to prioritize my mental health before calling it quits.

Prioritizing My Mental Health

Timing is everything.

Over the past few years, our union has been trying to combat the burnout in teachers. They kept negotiating with legislators for better class sizes and resources available. They also started offering programs for mental health.

I originally registered for Starling Minds when I heard about it through a workshop at our annual convention in Montreal. I was immediately interested in seeing what the app did as the founder was a registered psychologist, who specialized in treating teachers.

As I worked through the Starling program, I realized through its community of other teachers that I wasn’t alone in my struggles. I can’t tell you how much that helped. I didn’t feel so alone when I scrolled through their stories.

Being a perfectionist, I always had a hard time opening up to colleagues about my struggles and being really vulnerable. I wanted to be seen as a strong teacher who was capable of everything that this job threw at me. But I now realize that this made me feel really isolated and alone. The Starling community helped me share my struggles with other members in an anonymous and safe space. No one knew it was me but everyone could relate to my story.

The most eye-opening thing was realizing how many negative thoughts I had on a daily basis. I realized I tend to focus on the things that I do not achieve instead of focusing on the things I do.

Especially when I’ve had a really stressful week, I rarely remind myself to think about more encouraging or assertive thoughts. I realized this has been a pattern my whole life. Perhaps this goes back to having high expectations; if I do not feel that I’ve reached my goals, I just push harder out of fear of failure.

One of the things that have really helped me was learning to set more reasonable goals. At first, I felt silly because I teach my students to set SMART goals all the time. I never realized how unreasonable my expectations were and how vague my goals were before I started Starling.

For example, during my lessons I would be preoccupied with trying to get through all the material, while circulating through the class to help each student individually. This was incredibly taxing and unsustainable, but I really thought it was doable. I know now that it’s important to adjust my goals depending on the the things that come up, and to chunk my goals into smaller steps. It took a while, but this slowly helped build the confidence I needed to achieve more down the line.

Balancing home and work life to make time for myself will always be an ongoing challenge. But, now I know I need to actively manage my time and expectations. I need to monitor my battery and take a Starling assessment throughout the school year because I don’t always see the warning signs before I’m drained.

I’ve learned that we all need to learn about mental health before we develop an illness. I feel like the boy in The Sixth Sense because I can see anxiety and depression so much easier in my students and colleagues.

I would definitely recommend this program to a friend or colleague. Not only did it help me regain my confidence as a teacher, it also helped me build the tools and skills I need to manage some other problems in life.

So, did I end up leaving teaching as a profession?

I can happily say no.

Throughout my journey with Starling and other resources through my teaching association, I am now able to manage my stressors as a teacher, partner, parent, and friend with a clearer mind and perspective. My mental health, like physical health, is something I will always have to manage, but now I know what is healthy for my mind and what isn’t.

I can also help my colleagues and students going through their own mental health struggles and be their support, like Starling was to me.

I didn’t think this a few years ago, but I tell myself that I’m lucky to have the job I always wanted.

My students help me to see the bright side of life. I love seeing their improvement at the end of the year, knowing that I played a part in their growth and journey. I know my students count on me and this has also helped me get back into teaching. Seeing my students accomplish their goals shows me that what I do matters.

I was recently asked what I would share with others struggling with mental health challenges.

Here is what I would say:

  • We are truly not alone in our mental health struggles. Even just logging onto a mental health platform has shown me that there are others going through the same thing. They also struggled with expressing their thoughts and feelings to others. I never realized it was happening to my peers as well.
  • So often, we get caught up in our daily life demands that we forget to take the time to decompress. It can feel selfish, with all the people counting on us – our students at school, our families at home – but ultimately, it’s important and healthy to do so. How can we serve others when we aren’t serving ourselves?
  • Mental health should be treated with the same priority as our physical health, as both are equally important in keeping us happy and healthy. I find that people are more comfortable helping with physical health problems, but find it difficult to do so when it comes to mental health. It’s not that they don’t want to help but rather, they don’t know how.

Over the years, I’ve noticed that there has been more awareness around mental health, and I hope we can continue this trend. I believe that the key to combating the stigma around mental health is to be an advocate and show the people around you that sometimes, it’s okay to not be okay.

My story is where I want to start.


At Starling, we see that people feel uncomfortable talking about mental health. Commonly, people think they are the only ones who are struggling. Despite many efforts to raise awareness around mental health, it still remains largely stigmatized, especially in the workplace at school. 

To give an idea of what teachers go through, this story is an example of the challenges that our members face, shared in the Starling Community. If you would like to share your own story with the Community, please email us at members@starlingminds.com

 

 

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