Starling: Rachel's Story

Agency: Switchboard PR

Starling Minds is a Vancouver-based start-up that provides online mental health assessment and mental fitness training. Their model is to partner with organizations who want to provide affordable, convenient mental health support to their employees. Starling engaged Switchboard to create an onboarding toolkit for its client organizations to use to promote the program amongst its employees. After developing that toolkit and creating a communication strategy for Starling, I subsequently worked with them to create monthly digital content to use internally and to share with their client organizations. For that content, I would identify a topic, interview any necessary story subjects, then write the story for various media. Below is a two-part story I wrote for Starling.

Rachel’s Story: Part 1

“This time last year, I was happy.”

The problem with perfect is there’s nowhere to go but down. This time last year, I was happy. My kids were doing well, my marriage was solid, and I had a great job that I was really, really good at. For 15 years, I had been a middle school teacher at the perfect school, or as close to perfect as a school full of humans can be. Supportive admin; engaged parents; strong students.

But then in May my friend and fellow teacher Vanessa told me she was leaving. She and her husband were going to do a year-long exchange to New Zealand, and then...who knew?

But why? I wanted to know. How could she give up this great school?

I asked her, and she said, “I don’t know, don’t you get a bit bored? It’s been so many years of the same thing, I don’t feel like I’m growing anymore. I need a new challenge.”

I had never thought of it that way. I’d always taken pride in how naturally I could do my job. But what she said stuck with me – that night, all week, and through the weekend. And by the time I returned to work the next week, I had decided that I also wanted to try something new.

“Was I slipping?”

So in September I started a new job at a different school in our district, and it became glaringly obvious how lucky I’d been for so long, and what a big mistake I’d made in leaving. I had more identified students in that classroom than I’ve ever had, and fewer EAs. The EAs I did have were much less effective than the ones at my previous school.

Feeling ragged, I went to the administration to talk about the problem, and they looked at me blankly.

“You have more EAs than any other classroom,” they told me.

So maybe it was me? Was I slipping? Maybe I was too old to start fresh. Old dogs, new tricks?

I tried to befriend the other teachers, like I had at my previous school, but there was no sense of camaraderie. No one seemed to collaborate or share resources like I was used to. In the staff room, everyone did their work. I was afraid to make a sound.

Things in my classroom got worse and worse. The students’ performance wasn’t getting any better, and I figured it had to be me. Maybe my strong performance at that old school hadn’t meant that I was a great teacher. Maybe that was just the result of lots of years in one place; it was conditioning, but it wasn’t real talent if in a new environment I couldn’t perform.

I told my husband about my concern. He smiled, said, “Rach, you know you’re a great teacher,” and went to sleep.

 “I knew I couldn’t face my students.”

I didn’t sleep at all that night, and most nights was lucky to get four solid hours, so I was always tired. I lost my appetite, had diarrhea. Had trouble concentrating, which was no surprise with no sleep and no food in my system. For the first time in years, I called in sick, several times in one semester. There were mornings I would wake up feeling like I hadn’t slept a single minute, and knew I couldn’t face my students that day.

I stopped running, which had always been my priority source of stress relief. I’d been an elite runner in high school and university, and had remained an avid runner throughout my twenties and thirties. I needed to run, yet I couldn’t bring myself to do it.

By December, I was a wreck. Christmas break was awful; I was irritated and impatient. I had promised my kids lots of skiing, and instead my husband took them while I stayed home and watched movies. As January crept closer, I knew I couldn’t do another semester like the last one, or I was going to implode. Or explode.

Maybe I wasn’t cut out to be a teacher?

Obviously this isn’t the end of the story. Check back next week for the conclusion of Rachel’s story.

Rachel’s Story: Part 2

Last week we shared the beginning of Rachel’s story. To catch up, read about Rachel’s decision to switch schools – and how that change contributed to a major crisis of confidence here (LINK). Otherwise, read on to see how Rachel’s doing now.

“You can’t go on like this.”

I’d heard variations of those words from my husband, my daughter, my mom. And myself.

I thought I had been doing a good job of hiding my inner turmoil. I was wrong. One day in early January, my husband handed me a business card for Dr. A, a cognitive behavioral therapist. He didn’t tell me where or how he had gotten it. I didn’t ask.

Instead, I called Dr A’s office. Even just making the appointment made me feel marginally better.

That quickly went away when at the end of our assessment he diagnosed me with Generalized Anxiety Disorder. I’d always been a high achiever, a healthy and balanced person. I was an athlete! How could I have a mental health problem?

Dr. A explained that it was a response to my circumstances – just like getting run down can contribute to getting a cold or flu...even for athletes. What we would do in cognitive behavioural therapy, he told me, was develop more functional responses to my circumstances, including strategies for adjusting my thoughts.

“Tell me about your classroom,” said Dr A in our second session.

I told him. All around good kids, but mostly low performing. Six especially problematic students, each designated with educational or behavioural issues. Not enough support. The higher-performing students got none of my time or attention, because my focus was always on The Six (as I called them to my husband).

“I feel like I’m failing them,” I concluded.

After listening to me talk a mile a minute for half an hour, Dr A commented that I might consider approaching teaching the way I approach running.

I stared at him blankly.

Dr A pointed out that my approach, and my expectations, needed to be tailored to the class in question. What was appropriate in my old classroom wasn’t appropriate in this classroom, and that was okay.

In running, he continued, you change your strategy and expectations based on the conditions of the race. You don’t expect to run a 10K with lots of uphill terrain as quickly as you do a flat 10K. You also can’t expect a class with lower-functioning students to achieve at the same level or in the same way as higher-functioning kids.

Achievement, he said, isn’t all or nothing. It’s not black or white. There’s something between being a terrific teacher and a terrible teacher (and having a terrible day, or even a terrible semester, doesn’t mean I’m a terrible teacher).

As I learned to adjust my expectations of my students – and myself – I began enjoying teaching again. I got to know my students; the previous semester I’d been so consumed by their performance (or lack thereof) that I’d barely taken note of their unique personalities. I began setting small goals for each day – get Arnie to stay quiet for five minutes during Silent Reading time; motivate Emily to speak up during group work; make Justin laugh just once.

For the first time, I started leaving school feeling successful – not all days, but many. I realized I was not a terrible teacher, just a very human teacher in some stressful circumstances.

Do you want to learn techniques for adjusting your thoughts? The Starling program is based on the cognitive behavioural therapy principles that helped Rachel in her classroom and life. Complete a Starling Minds assessment today.