If you don’t know who Pennywise is, most of your older pupils will. Pennywise is the scary clown in the film ‘IT’, based on Stephen King’s novel and released this month. When he turns up, which he does every 27 years, red balloons also tend to materialise, floating disarmingly through the air. Since this cult film’s release, a number of people have dressed up as Pennywise, worryingly turning up in all sorts of public places, and red balloons have been tied to drain grids – you will understand why if you have seen the film.
Pennywise concentrates on scaring and threatening a group of adolescents (who, incidentally, give remarkable performances and make the film much more than just a horror movie). Members of the group are also bullied by older college kids, so they have a lot to cope with.
Clowns have a track record of being both unsettling and frightening – there’s even a word for an irrational fear of clowns: coulrophobia. While they’re supposed to make young children laugh, many children don’t find them funny. They shut their eyes or turn away when they see images of clowns or people dressed as clowns.
And that’s why Pennywise has something to do with teachers’ wellbeing. You see, we can be afraid of looking at our mental health and wellbeing because we’re scared of what we might see. We push it to the back of our minds, turning our heads away and trying to ignore what we might find. So, we block it out and keep going until…we can’t keep going any longer.
If you are worried about your mental health, it is vital that you talk to someone about it. Visit the Teach Well Alliance website and see if there are strategies or self-help books which might help. You can also join the Teach Well Alliance closed Facebook group and share your experiences with other teachers who will understand what you are going through. And the bottom line is this: if stress, anxiety or depression is making you ill, you must accept that you need time off. At that point, you, your family and friends – but especially you – are more important than your school, college or university.
The reaction of looking away is not confined to individual teachers. Unfortunately, it can be found in the response of some school leadership teams who are afraid of asking staff about their wellbeing because of the implications of what they might see. They are like a group of filmgoers turning their heads away when Pennywise and his evil grin appear on the screen, as if, by not seeing him, he won’t exist. In a way, it is not surprising. Teachers are not trained in mental health, and leaders are no different. Like Pennywise, it is frightening to cope with something you don’t understand – especially if it is happening to someone else.
But, like Pennywise, you can’t make the mental ill-health and poor wellbeing of teachers go away by refusing to look at them. At some point, they will emerge, come out in the open, be seen for what they are and threaten the stability of school community.
And, unlike Pennywise, they won’t take 27 years to make their appearance.
Steve Waters: Teach Well Alliance: www.teachwellalliance.com 15th September 2017