Volunteer burnout and mental health – the ugly truth

By the time I realised what I was putting up with, it was too late. I should have valued myself a lot more.

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Until today I’ve avoided the subject of my library job coming to a rather messy end last October on this blog. Partly because I wanted to move on and not call out any of the people involved while feelings were still raw. It’s a bit undignified and I’m still not sure if I will be returning to that kind of work one day, so I was reluctant to burn my bridges.

What has made me reconsider is that this is Mental Health Awareness Week and a number of people have shared similar experiences on social media. Most of them have felt isolated and inadequate for being unable to cope with the unrelenting and unsustainable pressures of a job in the public sector in the current climate. Several have said that the thing they have found most helpful was others sharing their experiences.

I agree – this culture of grin and bear it is helping nobody. I suspect that the longer people like us go on trying to live up to ever-increasing expectations and growing workloads, the longer the present dire state of affairs in public services will continue. I can only speak for education. In the course of 15 months or so I went from 5 hours a week looking after one small school library (200 pupils) to three schools, three different sites, and over 1,000 children, plus well over 100 members of staff, having needs I was valiantly attempting to meet, officially in 16.5 paid hours a week, but in reality a full-time job and then some.

Some of this pressure was self-inflicted. I find it hard to say no and when my school became an Academy Trust it seemed like a great opportunity to roll out what had been a successful modus operandi elsewhere. I remain very proud of the three school libraries I either opened or revived, and the fact that they created at least one job other than my own. But I soon found myself trying to do a challenging job that I had absolutely no qualifications for, in a difficult environment where there was continual pressure on resources – financial, physical and human. Sadly, the bright era of co-operation between the three schools didn’t quite materialise, and I found myself in a situation where I was constantly suspected of having divided loyalties and vital information was undoubtedly withheld from me at times.

I think many of my difficulties stemmed from the fact that I was initially a parent-turned-volunteer who hung around and was eventually absorbed onto the payroll. Many colleagues appreciated what I was trying to achieve and the support I did my best to give to them. But I never quite felt I was one of the team. There were people who were only too ready to mention my lack of professional librarianship and teaching qualifications, though the Trust would never have been able to resource someone in the role who’d had them, and I left with nearly 20 years of experience under my belt. I probably had also developed a tunnel vision about the job which made it difficult for me to regard it rationally. I was always late, always fire-fighting, always putting on my best face for another class of lively 7 year olds, and always terrified that one day something would snap and I would be unreasonable or even unkind to one of those children I so very much wanted to inspire and help.

It took me a long time to realise how unwell I was. In fact, it wasn’t until I realised I was seriously contemplating throwing myself in front of a train rather than go to work the next morning. I won’t go into the gory details here. Some things could have been better handled, but nobody had the time to poke something that appeared on the surface to be working. My collapse surprised a lot of people and some were lovely and supportive. But I was asked to come into work three or four times after being signed off sick with severe depression to show other people how to do my job, and watch them struggling with things I could have done easily had I been fit and well. That did nothing to help my recovery.

It seemed for a while as if I would be able to return part-time to one of the schools where I had built up contacts, and a library service I was proud of and devoted to. In fact, once mental illness came into the conversation, I wasn’t even allowed to go into the building  to collect my things and say goodbye. Even bankers at Lehmann Bros got that. In education, the spectre of child protection always haunts you. I am sure the manager involved was trying to be professional but when you are already suicidally depressed and so stressed you are suffering from dissociative episodes and unable to drive safely, it’s hardly motivating to be treated as a potential threat to children’s wellbeing and told that you will need constant supervision should you have the temerity to come back into work. At the time, I wasn’t up to the job. But with better handling I could have been, and even an hour a week covering books would have done wonders for my self-esteem.

All that happened last October and I’m still not completely well. My medication has been increased and I spend my days gardening, working out, learning new things (my watercolours are coming along) and feeling useless and guilty. I am deliberately cautious about the time I spend on social media because I hear about so many people in desperate need and feel I am privileged and self-indulgent not to be out there helping them. Yes, I’ve done my bit, but I failed, I messed up big-time and feeling that I might never be able to handle a responsible job again is a hard thing to come to terms with. At 59, I don’t quite feel ready to retire. But it may be forced upon me.

What would I say to others in my shoes? Don’t promise to do a job people should be paying you to do. In libraries these days it’s happening all the time. And it’s wrong. It’s exploitative and in the end it doesn’t make things better long-term. Professional jobs need to be done by people who have the status, experience and training to do them and are paid accordingly. If you ignore these stark realities, and many decent people will, you will eventually burn yourself out and the resources to pick up the pieces may not be there. Even for professionals they are thin on the ground. And if you must say yes, do your utmost to surround yourself with people you trust who will have your back and fight your corner. Many genuinely intend to do so when you start, but such are the pressures on them that they will take the line of least resistance when you need them to say unpopular things, and ultimately throw you under a bus if that is the only way they can see to ensure that the show goes on. I do not say that in bitterness. I was bullied at work and did not speak out when I should have done. By the time I realised what I was putting up with, it was too late. I should have valued myself a lot more.

That is probably enough for now. But if you are one of those burnt-out professionals sitting at home right now, there are two things to remember. You are not useless. And you are not alone.

 

I’m back, but no longer a librarian

Working in school librarianship had been part of my identity for so long that leaving it behind has been traumatic, particularly as the break came suddenly and not in circumstances I would have chosen. After a period of depression and anxiety, I sought counselling and am now at the point of putting together the next stage of my life.

I am not rushing into any major commitments at the moment. If this is selfishness, so be it. I would rather be accused of selfish behaviour for a while than make decisions affecting myself and other, more vulnerable people, without knowing enough about my ability to sustain them and carry them through. I’ve found the last few months very healing and, rather surprisingly, enjoyable.

For a while my previous employer kept inviting me to come back in and tell other people how to do the job – well, on one site anyway. On another I was more or less marched out Lehmann Bros style, on the grounds that I was mentally unstable and a potential danger to children. That was immensely hurtful; I’d worked many hours to build that library up and I never even got the chance to pick up my things and explain the situation to work colleagues. With suspicious speed, an in-house replacement took over. I’m glad that someone who appears to be competent and enthusiastic is doing the job.

After a miserable Christmas “do”, when I was rather perfunctorily thanked and presented with some money in an envelope (a great contrast to the beautifully drawn tribute one little boy gave me), I was left alone and able to move on with my life. I still see the Executive Head of the Trust from time to time; he was a good friend and I thought I could trust him, but dealing with conflict was never his strong point and when others flexed their muscles, he threw me under the proverbial bus. I’m genuinely sorry to lose his support. In some respects, he was just too nice to be a manager. He was, I will always maintain, a terrific headmaster who had time for every child in his care. I feel sad that developments in the Trust pushed him so far out of his comfort zone.

But enough of all that. Let other pens dwell on guilt and misery. Or other keyboards. I’ve changed the look of this corner, made it somewhat more generic and removed the header image of a school library that I no longer represent (Of the three, it’s the one I feel has been left in the best shape going forward. They begged me to return but I felt it would put them, and myself, in a difficult position, so it is now in the hands of a lovely lady who knows the school intimately and was a great help to me).

And I can’t absolutely promise to keep off the subject of politics, but I’ll give it my best shot. I’m growing personally and intellectually, I’m healthier and happier than I have been for quite a while, and I have a lot to look forward to. I’ll write about some of the things I’m up to here.

 

I am unwell. I have succumbed to that occupational hazard of the modern educational professional, depression, and been sent home on sick leave. Gradually, I am beginning to recognise the warning signs I dismissed or denied at the time. My inability to keep track of keys, ID cards, etc. My moments of disassociation. Saturdays spent entirely either in bed or wishing I was there. Friendships neglected. Weight creeping upwards due to snatched meals.

So here we are. I have no idea when, or even if, I shall return to work. At the moment I would rather jump in front of a tram. I am getting help. I am finding it very hard to get off the sofa and do anything at all, but hopefully that will pass in good time. It’s early days yet.

I feel that one or two people at work have not helped the situation, though the vast majority have been kind and supportive. And the couple that have not, I feel that they are basically decent souls who are being forced by the shameful underfunding of education to make decisions that they would rather not have to make, and would even less rather discuss with me. I have had a gratifying amount of support from parents, children and staff – but none of that means that I am immune from becoming a luxury that my employer can no longer afford.

I have held the line for as long as I could. The cost in terms of my quality of life has been significant. I am blessed by a supportive family and community, and if the worst came to the worst we could manage without the money I make. Many are not so fortunate, and my heart truly bleeds for anyone who has to force themselves back to work in the kind of state I am in at the moment.

Meanwhile, I am beginning to come across some public acknowledgement of the number of teachers going through this kind of thing, and I suspect it is the tip of an iceberg. If anyone knows of any burnt-out and despairing school librarians who are happy to talk, please get in touch. Because the worst possible thing I could do right now is try and get through this alone.

 

Wimpy Kids or British values – the great school library money grab

 

“it’s just simpler to buy your own than fight for basics”.

The recently reported survey results that teachers are increasingly paying for school resources out of their own pockets comes as no surprise to me. It’s not simply a matter of funds not being there. As one respondent points out,  “it’s just simpler to buy your own than fight for basics”.

Schools have discovered that one way to save money is to make it so exhausting and frustrating for teachers to get hold of the basic materials they need that many of them will just pick them up on the way home. Of course, that’s by far the most expensive course, but nobody said the teachers had to do it did they? If the teachers can’t be arsed to go through the right channels, then that’s their problem.

I can’t believe this hasn’t spread to what is left of school libraries. I’m already seeing its depressing, and entirely deniable, fallout. It’ll soon be time for the new Tom Gates and Wimpy Kid books. Last year I picked them up at rock bottom prices from the supermarket, which meant I could afford three copies, no small matter when you have a waiting list of 20 or more. Last year, when a teacher asked me for a book, I could order it when I got home on Amazon Prime and have it in her hands the following morning. And when the dinosaur craze hit Reception yet again, I could pick up five or six books at Oxfam on the way home, thus delighting not only a bunch of five year olds but a valuable charity as well. (At least that made me feel better about buying from the corporate monsters destroying independent bookshops).

Not any more. From now on, I have to put in a requisition and if we don’t have an account with that supplier, tough. Suddenly the books kids actually want to read have to compete with the school’s need for more stuff about British Values or the Ancient Romans in their classrooms. I have to find the time and the energy to make the case that kids deserve control over what they read for pleasure, and that the stuff they choose won’t always impress educational professionals.

I have been in this job for almost 20 years. I have never felt so powerless and frustrated as I do right now. And it’s not even as if this is the school’s money, at least not entirely. It was raised by the PTA, who have faithfully handed it over into my care for years, trusting me to provide the books children actually want to read. They spend hours organising fund-raising events. But they were never consulted about the school subsuming the proceeds into their own budget and, thereby, overruling their right to specify what it is used for.

I am sure the school would justify their new policy by pointing to a spate of recent high profile cases involving financial irregularities in schools. What is wrong with greater transparency? It’s like safeguarding – any new policy, no matter how batty, small-minded or illogical, is hard to question if to do so implies that you’re anti-safeguarding. Of course, I don’t want the right to make off with the proceeds of the cake sale. But for the last 20 years I have never submitted an expenses claim that didn’t include carefully collated receipts. And everyone seemed perfectly happy, particularly the children reading the books they enjoyed.

In the end, I just don’t have the bloody energy to argue in favour of Tom Gates or Minecraft books. People will probably wonder why it’s such a big deal to want the latest one when months later it will trickle down as a second-hand, well-meaning donation. The answer to that is simple – if the last release of something is just as good, why did anyone ever queue up outside a store?

So, I shall swallow hard, pay £8.99 and fill in forms galore for something I could once have got at Tesco for £5.00, and watch as my 90% pupil engagement drops week on week. I shall tell children they have to learn to wait for what they want and that it’s character building, and meanwhile have they tried The Wind In The Willows?  And eventually I’ll have had enough, and I’ll retire. I suppose I’ve had a good run.

 

The library as alternative playground

The school library can be seen as one of the only spaces in a school which is truly free — the space that is not ‘home’ or a ‘classroom’, and which can be without academic, sporting, or family expectations…….School libraries have long been a place of refuge from the playground for many students.

Kay Oddone, Scootle Lounge

When I was doing my A-levels, I did not feel at all comfortable in the rough, loud environment of the Sixth Form Common Room. Instead I turned to the library as an alternative space to relax and socialise, and made some wonderful literary discoveries and lasting friendships in the process.

Kay Oddone’s point above pinpoints a very important feature of a good school library. Our schools are highly stressful environments where kids are pushed through a frantic schedule and one-size-fits-all initiatives. I can only speak for primary schools in the UK, but I’ve seen many children who struggle socially due to introversion, special educational needs or simply the need to chill out in a relaxed and safely supervised space.

Sadly, this is something I find it increasingly difficult to provide, even though I am that vanishingly rare phenomenon, the salaried primary school librarian. Here are a few of the barriers I face:

  • PART TIME LIBRARIANS I work across three different schools, so none of them have a full-time provision. In fact children have to be discouraged or even banned from the library when I’m not around, due to the technical difficulties of them borrowing and returning books without using the right procedure. I simply don’t have time to sort out a pile of little post-it notes on my desk or search for a title a child insists they have returned. All my time goes on class sessions – sometimes up to six a day.
  • SAFEGUARDING In some ways this is the most intractable issue. It makes it impossible to employ unsupervised pupil librarians. In one school I am not allowed to open the library informally over lunchtime and breaks without a second member of staff being present at all times. I do not feel I can pull already overloaded teachers or TAs out of their much needed lunch breaks, so the doors stay closed.
  • LACK OF TIME I can only run one lunchtime club per school per week. A number of the children who would benefit and would love to come have clashes with other activities, such as swimming. It is very difficult for them to get my individual attention at any time. Schools are run like airports these days, at 100% capacity. There’s no down-time, and it’s never acceptable (for understandable reasons) for children to spend even a couple of minutes without staff knowing exactly where they are.
  • UNSUITABLE ACCOMMODATION Libraries, where they exist at all in primary schools, are often in open areas where privacy and a calm atmosphere are impossible to provide. There can be an element of wanting to impress visitors and inspectors with a beautiful library. In one case this has led to money being lavished on a lovely one in the reception area of the school, but less than 50% of the children are borrowing books. One reason for this is that there is almost always small group work or other activity going on in the library space.

I could go on, but the general picture is clear. Just having a library is not enough – there has to be a shift in the school’s culture that will accommodate a library. All these problems are ultimately based on a scarcity of resources, and one result of that is that there is no slack, no emptiness, no down time in the system any more. I cannot tie up staff to man a library unless I can guarantee children will come in and use it. I cannot insist that the lunchtime staff, who already have too much to do, go out of their way to identify children who would enjoy lunchtime in the library. Schools are incredibly regimented these days for all kinds of reasons – safeguarding, curricular demands, staffing shortages – the list goes on. And making children into confident readers takes time. All the schools I work in want me there and go out of their way to make me welcome. However, that doesn’t entirely dispel the suspicion that sometimes they don’t quite know what to do with me.

 

MLS and the Capita connection

I visited Peters Educational Booksellers at their huge warehouse in Birmingham yesterday – an absolute feast for anyone who loves to be let loose in what may well be the country’s largest children’s bookshop. I was interested and impressed to talk to them about the ways that they are increasingly taking the burden of book selection and processing off the shoulders of school staff, which can only be a good business move in these days of vanishing school librarians. They employ ten librarians who read and review every single book that comes in. I think they’re doing a great job at a reasonable price, and they’re nice, helpful people too.

I did, however, pick up one piece of information that worried me. For some time I’ve noticed a decline in the quality of service and technical support offered by Micro Librarian Systems. It’s still a good product of its type, probably the national brand leader, but they seem far more interested in flogging Reading Cloud to me, which would bump our sub up to an unaffordable £700 p.a. per site, than providing reliable day-to-day support on anything that isn’t sales-focussed.

Last year it took us literally months to import student data onto our system via SIMS, which should have been a straightforward process, and one we were paying a fee for. I also hit a brick wall when I tried to negotiate a joined-up cataloguing solution across our three school sites. I appreciate that in the case of pupil data there are safeguarding issues, so fair enough, but an integrated book catalogue would have saved us considerable amounts of time and money.

If MLS move to Reading Cloud being their default offering – something they publicly deny but which seems increasingly likely, my Trust will be faced with a formidable annual subscription of around £2K . I do not see how that can be sustainable in the current political climate.

I mentioned all this to a well-informed person in the industry who told me that Capita have recently taken over MLS, and suddenly a lot of things made sense.

Frankly, I wouldn’t want Capita anywhere near my organisation. They have a worrying record of screwing up outsourced data management contracts. Beloved by Tory state-shrinkers everywhere, their record over the last few years has included NHS IT disasters, the notorious outsourcing Barnet Council and links with ATOS. They already control the SIMS system used by many schools to manage their pupil data, and they are involved with Home Office deportations.

Some time ago it was reported that the Home Office were putting pressure on schools to inform on pupils whose parents might be illegal immigrants. Many parents refused to co-operate. If Capita are already running SIMS, whether the parents or teachers are on board is a moot point.

So information on the books borrowed by the children at the three diverse schools where I work is now directly linked to a company that helps to implement illegal and inhumane deportation policies, sometimes affecting people who have built productive lives and family relationships here lasting decades, and find themselves plonked in Singapore without a penny to their name. No doubt their “management solutions” also facilitate the decimation of public libraries in Barnet and elsewhere.

I don’t think I feel particularly comfortable with that. At the moment, short of recruiting an army of volunteers filling in index cards, I don’t see what option I have other than to continue with MLS until we decide they are unaffordable. But I can’t help hoping another serious player in school library hosting comes on the scene soon, and that hopefully they have a better track record on ethics.

Perhaps Peters could look into it.

The importance of analytical reading

We all know how important it is to read to kids, and to start young. But the way we read is important, and more subtle than we might think, argues Bill Murphy in this excellent article. They are not just passive containers for stories. They need to engage in dialogue with adults about them, and that is how they learn.

If pushed, I think most of us would agree that such close shared reading builds empathy. Kids need to be able to imagine a situation from another person’s point of view, to walk in the skin of someone unlike themselves. Incidentally, we don’t grow out of this and it’s tempting not to move out of our comfort zones, as I recently discovered when I went to see Moonlight. Realising how unmoored I felt by an all-black cast gave me new insight into the importance of diversity in children’s books – how does a four-year old black girl feel when she’s confronted with the overwhelmingly white world of Princess Poppy?

Empathy has to be good, right? Well, yes and no. How many of the people who were moved by the photograph of little Aylan Kurdi washed up dead on shore went on to vote for politicians who denied asylum to unaccompanied Syrian child refugees? Emotional intelligence is rather different. It includes analytical skills, looking at the whole picture, at evidence, possible strategies, problems and outcomes. It means asking not just, “Do you think the duck feels sad?” but also, “The fox seems nice. Do you think the duck should believe him? Why not?”

In my work in school libraries, I involve children in these conversations all the time and their perceptiveness frequently surprises me. A good story is full of fork-in-the-road moments, all of which have consequences. And picture books abound in clues that, if decoded, yield vital background information. When we read to a child, we are inviting them to decode that information and theorise about where it could be taking us. Yes, empathy is involved; we can all feel sorry for the little ladybird that doesn’t fit in because she has no spots, or the little girl desperate for a kitten who ends up taking home a gorilla from the zoo. But why doesn’t it work out to keep the gorilla as a pet? Seeing the way he trashes a suburban kitchen, and why the gorilla isn’t happy, carries highly significant life lessons.

It seems that at the moment we are confronted daily with the awful consequences of people determined to maintain a coherent ideological position in face of all reasonable evidence. Too much reliance on feelings can lead into dark places, and the idea that you only have to believe something badly enough and find others who feel likewise to construct your own perfectly valid reality. I wonder if the large numbers of young children who don’t get exposed regularly to language and conceptual development through reading are contributing to the problem.

There is far too much passive consumption of entertainment. Cinema and TV can be wonderful but the emotional beats are frequently heightened and signposted in letters a hundred feet high. Ambiguity is rare, and far too many children are watching without any accompanying person to help them interpret what they are seeing through loving, open-ended discussion. The school day is crammed and even schools with libraries struggle to fit in every class for even one story time a week. After years of austerity, the effect of neglected maintenance is becoming all to apparent in the decline of roads and the built environment around us. The neglect of our children’s inner world and analytical faculties may not show up right away, but we ignore it at our own risk.