Educators often put the mental health and wellness of their students above their own, but when teacher burnout is such a common occurrence in and around the classroom in the modern day, this approach soon reveals itself to be a detrimental and unsustainable one for all involved.
In spite of his inarguable successes as both a teacher and an award-winning Head of Key Stage 3, Adam Parkes experienced a burnout so all-consuming that he found himself stood on a literal cliff edge: a fateful day that would, thankfully, result in him turning his life around - as well as the lives of thousands more educators all across the globe.
Adam Parkes joins Voices in Education for a truly heartrending yet wholly inspiring conversation with a powerful moral message for educators everywhere. Not only does Adam recount his sobering personal struggle, but he discusses how his experience inspired him to help and encourage others to reach out through his wonderful non-profit organization, Taking Off The Mask, and how other educators facing burnout can make meaningful changes in their lives, too - all while still supporting their students.
Voices in Education is powered by Securly
Securly is your school’s all-in-one solution for student safety, wellness, and engagement. Securly's 2023 State of Student Wellness Report is a free-to-download paper that takes a closer look into the data and current trends surrounding student wellness. You'll learn how your school can overcome resource limitations, introduce efficient technologies into the classroom, and ultimately better support the students who need your help the most.
Download your free copy of this illuminating special report today.
Adam Smith: 00:02 You are listening to the Voices in Education podcast, powered by Securly. In our third season of the podcast, we're fine-tuning our focus and shining a spotlight where we believe it's needed most, on those who've dedicated their careers and lives to education. Whether inside or outside of the classroom, we know that students need to feel seen, safe and supported to perform at their best. But these aren't just the needs of students. They're basic human needs that apply to our educators, administrators, and school mental health professionals as well. There's a saying that you can't pour from an empty cup. Well, you're invited to fill your cup here with us.
00:44 I'm Adam Smith, a former teacher, mental health advocate, and your host of the Voices in Education podcast. It's my great honor and pleasure to get to sit down with educators just like you to discuss why they chose a career in education and how they stay the course in the face of challenges. In hearing their stories, I hope you'll come away feeling refreshed, re-energized, and reconnected to your own reasons for becoming an educator. Let's hear from the Voices in Education.
01:14 Hello and welcome to another episode of the Voices in Education podcast. I'm Adam Smith, your host for this brand-new season of Voices in Education, and I can't wait to share these inspiring conversations with you all. But before I get into it, I want to make sure that you don't miss out on a single episode. Be sure to like, follow and subscribe to Voices in Education on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, Google Podcasts, or wherever you get your podcasts from.
01:40 Today I'm joined by Adam Parkes, a man who has had quite the journey within the education sector, taken him from the highest of highs to the lowest of lows, and then all the way back again. Over the last 20 years, he's been a classroom teacher, a Pearson Teaching award-winning Head of Key Stage Three, a successful mental health blogger and mental health first aid instructor, the founder and CEO of a non-profit organization, Taking Off The Mask, a bespoke mentor and tutor for staff and students all across the UK. And very recently, he's become a town and district counselor.
02:12 I'm going to take a breath. That is an awfully long list of things, but Adam, there is so much to get into today and I'm thrilled to have you here. So how are you doing today?
Adam Parkes: 02:19 I'm doing very well, indeed. Thank you, Adam. Quite interesting listening to that because I do remember a few years ago, and we'll probably get into it, I vowed to myself that I was going to making life a little bit easier for myself and a little bit quieter. And now you've just read that and realized I'm doing more now than I've ever done in my life, but that's the nature of the beast sometimes, isn't it?
Adam Smith: 02:40 It is, and it's quite a list, but I think what comes with it is this incredible sense of what drives you and what motivates you as a person and how you've weaved your way through this, created this own path of your own. And yeah, I'm really excited to talk about it. So before we get into that and that story of success and struggle in equal measure I would say, I'd like to go into what you're doing right now and what is it that you do on a day-to-day basis? What is your role currently? As we said, there's a lot there. So what is it that you do currently?
Adam Parkes: 03:10 Okay. I would say that my primary role and my primary responsibility is as the Director, owner of Parkes Education Limited. That is my own education consultancy.
Adam Smith: 03:24 Right.
Adam Parkes: 03:25 I went in to support just teachers on a one-to-one basis and staff, but now I am working with young people on a one-to-one, in groups. I'm teaching, I'm training, I'm delivering mental health training in schools, and that's just the Parkes Education side of things. I find it very difficult to say no, which is again, something we'll probably come to later in this podcast.
03:49 Then my passion is the Taking Off The Mask. That was originally the name of my blog when I started to write about my mental health journey. And so we set up an online forum with all these people all over the world on there, which basically means you've got 24-hour access to online support. We started on the social media platforms, but the basic premise was people who have struggled supporting people that are struggling. A very, very basic way of doing things and people reach out on a daily basis, dare I say, there are thousands of people that follow it and we do various things and fundraising activities and training programs and presentations and talks.
04:40 And then finally, as of this month, I've now decided, as if mine wasn't busy enough, to enter the world of politics. I stood very much on a well-being and mental health platform. I have a big, big idea through Taking Off The Mask to create mentally well and mentally aware towns. And this would be a quality mark type thing, not just, "You pay us this money and we'll say that you are a mentally health aware town." It's about setting standards that you expect people to meet.
Adam Smith: 05:13 Just to give our listeners perspective, that list that you went through there of what you do on day-to-day is the key reason that I wanted you on this podcast initially. And then your story actually turned out to be one that is incredibly hard-hitting but also inspiring and motivating.
05:28 A word that comes to me when you describe what you do, community, to me is so key to what you do, both in Taking Off The Mask with that community, as you say, of those that have struggled helping those that are struggling, but now even in your political role now as a counselor, helping to create legitimate communities of people that care, that can help [inaudible 00:05:51] something just surface level. So lots to talk about today though, lots to talk about.
05:54 And I think I would like to begin, if you're okay with that, with what you've referred to in the past as when you were on the coalface of education. So when you were really in it and you were at the forefront of it in that regard. So you were a tremendously successful Key Stage Three Head, which for our non-UK listeners, it's the equivalent of high school. So it's children going into those teenage years.
06:19 And I think from the outside looking in, you were the whole package of success because you were awarded Outstanding from Ofsted, which is like the UK government official body for education. You were awarded four of those in a row, I believe. You were an award-winning head, and realistically, your school was probably at the pinnacle of what [inaudible 00:06:40] achieved, but what's the big story here? As much as that is a great story in of itself, but what's the big story is that for you personally, things weren't quite at that same level.
06:51 So if it's okay with you, I would love to go back and understand that time in your life and career and what led you on this amazing journey at the end? So would you mind sharing that with us and our listeners today?
Adam Parkes: 07:01 Absolutely. It would be an honor to do that, in fact. Basically we need to look at the whole concept of work-life balance. And I think if we leave that hanging in the air, we'll see where the problem actually lay. I was appointed to take on the role of Outreach Coordinator. That was the title. It sounded very partial, basically is we've got too many kids out of school, how can we get them back in?
Adam Smith: 07:26 Right. Yeah.
Adam Parkes: 07:27 And so over the years, we moved from wooden shack to old school buildings or whatever. We were never given the most salubrious surroundings, but actually, what we created was something amazing and we brought the number of exclusions in the city down to minuscule levels. We were then cited in the UK Parliament as best practice on how we should deal with the most vulnerable learners. And everything was wonderful and it was riding a crest of a wave of that success and awards and Ofsted. But that was the professional life.
08:11 Of course, I've got another life, a life outside of all that. And when I wasn't in school, I was at home and that side of things wasn't quite as successful. My marriage broke down and that happens to many people. Okay? So I'm not going to cite that as the specific reason, but when it did, so often children are involved. And so in 2011 when my marriage broke down, I had to go through a very long custody battle to see my daughter. And that's fine if it takes a week, but after 13 months I'd still not seen my daughter. You can imagine the kind of stresses and strains that were on me. So I only had one release and my release was work.
09:02 So I threw myself more and more and more into my work, and 30 hour weeks, 35 hour weeks, then 40 hour weeks, then 50 hour weeks, then 60 hour weeks, and I was regularly then doing 70, 80 hour weeks, not sleeping, not eating. I lost a huge amount of weight, but the adrenaline kept me going. The needs of the young people that I was supporting kept me going, until my mind and body gave up. And actually, it was immediately after one of the Ofsted inspections.
09:38 We got granted an Outstanding. It's all a blur to be honest with you, Adam, because I'd reached such a point there that actually, my whole life was a blur. And I do remember the celebrations taking place in the room and I was like a fly on the wall watching other people. It was in the evening. I looked out of the window and it became a glass, like a mirror. It became reflective and I saw myself and I was gaunt, bearded. I just looked a complete mess. And that was the first time I realized, "Wow, I really have let myself go here."
10:14 The next day I went into work and I physically collapsed, to the point where I had to be scooped off the floor by my head of maths. That's not something you probably hear many times in a podcast, but I was lifted up by my head of maths who was an ex-miner. So he had no problem lifting me up. But of course, the doctors and the medical people's reaction to that was to sign me off work and work had been my release. So I now had nowhere to go.
10:43 So I was left at home with my thoughts and my fears that I would never see my daughter again, and the paranoia began to set in. I became absolutely a total recluse, and at that point I reached my lowest and that was when I decided I'm not going to see my daughter again. Therefore, there is no point being here. So like the meticulous teacher that I was, I developed the most accurate and specific suicide plan that anyone could ever imagine, which included how I was going to do it, where I was going to do it, how I was going to do it, and how it was going to have the least possible impact on people. That's the kind of detail I went to.
11:30 So I used Google Earth to discover... When I say it, it sounds almost unreal, but this is it. I used Google Earth to find a nice high cliff over the sea because my intention was to jump, but because I didn't want anybody to have to see the aftermath, I think that's probably the best term I could use, I even went as far as actually Googling the tidal times so that once I'd done it, I would be swept out so no one would have to actually deal with it. That was the kind of detail I went into. When people talk about a cry for help, it was way beyond that. I'll even go as far as to say Adam, that I was actually quite excited and looking forward to. That sounds utterly, utterly bizarre, but that's where my mind was. I was so tired. I needed this to end.
12:38 And in fact, strangely enough, people said, "Why did you want to kill yourself?" I'll say this now. I didn't want to kill myself. I just didn't want to be here anymore. Now, that sounds like the same thing, but it isn't.
Adam Smith: 12:47 No, no.
Adam Parkes: 12:49 It isn't. And the only way I could realistically not be here anymore was to end it. I got to the place that I picked, I parked up, I went for a walk along the cliff edge because it was not yet time, because the tidal patterns meant that it was not yet time. Found my spot, absolutely beautiful. It was a stunning spot with a bench just at the top of it, and I'll never forget that bench. And when I write about things now, I often refer to the bench. And I sat there and waited for the tide to change. Now of course, I'd not answered any calls from anybody at that point, but for some reason and some reason I will never know, I answered that one. And the person on the end of it was one of the very, very junior members of my staff, somebody who beyond appointing them, interviewing them, I did not know very well. And she called me out of the blue to say, "I don't know why Adam, but I want to call you. And I wanted to know how you were?"
14:03 And obviously I didn't say, "Well, I'm standing on top of a cliff about to jump," but I said, "Things have been better, but thank you so much for calling me." And she said, "No, it's absolutely fine." And I talked about the situation with my daughter to her and she says, "I've seen you with your daughter." And she said some very lovely things about me as a father. And she said to me, "You will get her back and you will get her back, Adam, because you can't fight fate." And she used those words. I now have them tattooed on my arm to be with me forever. Because at the point when she said, "You can't fight fate," somebody or something shouted my name.
14:51 Now, in my state, I thought it was the big man upstairs, but it turned out it wasn't. It was the Devon and Cornwall police who had tracked me down using my phone GPS. It's the only thing I'd not thought about. I thought I've done a perfect job, but I hadn't. But it was at that point that they then turned up and they stayed with me and they talked to me and they didn't question me and they didn't tie me down and they didn't abuse me, they didn't laugh at me. They just sat and listened to me.
15:28 And one of them said the most prophetic thing. He said, "You know what? After listening to your story, I get it. I absolutely get it. And you know what? I wouldn't blame you." He goes, "I'd stop you because I have to stop you, but I wouldn't blame you." He goes, "But I just want you to remember this. You are doing it because you don't believe you're ever going to see your daughter again. If you do it, you'll definitely never see your daughter again." And it hit me like a brick. And I said, "But I've got nothing left. I have nothing left." And he says, "No, we'll get there." I said, "No, you're not listening to me. I have nothing left." He goes, "You're not listening to me. We will get there."
16:11 And I suddenly realized that strangers who did not know me, and you have the same problem as me with the term didn't know me from Adam. We both have that issue but didn't know me, genuinely cared. And that was the life-changing moment. That was the moment when I realized I had to keep going, and I did. And from that point, I determined I would never get to there again, to be literally at the top of the cliff again. And I did get my daughter back. Everything that was supposed to happen happened. I started to write about my experiences. It was writing more for blog's sake than anything else. I called it Taking Off The Mask. And the rest, as they say, became history really.
17:03 And Taking Off The Mask, as I say, there's members in 107 different countries.
Adam Smith: 17:09 Wow.
Adam Parkes: 17:10 There's nothing more amazing than seeing somebody call out for help in France and get a response from somebody in Fiji. That's the great power of social media. It's got a lot of ills, but that's the kind of thing where it is extremely, extremely powerful. So from standing on top of a cliff sitting on a bench, everything happened for a reason. That phone call happened for a reason. What the policeman said to me happened for a reason. And do you know what? Walking away from the coalface happened for a reason. And so yeah, that's basically, in a rather large nutshell, why I'm now where I'm, if that makes any sense.
Securly: 18:00 The Voices and Education podcast is brought to you by Securly. Since 2013, Securly's sole mission has been to support student safety and wellness. With more than 15,000 schools worldwide already choosing to bring Securly into their school communities, we are creating a clearer picture of what young people are struggling with each and every day. With this data, we are able to more effectively target and implement support, and we want to share that information with as many educators like you as possible. The 2023 State of Student Wellness Report is a free to download paper that takes a closer look into the data and current trends surrounding student wellness. You'll learn how your school can overcome resource limitations, introduce efficient technologies into the classroom, and ultimately better support the students who need your help the most. Download your free copy of this illuminating special report by visiting https://hs.securly.com/report. That's https://hs.securly.com/report today.
Adam Smith: 19:02 It's such a moving story. I knew, I guess the outline of that story previously, but not in the details. And that is a heart-wrenching and unfortunately relatable I think from stories you hear all over teaching and education, and not just teaching education. Obviously that's what our focus is, but I think mental well-being and as you say, work-life balance, looking after yourself, ensuring that when you're filling your students' cups, you have some left in your own.
Adam Parkes: 19:31 Absolutely.
Adam Smith: 19:32 All those things. Something that's huge for me in that, there's those two instances of strangers or relative strangers in your young colleague and in the police coming along offering that support and how beautifully that mirrors now what Taking Off The Mask has become, where another complete stranger sees someone in that situation.
Adam Parkes: 19:55 Absolutely.
Adam Smith: 19:56 And that's wonderful. I think it is tragic. It's tragic what you had to go through and thank you so much for sharing that. It can't be easy to recount, but I think what I take from that and what I hope our listeners can take from it is that from these darkest of times sometimes comes these brightest of lights.
Adam Parkes: 20:14 Absolutely.
Adam Smith: 20:15 And that actually, when you hear that kind of story where you were very much at rock bottom, there is still hope out there. There is still help out there.
Adam Parkes: 20:24 Absolutely.
Adam Smith: 20:25 If there's a message to give any educators out there listening, it is to listen to their own bodies, listen to their own needs, and make sure that you're making time for yourself.
Adam Parkes: 20:35 Absolutely.
Adam Smith: 20:35 Because I was a teacher in a past life, my wife is a teacher and I see it all the time. I used to do it. She does it all the time. Everyone I speak to does it and I think the more we can hammer home this message that you don't have to do it, you don't have to give because what you do give, the amount that you do give, it's enough as it is even when you save some for yourself because then you can continue to do the job, you can continue to make those differences for the students and for their well-being, but you're also looking after your own well-being.
Adam Parkes: 21:05 Absolutely. Absolutely. And you're no use to them if you're not looking after your own well-being. That's the point. You become so blinkered in belief that you have to do this, this, this, and this. And education in many ways has become this very, "This is what we're expected to do," but actually, that's never the best of you. That's the instructed you. Whereas what those kids want is the real you and that's what I'm trying to do. There we go.
Adam Smith: 21:36 Right. We're going to wrap things up. As is our usual practice, we've got three questions to end on for you today. So first up, and I feel like you have a good view of this given what you do in the day-to-day. So what do you think the biggest challenge educators face when it comes to supporting student wellness?
Adam Parkes: 21:56 It's an easy one, and we've already touched on it I think, and that is about actually, they need to be thinking about their own mental health. I think it almost became wrong to admit or to admit in any way that the young people did not come first. But actually, in this one, I changed tack and said, "No, actually, you've got to put your staff first." "Oh no, you can't say that. You can't say that." Well, no, I would then quantify it. It's your staff that are actually working with the young people. It's your staff that are supporting the young people. It's the staff that have got to try and look after the well-being and the mental health of those young people. If your staff are on their knees, they are not going to be able to support your young people.
22:48 And people go, "Oh yeah, never thought about that." It's not always politically incorrect to admit that you need to put the adults first, as long as you just realize why. And at the end of the day, you need to create a solid foundation for those young people and their foundation or those staff or those adults.
Adam Smith: 23:08 A 100%.
Adam Parkes: 23:10 And the governments have come up with the mental health initiative. It's great. It's wonderful. And the mental health curriculum, it's great and it's wonderful, but it's delivered by the teaching staff already within the school. Okay? Well, they are, as the stat show, on their knees. So are they delivering a successful mental health curriculum to the young people? No, they are not.
23:35 So actually, when you think about what is the biggest challenge about supporting the young people, it is about making sure that the adults are supported first and foremost. Then they can give their very best version of them to the young people.
Adam Smith: 23:56 It's nice to hear that spoken by somebody else because a big part of... Securly started off looking after student safety, moved into wellness. And a big question we have at the center of what we do and the solutions we create is we want to help the students' mental health, but how do we help the teachers do that? Because again, that's something that we started to understand, the teachers are that direct route to help those students. So we need to give them the tools, as you're saying, give them the tools or the knowledge or the community to be able to deliver perfectly.
Adam Parkes: 24:30 Right.
Adam Smith: 24:30 So I guess that brings us to our second question quite nicely. So what's one thing you'd like to say to our listeners who are working in education right now who might be feeling lost or burnt out or less struggling? What would you like to say to them?
Adam Parkes: 24:41 There are a lot of them.
Adam Smith: 24:43 Unfortunately, there are.
Adam Parkes: 24:45 Unfortunately, there are. Now, my obvious first two words would be to reach out, but many will then come back, "Well, where? Where can I reach out?" And I think that's important. And I think it's about being able to find out what is available? What are the support networks within your school? Every school, every academy trust, every authority, they have mental health and well-being support networks. In fact, there are far more of them than people would imagine that are available for teaching staff.
25:15 And actually, they're not particularly well accessed, but that's because they're not known about, and that's why I think it's very important that within schools there are mental health and well-being champions who make sure that this message gets out. If you don't don't know what yours is, ask because it will be there, whether it's with the head teacher or with the deputy head teacher or the senior leadership team, or with your union or with your authority reps, whoever they may be. Find out what is available.
25:45 If it isn't available, be prepared to put your head above the parapet and ask, "Why not?" Okay? Because actually, this is going to become an integral part of Ofsted. Sometimes crisis is what needs to happen to bring about change and it is going to change, and mental health and well-being is going to become an integral part of the Ofsted framework and inspection. I have no doubt about that whatsoever. They've already started to slither it in. I think after recent events, it's going to become massive. And why senior leaders need to listen is because these teachers, these members of staff will be asked by inspectors, "How is your mental health supported in school?"
Adam Smith: 26:29 Right.
Adam Parkes: 26:29 Now, one thing senior leaders need to realize, these staff will not lie. They will tell the truth. And if their teachers' mental health and well-being is not supported within that school, they will tell the inspectors that their mental health and well-being is not supported within the school. And that's not to put the fear of God into leaders because I'm working with them every day and there are many, many of them that are doing an amazing job and throwing resources that they don't even have, trying to support the mental health and well-being of their staff. Okay? But ultimately, they all need to do it.
27:05 And so find out what's available. There are people like me and many others like me that offer these services who are more than happy, and this is not a plug for business, to sign-post people in the right directions of where you can go and who you can turn to because there is a lot of support out there and there's a lot of support out there which is available for free. And I think that's the biggest concern that a lot of schools have is, "Oh, we can't afford this." Well, with regard to that, I'll always say, well, you can't afford not to, but that's where we are with that one. Those are the biggest challenges.
Adam Smith: 27:41 And I think reaching out, just as you said, your very key message of reach out, I think there's nothing to be ashamed of in asking for help. And yeah, I think that's great. Final question then. What is giving you hope about the future of education? We've talked about the challenges, we've talked about the fact that educators are struggling, but what's giving you hope about the future?
Adam Parkes: 28:06 It's a really, really good question because I do hear from a lot of teachers, and I'll be lying if I said otherwise, I am personally receiving lots of emails and calls and contact from CEOs and from head teachers and some senior leaders up and down the country. And if I am, many others that offer the kind of services that I do are as well. And therefore I see how high up the agenda it is. I see that there is a very real desire to try and manage the need. The need has never been higher. The mental health crisis, the well-being crisis, the recruitment crisis, everything. Education. Some people say that it's on its knees. Actually, it's not. I picture education to be like me on that bench, yet it could have gone one of two ways. But actually, the way that it went and the way education will go, it will rise like a phoenix from the flames again.
29:08 It has been here before. It may be the first time that some of the people in the profession have seen anything like this before. Certainly isn't the first time that someone of my age has seen it before, and people older than me have seen it many more times before. And it's about rising up. It's about dealing with the need, getting the support and moving forward. And I have to believe, I have to believe that our education system is the best in the world. I have to believe that, rightly or wrongly. And with that behind me, the fight will just go on forever. It will do because I love everything about the profession. I love everything about our young people. I'm sick and tired of our young people being chastised and criticized every term.
30:01 If you read about young people today, it's usually only in a negative tone. And people fearing for the future, I don't fear for the future. I see some incredible young teachers and I see some incredible young people on a daily basis, and that's the message I want to get out more than the one that actually seems to get out.
Adam Smith: 30:21 Well, Adam, I think we will add you very much into that list of amazing people within the education sector that are helping to make things move forwards, that are giving people hope for the future. Because I certainly feel uplifted after today's conversation, and I hope our listeners do too. I'm sure they do. It's just been stunning to have you on here, to be honest. This has been an incredible story, incredible conversation, discussion. So thank you so much for joining us today. Where can people find you online? Where can they find Taking Off The Mask?
Adam Parkes: 30:52 Okay, so in no particular order, so the Parkes Education, that was the first one we mentioned, quite literally, https://parkeseducation.com. Yeah. Parks Education is one word, not Parkes Education one word. And Taking Off The Mask is https://takingoffthemask.org. And if you do Taking Off The Mask Community on Facebook, that's where you can join the community, look at the conversations that take place, look at the support that's given, look at the kind of things that we do, but yet all available out there on all the usual socials and via good old Mr. Google.
Adam Smith: 31:36 Perfect. Well, I'm sure, and I hope that people will reach out if they feel the need to and become part of this community. Let's make joining these kinds of communities a little bit more commonplace and as you say, less of a taboo, less of a no-no.
31:51 That brings us to the end of today's episode of Voices in Education, but now we'd love to hear from you. If you enjoyed this episode, don't forget to leave a rating and review to help other listeners like you find our podcast. We'd also love for you to continue this conversation over on our social channels. You can follow us on Twitter @Securly, over on Instagram and Facebook @securlyinc, and on LinkedIn at https://linkedin.com/company/securly. I look forward to seeing you all there. Until next time, make sure that you're looking after yourself and your own well-being.
32:22 If you ever feel like you're drowning or in need of support, as Adam has said, it's absolutely okay to reach out and ask for help. Be that your family, your friends, your colleagues or organizations like Taking Off The Mask. We're in this together and together we can make a meaningful difference for mental health and wellness. Take care of yourself.