top of page
  • Writer's pictureAdrian Bethune

All retch and no vomit

Pleasure and purpose

One of the reasons I retrained to become a teacher in 2010 was because I felt it would give

my life a greater sense of purpose. After several years working in the music industry, and an episode of really poor mental health, I reflected that my work was enjoyable but not very meaningful. Wellbeing expert, Prof. Paul Dolan says that happiness lies in the balance between experiencing pleasure and purpose over time. Fast-forward 12 years and I now teach part-time, write, train other teachers and speak at events. Changing careers and restarting as a novice in an entirely new profession was very challenging and not without sacrifices being made but I feel like I have a good balance of work that I find enjoyable and fulfilling, as well as the time and space to enjoy my life outside of work.

But a large proportion of the teaching profession do not feel this way.

According to Education Support data 54% of staff have considered leaving the sector over the past two years due to pressures on their mental health and wellbeing. This blog is about why we need to change the way we perceive and do our work. And change is needed.

But I love my job!

Teaching is a funny profession full of paradoxes. I have heard so many teachers say

something along the lines of ‘teaching is so tiring and stressful but I love my job’, or ‘I can’t stand the bureaucracy but I love being a teacher’. Dolan would argue that this is a common fallacy of evaluating your life as being fulfilling when your day-to-day experience is not a happy one. If you are spending most of your working life with the experience of not finding pleasure or purpose in your job, you really don’t love it as much as you think you do.

Don’t mistake relief for true happiness

I remember finding it odd how many of my teacher colleagues would often count down until

the next holiday. Having left a job where I had a grand total of 20 days annual leave, to having 12 weeks off a year (or the equivalent of one week off for every three weeks I worked according to a former colleague) I couldn’t believe how quickly the half terms and holidays came around. Don’t get me wrong, after about three years in teaching I too started to long for the holidays, but then I remembered something psychologist Tal Ben Shahar said – that we shouldn’t mistake relief for true happiness. “The desire to free ourselves of pain can be a strong motivator and that, once freed, we can easily mistake our relief for happiness”, Tal writes in his book, Happier. If you’re having a miserable time doing something and then that thing stops, that pleasant, even intoxicating, sensation you’re experiencing, he argues, is relief not happiness. True happiness, he argues, is ‘shaped incrementally, experience by experience, moment by moment.’ Counting down the days to the next holiday is not worth it – it is a waste of your life and those daily moments are lost opportunities to be happy. And, as Dolan says, ‘Lost happiness is lost forever’.

All retch and no vomit

I carried out a Twitter poll at the start of the year asking if teachers would recommend teaching to someone they really cared about. Almost 3,000 people responded and the majority said ‘No’. These may be the same ones considering leaving the profession. But it reminds me of something English philosopher, Alan Watts said - that leading a life you don’t want to lead, and teaching our children to do the same us you, is ‘all retch and no vomit’. It’s unproductive, unfulfilling and void even of any sense of relief. Watts says that this way of living is ‘stupid’. It’s a harsh judgement but hard to argue with.

If it’s not good enough for children, it’s not good enough for you

Of course, many teachers stay in the profession for honourable reasons. They’re willing to

put up with the stresses, long hours, poor pay and bureaucracy in the service of their

students. For this reason, a question I’ve been asking more teachers recently is ‘Would you be happy for the students in your care to lead the life that you’re living?’ If the answer is, ‘Yes’ then great – it means, on balance, you feel that what you’re doing is worth it. These teachers are likely to be regularly experiencing pleasure and purpose as part of their work and also their wider lives. If the answer is ‘No’, then what is the point? You’re setting your students an example that they are likely to follow and if it’s not good enough for your students, then it’s not good enough for you and something needs to change.

What have you got to lose?

Which brings me to the whole point of this blog. That your life is precious and you deserve to find pleasure and purpose in your work and beyond.

So, what is the answer if you’re really not happy in your work?

To leave your current job and try a different school? Possibly.

To leave teaching completely? If you’ve given it a good shot, then maybe.

Or should you challenge the status quo and try and make small changes to help make

teaching a career where you experience more pleasure and purpose on a regular basis?

I’d say you’ve got nothing to lose.

This is why Emma Kell and I have written a new online course called ‘Staff Wellbeing and Self-Care in Schools’ on our best-selling book. It aims to give you the time and space to reflect on what you really want, as well as some simple tools to enable you to make small changes to your personal and professional lives in order to increase your sense of happiness and wellbeing. Our course doesn’t profess to have all the answers but we believe it will help nudge and point you in the right direction.

Life is too short to keep living in a way you’re not happy with. Or as Alan Watts puts it, ‘Better to have a short life doing what you like doing than a long life lead in a miserable way.’


Adrian Bethune is a part-time teacher and author of Wellbeing In The Primary Classroom and A Little Guide To Teacher Wellbeing and Self-Care.

1,248 views0 comments


bottom of page