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Apple for the teacher

Looking after your health may be way down on your long `to do' list, but it's time to promote it, says Kathy Oxtoby

Looking after your health may be way down on your long `to do' list, but it's time to promote it, says Kathy Oxtoby

Teaching can be tough on health at the best of times but never more so than during a new teacher's first term. Coughs, colds, stomach upsets and stress-related illnesses are common among new teachers getting used to school life.

Julian Stanley, chief executive of the Teacher Support Network, says a lot of teachers find the first term "a really difficult period".

"We hear from NQTs who are getting used to not only life in the classroom, but also to new work colleagues and living in a new place."

That first term coincides with the transition to the winter season when coughs and colds are rife. "NQTs are vulnerable to catching colds as they are not used to being in the `germ factory' that is school," says Stacey Blades, a secondary school language teacher in Lincolnshire.

A heavy workload can also be bad for the health of new teachers because they are unused to dealing with the daily pressures of the role, such as lesson planning and managing behaviour.

"There's an endless amount of work involved in planning lessons and classroom management, so those first few months can take its toll on you both physically and emotionally, making you vulnerable to illness," says Anna Bryant, an NQT teaching science at a secondary school in London.

With the pressure on to impress their new employers, new teachers often forget to take breaks, working constantly at home and taking on too many extracurricular responsibilities.

"There is a temptation for NQTs to want to prove themselves, not only by doing what might be seen as excessive planning, but also by volunteering for too many activities associated with the run-up to Christmas," says Amanda Brown, assistant secretary, employment conditions and rights, for the National Union of Teachers.

The stresses of a new job can lead to sleeplessness, anxiety and poor diet and to new teachers making unhealthy lifestyle choices, with alcohol featuring heavily. A survey for the Government's Know Your Limits campaign has found that nearly six out of 10 education workers have turned to alcohol to relieve stress after work.

But there are some simple measures that new teachers can take to safeguard their health. A healthy diet is one of them. Ms Blades advises that rather than eating chocolate and junk food, teachers should keep a stock of fruit snacks, make their own lunches, and that when at home they should cook something nutritious rather than ordering a greasy takeaway.

New teachers should also avoid turning to alcohol, cigarettes or drugs to wind down.

Exercise is a great way to start or finish the day and can involve something as simple as jogging or cycling to and from school "to help put you in a good mood", says Ms Bryant.

While it is difficult to sleep when you're feeling stressed, it is important to get as much rest as possible.

"Take lots of early nights. You might want to keep up with your social life but it's OK to be a bit boring!" says Ms Bryant.

A simple precaution like hand washing can minimise the risk of illness, says Ms Brown. "General hygiene matters, so wash your hands regularly and make sure any tissues children drop are thrown away to avoid the risk of germs spreading," she says.

Many teachers underestimate the importance of looking after their voice, but putting it under continual strain can lead to long-lasting damage. The Teacher Support Network advises drinking plenty of water to lubricate the throat, resting your voice wherever possible, avoiding shouting and try keeping plants in your classroom with water around the base to help combat dry air (see feature, page 4).

New teachers should take precautions about working safely in the school environment. "Follow the school safety procedures," says Ms Brown. "Don't stand on chairs to hang things on walls, be careful if floors have been recently polished and if there is a possibility that there is asbestos in your school building, don't stick drawing pins into walls."

Taking designated breaks during the working day is vital to maintaining health, Ms Brown believes. "Take an hour's lunch break and break times where possible as this will pay dividends when it comes to coping with that first term," she says.

While it is tempting for new teachers to work constantly to cope with the demands of their new role, they should try to maintain a work-life balance.

"Establish boundaries around what is work at school, and what is free time," says Mr Stanley. "Your personal life will suffer if you devote all your time to the job, so make time to see family and friends."

Having survived her first NQT year, Ms Blades found it was important to keep home life as "work free as possible" and she tries to confine her marking to school, "even if it means staying a couple of extra hours".

Maintaining a hobby or interest is vital to keeping work in perspective, Ms Blades says. "Don't abandon the activities you enjoy, even if you have a lot of school work, because it's important to make time for you," she says.

New teachers who are feeling ill shouldn't be afraid to take sick leave, as it is better to have time to recuperate than trying to teach when feeling under par.

"If you get sick, make sure you take enough time to get well, rather than going back to work when you haven't fully recovered," says Ms Blades.

Feeling sick doesn't necessarily mean booking an appointment to see a GP. You can talk to a pharmacist who can offer support with common conditions such as migraine, thrush, and conjunctivitis, and give healthy living advice.

Other sources of support are available for new teachers who might be feeling unwell and that they can't cope. Mentors should help with the transition from trainee to new teacher, and new teachers shouldn't be afraid to seek their advice.

"Seeking support from a good mentor can be a lifesaver. And if that person isn't the right mentor for you, look for alternatives," says Mr Stanley.

Help is available from teachers unions such as the NUT and from the Teacher Support Network. And colleagues can be a valuable source of advice during that first, challenging term. As Ms Blades says: "We've all had an NQT first term - and we've all survived."

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