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Don't get wound up

A beer after work and a shoulder to cry on. Louisa Leaman has discovered how to cope with the stress of teaching special needs pupils.

Special education

Special needs teachers are in one of the most stressful occupations within the social welfare spectrum. I have taught in mainstream and special needs schools and recognise that the potential for stress is high in both. Heavy workload, lack of resources, large class sizes, conflicts with colleagues, challenging behaviour - the list goes on. But in addition to these, the special needs classroom carries a number of other pressures.

I remember only too well the intensity and volatility of the atmosphere from my experiences teaching in a school for pupils with social, emotional and behavioural difficulties. One issue flares up after another - conflicts, threats, wind-ups, refusal to co-operate or to listen - and staff have to be constantly vigilant, dealing with each little drama as it arises, trying to dampen the flames before they escalate into a full-blown furnace.

And despite the abuse and insults, which may be vindictive and personal, rising to provocation is an absolute no-no. Chaos may be going on all around them, but the teacher needs to be an oasis of calm and professionalism. To put it another way, there aren't many jobs in the world where you come to work expecting at some point in the day to be called a "stupid fucking prick".

I have found that pressures abound in other forms when teaching pupils with multiple learning disabilities. The workload is particularly high and the responsibility can sometimes feel overwhelming. Our duty is not just about teaching and learning, but about caring and, above all, ensuring the safety of pupils, some of whom can be vulnerable, or likely to put themselves at risk of harm unless they are closely monitored.

This challenge of combining education and care is stressful. Trying to orchestrate a focused lesson, while various physiotherapy and hoisting activities are also going on in the background, is always interesting. Add to this the possibility that some pupils will have complex medical needs that require careful management within the classroom, including individuals who are tube fed or have tracheostomies. Some may have epileptic seizures and this can be a distressing experience for all concerned.

Part of the coping mechanism involves the fact that staff are in it together. We all understand the pressures and are quick to offer one another support, whether it's a shoulder to cry on or a few beers down the pub. Staff camaraderie is often the thing that gets people through a difficult day.

Inevitably there is an emotional and sometimes upsetting side to working with pupils with special needs. I permanently carry with me a deep sense of injustice that some people have to overcome considerable challenges simply to get on with life, whereas others have every advantage and waste it. Be grateful for what you've got.

Perhaps it is this principle that motivates me to continue working as a special needs teacher, because I get personal satisfaction from it, feeling that I am doing something positive that improves the quality of my pupils' lives.

Despite the difficulties, my days are full of lovely moments, where I see my pupils responding or expressing happiness and this, in itself, far outweighs any of the stress.

Louisa Leaman teaches at Waverley School in Middlesex. Next week: organising your classroom.

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