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Hold the chemotherapy: I've got a class to teach

Too many staff have to be forced to put their health first. And the profession is certainly getting sicker, writes Janet Murray

Feeling under the weather? Well you're not the only one. For teachers, surrounded by children and hundreds of germs every day, the chances of contagion are high. Latest official figures show that an estimated 298,000 full or part-time teachers took sickness absence in 2003 - up from 293,400 in 2002. On average, those who went sick took 9.6 days off, up from 9.3 the previous year. So why are teachers getting so sick?

"Since I've been teaching, I've been plagued with coughs and colds," says Rebecca Scarr, a newly qualified primary school teacher from Portsmouth.

"Ordinarily, I'd never take time off for a cold, but it's not easy trying to hold the attention of a class of 30 with streaming eyes and nose and no voice. I soon worked out it was better to take a day or two off school to rest and recuperate then to try and soldier on. You just end up making yourself even more unwell."

Pauline Watson agrees. "In the five years I've been teaching, I've become prone to stomach bugs," says the English teacher from Kent. "I usually pick up two or three over the course of the school year. I put it down to being in contact with so many young people. If you're feeling nauseous there's no way you can brave the classroom - you just have to stay at home and get yourself well."

According to Tom Lewis, director of services at the Teacher Support Network, it is not just being around young people that makes teachers susceptible to illness. In many cases, long working hours, excessive workloads and stressful working environments all weaken teachers' immune systems.

"It's an all-consuming job that is extremely intensive during term times," he says. "Many teachers refuse to give less than 100 per cent, but in doing so, they lose sight of the need to look after themselves."

It is well-documented that work-related stress can lead to illness, yet many teachers refuse to slow down - even during holiday times. "You can spot the teacher combing the beach for interesting artefacts to take back to class. Or scouring the bookshop for books to help them plan their lessons. Some teachers simply never switch off," says Mr Lewis.

At Colne Community School in Brightlingsea, Essex, senior staff have introduced a policy that aims to reduce teacher absence. The policy is threefold. The first strand sets out the need for ensure every member of staff has a reasonable work-life balance. The second aims to provide support for those under particular stress through home or work circumstances. The final strand includes a 'return to work meeting' for long-term absences or repeated short-term absences.

"There is greater pressure on teachers to 'pull something out of the bag', to entertain, amuse and stimulate young minds," says head teacher Terry Creissen. "To do this for every lesson, five days a week is a real challenge, so it's no wonder staff feel drained of energy and get ill! If you're not 100 per cent when you get up in the morning, all the work you have done in the past in building a positive work ethic in the classroom, can dissipate in minutes. So being on top form is really important for managing behaviour and keeping students motivated."

But the structure of the school day does little to help teachers keep themselves well. Unlike office jobs, where employees can take a short break when they need to stretch their legs, get a drink and revitalise themselves, teachers have to fit their personal needs into the rigid structure of the timetable. Even finding the time to visit the loo can be a challenge.

"Staffrooms have become like railway stations," says Mr Lewis. "In the past, the staffroom used to be a place for teachers to chat over coffee and let off steam if necessary. These days, it's a case of grabbing a quick coffee and dashing back to the classroom to work."

Nevertheless, Mr Creissen believes the majority of teachers are still loath to take time off. "Granted, there are some teachers who will have time off for the smallest problem. They prepare for it by wandering around the previous day telling everyone how poorly they feel. Then there are others who have to be taken home because they are not fit to drive.

"Thankfully, from the teachers I've met, most fall in the latter category.

They'd rather come into school somewhat below par so that they don't lose the continuity of their classes or place the burden on their colleagues to cover for them. I've had a member of staff come into school with his leg in plaster and work in the classroom, despite his inability to move around easily. We've also had staff who have planned their chemotherapy around their teaching commitments."

To reduce the risk of illness, Mr Lewis says teachers must make time to relax. "It's vital to remember that you have a need and a right for a break. If you want to do the best for your students, you've got to put your own needs first."

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