How teachers with chronic illnesses should be supported

The teaching workforce should be as diverse as the students who come through college doors, writes Caroline Powell

Caroline Powell

Teacher wellbeing: Schools and colleges must provide proper support to staff with chronic illness or disability, writes Caroline Powell

As teacher retention continues to deteriorate, it is imperative that all educational professionals engage in supporting teachers and their careers. Extra efforts should be made to accommodate and empower teachers with protected characteristics. On a practical level, these teachers may need support and flexibility to thrive in our profession.

Moreover, it is vital to ensure that our educators and leaders are as diverse as the children we teach. We are role models to our students. Visibly representing and celebrating diversity among ourselves is crucial to raising their aspirations. They must see themselves in us.

With grassroots movements and organisations such as BAMEed, WomenEd, LGBTed, DisabilityEd and AllSupportEd inspiring diverse professionals to progress in education, we should now engage in a dialogue to help schools understand the practical considerations they may benefit from.

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Supporting teachers with illness

My contribution is from the perspective of those of us with illnesses or disabilities. I am an English teacher and head of faculty in a secondary school and sixth-form college. I also have significant health issues that render my full-time teaching career impossible without reasonable adjustments and flexibility from my school.

My school has been fantastic about enabling me to attend frequent appointments and has supported me through many hospitalisations and periods of illness. From these experiences, and inspired by the wonderful support I have received, I have generated the following tips for those managing or working with teachers with chronic illnesses and disabilities:

  1. Establish a culture of open dialogue surrounding wellbeing. This benefits everyone.
  2. Be aware that there is no legal obligation for teachers to disclose a disability or illness. Once an illness or disability has been disclosed, conduct a thorough risk assessment and consider the “reasonable adjustments” that could be made, as outlined by the Equality Act, 2010. Adjustments should be negotiated and considered reasonable for all parties. Allow the teacher space to offer their own suggestions and vocalise the requirements they have, as they will probably have needs that you would not predict.
  3. Discuss flexible working options, if appropriate. There may be points throughout the day when teachers need time to address their health needs. There may also be periods of time, whether short or long, when they would benefit from later starts, earlier finishes or PPA time working from home.
  4. Create a generic bank of back-up cover lessons to prevent teachers planning when they are unexpectedly unwell or in crisis. Similarly, help teachers to set cover for planned absences by sharing resources. Check in on cover lessons to ensure that they are running smoothly and the correct content is being taught. This will benefit the teacher’s wellbeing upon their return to work.
  5. It can be hard to bring up the topic of health. Don’t be afraid to check in on a teacher with sensitive, direct questions.
  6. Be mindful that health can fluctuate significantly; it may change drastically from one day to the next.
  7. Have consideration for the fact that a teacher with health conditions may be more in need of break times than other teachers, and avoid eating into this time. For example, the teacher may require frequent opportunities to eat, go to the bathroom or simply sit down and switch off for a while.
  8. Consider classroom allocation and the location of meetings and duties for those who may need to minimise exertion.
  9. Show caring interest in the teacher’s illness or disability and perhaps conduct some of your own research. Some charities for specific conditions offer advice for employers on their websites, or there may be a helpline you could call for professional advice.
  10. Check whether any accommodations need to be made around medical devices or equipment. A great deal of medical support now involves technology. Software on watches and phones is used for everything from converting speech to text for those with hearing impairments to monitoring heart rates and checking blood sugar levels. It may be that a teacher needs to access such devices throughout the day, including during lesson time.
  11. Avoid making assumptions. Trust that the teacher usually knows what is in their best interests.
  12. However, if you have a real concern about their wellbeing, then do raise this with them. Encourage them to take time off when it is needed.
  13. Revisit your policies to ensure that they are fair and inclusive for all, particularly those concerning sick days and planned absences.
  14. Avoid being unnecessarily intrusive when requesting evidence for personal absences. Clarify what needs to be known and reassure staff that the rest of the letter or message can be blocked out.  
  15. Be aware that all illnesses and disabilities are likely to have an impact on mental health.
  16. Appreciate that a teacher may need a little headspace before or after attending appointments. Avoid pressuring them to rush there and back.
  17. Use any coaching, mentoring or buddying schemes in your school to ensure that vulnerable teachers are well supported and have compassionate, empathetic colleagues to turn to. If you don’t have such a system, consider setting one up.
  18. People with illnesses and disabilities are usually in frequent contact with their healthcare professionals. Be aware that they may be contacted during school hours, and may even be given bad news over the phone whilst they are at work. Keep an eye out for them.
  19. Proactively prevent teachers from burning out by encouraging and facilitating healthy working habits. Listen and empathise if a teacher feels they have reached their limits and dissuade them from pushing themselves further. Being mindful of limitations is key in managing health alongside a career.
  20. Demonstrate understanding if a teacher becomes certain that their career is now incompatible with their needs, after considering possible adjustments. Ensure that they feel valued. Reassure them that there are many suitable opportunities out there for them besides teaching. If appropriate, remind them that returning to teaching is an option if their circumstances change.

Relentless working days

The vast majority of these suggestions simply exemplify good, compassionate practice for all employers and colleagues. My particular concern for teachers stems from the rigid, relentless structure of our working days. Additionally, we face a notorious workload and the burden of guilt when we miss lessons. We fear letting our students down. Our determination to overcome these obstacles is a testament to the passion we have for our profession and the care we feel for our students. Feeling supported and valued by colleagues is essential if we are to succeed.

Over to you. What else can we be doing to retain our diverse teachers, and to recruit more into the profession?

Caroline Powell is head of faculty for a secondary school and sixth-form college in Cambridge

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Caroline Powell

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