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McCrone can't cure coughs and sneezes

FEW of us manage to glide from teacher training days to retirement without feeling the occasional need to be absent through illness. Most of us know how it feels to drag ourselves into work with boxes of tissues under an arm and a secret stash of Lem-Sip in a filing cabinet.

That thing of trying to pretend you are OK about your rising temperature, all the while feeling that you are in a feverish nightmare which will swallow you whole by lunchtime. I was intrigued recently to overhear an intense conversation on this very topic.

My rather splendid eavesdropping took place on the train which was speeding me to yet another meeting. I couldn't actually see the perpetrators of this diatribe against malingering teachers but these guys sounded poisonous.

What was most disturbing was their fervent assertion that the pay deal of 23.1 per cent by August 2003 and the 35 hour week should be enough to keep us all in sparkling health.

Let's discuss the money first. Money can't buy health so the teacher bashers can squawk all they like about the gold-plated grass on the teachers' side of the fence. It's a pretty fallacious argument - bigger salaries equating with less illness.

More money can't prevent the clammy touch of the hand of mortality as teachers fall victim to their share of the serious illnesses in the form of heart attacks or cancer. And nothing can counter the minor ailments of colds and winter viruses.

As for the mythical 35-hour week? Frequent mention of this has become all the rage as critics seek insidious ways to needle away.

By all accounts, when it comes to the witching hour of 35, we just somehow clock off and enthuse about how wonderful it is that we can now officially lay down tools and get on with real life in the form of maybe watching EastEnders or having a glass or two of wine. Whatever, it seems that we should now be enjoying better health because apparently we don't have to work so hard.

Who is calling the shots here? Maybe politicians, maybe other teachers who themselves have reached the plateau - of-35-hour-Nirvana - who see merit in exhorting others not to do this, that and the next thing. For many others the 35 hour week has made not any difference to health, except perhaps to cause frustration when people keep going on about it.

Days of teacher illness, according to a recent Audit Commission report, vary throughout Scotland but it has to be said that teachers take less time off than other local authority employees. Having said that, what are the factors?

Well, genuine illness is obviously the number one factor. But there will be the few who take the occasional Monday off and I loved the story of the two guys who skived school for a day's shopping only to encounter their headteacher on the train en route to a meeting. Divine retribution? You work it out.

Many of our absent colleagues are actually suffering from stress. Yes, it can be cunningly concealed as a sore throat or a chest infection because there is still a stigma about openly acknowledging mental illness in some jobs and teaching is one of them.

A general practitioner friend tells me that he is treating a significant number of teachers for stress and, while some of them have to take time off work, many are still managing to function in schools with the help of medication and support.

One thing is for certain - teaching is a job without mercy. Sod's law prevails the day you choose to struggle back. The day you've chosen because it's when you have most of your free periods. You're hardly in the door when you're handed the Please Take. In this job you need the skin of a rhino - otherwise, you could be off with paranoia.

Marj Adams teaches religious studies, philosophy and psychology at Forres Academy.

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