“I actually had to leg it out of class because I thought I was going to throw up from the pain,” says Emma Jones*, a secondary teacher.
This sounds all-too-familiar for secondary teacher Lauran Hampshire. “Oh my gosh, the amount of times I thought I was going to throw up in the bin and you’re just sat there and you think, 'Oh God, it’s going to happen, and I’m going to end up on Snapchat throwing up into a bin,'” she says.
And for business teacher Joanna Jukes, the pain keeps her up at night: “Sometimes I’ll be in absolute agony for days. I can barely walk and I can’t sleep. It’s all over your body – it’s in your back, it’s in your legs.”
These three teachers are all talking about a pain that leaves them weak, nauseous and unable to focus. It’s a pain that every woman will have experienced to some degree in her life: period pain.
In the UK, we have more than 32,000 schools. In these schools are 376,300 female teachers – they make up 74 per cent of the workforce. Surely, then, as it’s a pain that the majority experience, a pain that cannot be cured, a pain that occurs every single month, it’s talked about? Appropriate adjustments are made? And leaders are supportive?
Or perhaps not. A tweet by teacher Victoria Hewett at the beginning of April highlighted the complete lack of understanding that so many teachers face when dealing with period pains at school.
Let's talk.... period pains whilst you're trying to teach. So distracting, sometimes I just want to curl up and scream but I plough on. Now in bed with a hot water bottle and mug of chai latte. Worst experiences ladies?— 𝕄𝕣𝕤 ℍ𝕦𝕞𝕒𝕟𝕚𝕥𝕚𝕖𝕤 (@MrsHumanities) April 3, 2019
Teachers spoke of not having time to go to toilet to change tampons or sanitary towels, of not feeling comfortable enough to speak to a member of SLT about the pain, of not being able to get time off work to attend doctor appointments, of not being allowed to sit down.
Hampshire, who suffers from endometriosis, says that in a previous school, she was told off by the headteacher for teaching a class while sitting down.
“Sometimes it’s a necessity because I can’t stand up, and be all-singing, all-dancing, running around the classroom. But that doesn't mean I’m not doing a great job. It just means that if I stand up, I might fall over,” she says.
Hewett says that following the tweet she had many teachers tell her they couldn’t take 10 minutes to pop to the toilet, and consequently bled through clothes. We’ve heard of teachers who go from 8am to 3pm without going to the loo or eating lunch. But when it comes to not changing sanitary products, it can cause serious health issues.
Jones describes one incident in which, in the space of an hour, she’d bled so heavily that she’d leaked through her jeans. She had to wrap a jumper around her waist, buy some newspaper and sit on it to drive home. Thankfully, this didn’t happen at school – but, she says, there have been close calls like that in the classroom.
“It’s no wonder that people end up having to take time off for urinary tract infections, all those sorts of things. If we need to go to the toilet, we should be able to go to the toilet. You wouldn’t stop a child who was desperate to go from going. We need to be able to take that time to look after ourselves,” says Hewett.
Jones says that sometimes it’s a choice between going to the toilet or eating lunch. And when your classroom is far away from the toilet, there simply isn’t enough time to go.
Period pain: the culture of silence
Even if you are able to change sanitary products regularly, there’s still the pain to deal with. Sickness, cramps, aching limbs, headaches, dizziness – menstruation affects women to varying degrees. And for women who have active jobs, like teachers who have to be, as Hampshire says, "all-singing, all-dancing, running around the classroom", it can be really debilitating.
Surely, if anyone is suffering from even some of the above, they shouldn't be expected to work?
“There’s no flexibility in schools. The worst period pains are similar to being in labour – it’s so constant you can’t breathe. Just thinking, 'I’ve got to go to work,' is hard enough, without thinking, 'I’ve got to go and stand up for five hours and control behaviour – I’ve got to try and get them to learn.'
“When I’ve been at my worst, things like low-level behaviour can be impacted because I just don’t have the energy to be on top of things like I would normally. It’s just... I don’t know, I don’t know why there’s not more support, or systems in place in schools,” says Jukes.
It’s clear that a lack of understanding dominates. And where there’s a lack of understanding, an issue is not talked about. And when it’s not talked about, women suffer in silence.
“There does seem to be such a taboo around it still. People can’t sit down, people aren’t allowed to leave their class for five minutes, people generally being really inappropriate with it. People don’t want to talk about it because people get awkward about menstruation,” says Hewett.
This culture of silence can be dangerous.
“You hear about people who think they’ve had a period but actually they’ve miscarried, and that kind of thing,” says Jukes. “Imagine trying to hide that.”
A teacher from Essex, who wishes to remain anonymous, remembers an email being sent out to all staff, reprimanding an "unknown woman" for the "disgusting mess" that had been left in the women's staff toilets.
“It was quite obvious that a poor person had experienced a horrific bleed – and actually I believe it was a woman who had miscarried. Instead of dealing with this privately and trying to find who the person was and ensuring that they had the medical attention they needed, we all had an email complaining about the state of the toilet.
“It felt totally insensitive and coldhearted,” she says.
Thankfully, some schools are doing their best to ensure that their teachers feel supported and able to talk.
“My school provides a hot water bottle in the nurse's office, and I know that I could say to another member of staff, 'Could you look after my class, I just need to pop out,'” says Hewett.
One teacher in East Anglia told Hewett about a WhatsApp group that her school has – if one of them needs to go to the toilet, they message the group and someone provides cover for however long is necessary. Other teachers on Hewett’s thread talked about having access to hot-water bottles, and in some primaries teachers have microwavable heat-up teddies they sit with on their lap.
But these schools seem to be rare.
Hampshire suggests that having tampons and sanitary pads in toilets – a small gesture – would make a big difference, and Jukes agrees. That, along with allowing teachers to sort quick-cover, allowing them to sit down when they need to and allowing them to bring hot-water bottles into the classroom, could result in a culture of understanding, one of acceptance.
And normalising period pain for teachers would filter down to the pupils, too, says Jukes.
“I remember a colleague telling me, 'I’ve just come out of my classroom and there’s blood all over one of the chairs, and it’s one of the kids and I don’t know who it is.' I was just mortified for this poor student and she must have known, and she didn’t have the confidence to say anything.
“If we were more open as teachers, maybe the students would be open, too”.
*This name has been changed to maintain anonymity.