‘Domestic violence affects everyone in education, including teachers themselves’
Domestic abuse will affect one-in-four women in their lifetimes and is responsible for two women being murdered every single week in the UK.
When I think of abuse victims, I struggle not to stereotype them as poor, defenceless women, getting pushed around and bullied. The reality is that women who are well educated, confident and highly successful professionals are falling victim to this scourge, which contributes towards 400 suicides a year. Some of these women are teachers, living and working among us.
Last month, I met with a victim who agreed to let me interview her. Not a shy, retiring type. Not someone who would fit in with the crowd. This person is a current teacher. A teacher held in the highest esteem by colleagues, students and the educational community as a whole. I’m not easily shocked but her story sent shivers down my spine.
She began talking about her first boyfriend. She met him at university and fell in love. We will call him "Ryan" for the purpose of this article. She told me how much she loved Ryan at the time and how she sometimes still thinks about him. But then the conversation turned sour.
"It was on my 21st birthday, after two years together, that he was first violent with me. It was at my birthday party; it was very public, humiliating and distressing. He pushed and punched me, then wrapped his hands around my throat until another man actually came and punched him.
"He promised he would never do it again and that it was a one-off. I wanted so much to believe him because I didn't want to leave him as – clichéd as this might sound – I was completely in love with him."
As she told me this, things started to get quite intense emotionally. But she insisted that we continued. She recalled that, after this, he wasn’t violent again for a long time, after promising never to be so again. However, during her teacher-training year, it happened again.
“In the middle of the night, he decided he wanted to drive to the shop to buy more alcohol. He was drunk; I didn't want him driving drunk, as he often did. This led to an argument.
"I remember him banging my head over and over again against the wall and pulling me by my hair while I was screaming. He pushed me out into the corridor naked. A couple of students on my corridor came out to see what was going on, to find me bleeding and lying on the floor, locked out of my room, naked. They were lovely and looked after me that night, and the day after he went home.
"On the following Monday morning, I was sat in a lecture with some girls, also training to be teachers, and one asked if we had heard about the couple who were drunk, arguing, and how the girl ended up locked out, naked! The girls I was sat with gasped and started laughing, not knowing it was me. I was so humiliated."
Listening to her telling the story, it suddenly dawned on me, with her head down and tears in her eyes, how vulnerable this person I was talking to was. It also made me realise how appearances can be so deceptive when it comes to domestic abuse. Just because there aren’t any physical scars, it doesn’t mean they aren’t scarred.
She next recalled an episode when she tried to leave him, towards the end of her teacher training year.
"I tried leaving him many times but it was so difficult. At this point my family had cut me off; after one break-up, my mum told me if I got back with him, I wouldn't be welcome at home. My friends had had enough of me; they knew he was horrible but I didn't listen to them and I kept forgiving him, so they washed their hands of me. I had no one but him, or that was how it felt.
"There reached a point when I was adamant the relationship was over, but he held a gun to my head when I tried to end it. It was a shotgun he had (illegally) for hunting and shooting rabbits. I remember the gun being pressed up against my temple and I felt terrified with his fingers on the trigger, as he was shaking and screaming at me for even trying to leave him. He told me the thought of me with another man made him feel sick.
"Another time, I had got to the door of our flat with my belongings, trying to escape; he chased me, pinned me to the floor, sat on top of me holding a knife to my throat and spitting in my face. Spitting was something he did a lot. He said if I left, he would find me and kill me, and my family too. I really believed him and lived in fear for a very long time."
Listening to her, I was starting to wonder how this story would end.
"It was happening most weekends and I would dread the weekend," she continued, shaking her head now. "One weekend, he was drunk, I was sober and wanted to go home; he said I ruined his night. He pushed me over and dragged me up the street just by my hair. In our flat, I remember him kicking me when I was on the floor and I was screaming, calling out for help. It was this constant violence and screaming that led to complaints from the neighbours and eventually the landlord telling us we had to move out once the six-month tenancy was up.
"I would go into school aching and feeling absolutely physically battered. The stress was becoming too much, and after one night where he’d grabbed me by the throat and punched me in the face, I left on my own and took an overdose. It was a very low point in my life, where I felt so alone.
"I did instantly regret the mixture of vodka and paracetamol. I rung a taxi to take me to hospital because I almost instantly had severe stomach ache. I was in hospital for several days and didn't tell any friends or family at the time. The police came to see me in hospital, as they were aware of my situation. On seeing my bruises, they knew Ryan had done it. They asked me questions but I lied to protect him. I said I fell when I was drunk and I refused to press charges against him.
"He eventually came to hospital to see me. I told the psychiatrist I didn't want to die, I just thought the suicide attempt might make him stop being so violent and abusive. I was desperate for this to stop, but it didn't."
A few weeks later, she saw this monster again. In the middle of the town centre, he gave her "the worst beating" she had experienced. At that point, she decided to press charges.
"It was as I began my new job as an NQT; he was unable to contact me as part of his bail conditions. I had a court case hanging over me. I didn't have to attend, thankfully, but the case kept getting adjourned and it felt like the ordeal would never end. I remember being in school, teaching, trying to put on a brave face but feeling sick waiting for a phone call to find out the verdict and what had happened in court. He pleaded guilty and there were several punishments, but the most important for me was the restraining order. I felt much safer and protected."
During the court case, there was still the matter of whether to tell her superiors in school. Finally, she decided she had to.
"I told my head there was a court case going on connected to domestic violence and she was very kind, caring and supportive," she said. "I didn't reveal much and, again, I actually felt very ashamed and embarrassed. Now I know my head better; she is a lovely person – I know I could have told her how much it was affecting me and how difficult being in school was at times.
"But my line manager wasn't very supportive at all, and never took into consideration the impact it had on me and my day-to-day life and career. When I told her what had happened, her response was, 'I never know why women stay with men like that – it’s ridiculous!'"
I wondered whether her line manager’s attitude was part of a wider feeling in our society that certain women can’t be genuine victims. I knew from hearing this story that anyone could be.
She finished our interview by smiling and saying: "So, two years later, I am much happier. I have been very successful in my career with a promotion. However, my experiences help me see the bigger picture. I am not driven by money or position. I know how important it is to be happy and those things don't guarantee that. I do feel older, wiser and hope to learn from past mistakes. I have realised I am a very strong and resilient person. There are triggers in my school, such as domestic violence posters in the female staff toilets that at times make my heart sink, but then I have to put on big smiles to go and teach my Year 7 class."
She then offered some advice for those feeling trapped in a similar situation: "Don’t feel ashamed. Make sure you tell someone. There is support available, even within the teaching profession. Seek it out."
Of course, the impact on children in classrooms can be just as catastrophic, as mums, dads, brothers and sisters can be victim or abuser, when it comes to domestic violence. While teachers who are victims continue to teach children and hide their stories from the kids, those same kids might need someone they can connect with in school about their own experiences.
As a wider mental health crisis brews, one can’t help but feel that domestic abuse is going to be an emerging issue in the future landscape of education for everyone connected with it.
If you have been affected by anything in this article, please contact the Living With Abuse via its website