A painful burden shared

30th July 2004 at 01:00
Howard Smith gives thanks to an employer whose support has kept him going strong

I was diagnosed with reactive arthritis when I was 31. It wasn't a complete surprise because I'd been shuffling along the corridors of my hectic secondary school under the pained collective gaze of colleagues and pupils for around three months. All the joints in my legs were inflamed and I felt as if the stuffing was coming out of me at the seams like poor old Woody in Toy Story 2. In short, I felt ready for the car boot sale.

Four years and several personal support plans later, I can reflect on the journey the school and I have been on. I am far from "better", but together we have learned to ditch rigid definitions of completely healthy or totally ill, instead concentrating on what can be achieved within the limits of my condition. In the early stages I went through shock, denial and underestimation of the pummelling my body and mind were taking from many of the professionals dealing with me. Some staff noticed I was hiding in my office and that I was groggy and unclear. I can remember my now line manager chiding me to go home because I looked "shagged". How refreshing not to be asked if I was all right. I clearly wasn't.

At the time the school tried to take steps to deal with the physical problems, but it was mostly business as usual. Fortunately, as a deputy special needs co-ordinator, I had more flexibility to my timetable than a classroom teacher. That was how I somehow managed to keep my attendance close to respectable for the first year.

No one at occupational health, and certainly no one in the NHS, told the school about my condition; rather they held out the promise of radical improvement through medication. No one seemed to recognise the seriousness of what had happened to me. There were voices out there on the internet but they were not in authority. I became frustrated.

Only Eileen, a veteran of arthritic pain, warned me that while I would soon walk tolerably well, I'd feel sick and sometimes fatigued. After a year I was moving with less pain but the medication brought its own issues. Not to mention the physiological strain my body had been, and continues to be, under. Sure enough, towards the second year I had to take months off just as a new Senco took over. This was the start of a more realistic approach to my illness. I started to change my working practices, beginning a more flexible timetable and working just four days a week.

I've found that the models of target-setting and individual programmes we use for pupils work for me when they are - yes you've guessed - specific, measurable, realistic and time-related. When they are left to drift, they help no one and result in a huge effort on my part followed by crushing failure.

Although I was making progress in the third and fourth year of my illness, there remained a stress between what I could and what I wanted to achieve.

Occasional inflammations debilitated me for weeks at a time. Plans went unfinished; development was slower than I wanted.

Maddeningly, the school's fair treatment made me more determined to work hard to help pupils. But I could not match my own expectations. My targets came from the previous me, the one who could manage, who didn't leave school so shattered he could barely interact with his family. I was setting myself up to fail. I knew I had to listen to what my body was telling me.

Not long ago I went in to my line management meeting, looked at my line manager and knew what we were going to say. We have agreed I'll work three days a week and will take a cut in responsibility points. And, believe me, it's mutual. It's not a failure; it's about living within limits. I realise I'm more like Buzz Lightyear than Woody: it was only when he recognised that he wasn't able to fly that he could start falling with style.

I have benefited hugely from being part of an institution that takes inclusion seriously, for staff as well as pupils. There have been mistakes along the way but when I hear the "cope or retire" attitude other teachers with illness have to put up with, I realise why I was attracted to this place. It is a curious irony that I have directly benefited from it.

Howard Smith teaches at George Green's school in the London borough of Tower Hamlets

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