Be more stoical? It's enough to have you spluttering into your cough linctus

30th January 2009 at 00:00

As I coughed and hacked, Year 11 sat waiting patiently and politely, trying to ignore my streaming eyes, death-rattle choking noises and red face. I had, after all, been like this all week.

Just in the nick of time, Charlie appeared with Nurse and her trusty bottle of cough linctus. There was no Mary Poppins spoonful of sugar to help the medicine go down, just a stern look and a suggestion I needed antibiotics. But, two swigs of the vile mixture and I was momentarily restored - albeit looking rather rough.

Ah, yes, the familiar January chest infection. Hands up who had the pre-Christmas flu bug? As I thought: much higher numbers. Full-blown flu over the actual festive holidays? Even more of you.

On one memorable December day, we had 19 colleagues off sick on a single day. Something of a record. The school had been hit by a combination of viruses that included the flu and projectile vomiting.

The problem with the vomiting was its suddenness. I managed one marvellous manoeuvre with a plastic waste bin, catching Jacob's vomit just in time to stop it going over the desk - and Matthew, who was sitting in front of him. During this epidemic, Nurse was seeing up to 30 pupils a day. She herself ultimately succumbed on Christmas day. Sadly, I contracted flu in term time and was off for a whole week. My form sent a "Get well soon" card, depicting me being attacked by large green bugs that I was valiantly squashing with a dictionary.

In an attempt to combat the spread of germs, hand gel dispensers have been fitted all over the building. Signs scream at us to "Now Wash Your Hands!" The place looks like a toxic health hazard.

We're meant to rub the clear gel on to our hands every time we touch a surface, but often the dispensers are empty because some pupils have taken the added precaution of rubbing the gel over their entire selves, uniforms included. "Can't be too careful, Miss," said Ben after rubbing it in Demetri's hair.

As my chest infection shows no sign of abating, I swallow vitamin C in industrial quantities and aim for the five-a-day fruit and veg target. Frankly, two tangerines and a banana may be good for my immune system, but they are no defence against the horror that is lower set Year 9, period eight, so I scoff a chocolate bar as well.

In times of crisis, and when blood sugar levels fall, Nurse dispenses jaffa cakes - good news for the 10 per cent of parents who allegedly think that said cakes count towards their child's daily fruit intake.

Apparently, Monday January 5 was a record sick day: 2.4 million workers called in ill, the worst day for absenteeism our country has ever known. Tuesday December 30 was also a memorable day in the sickness calendar. That's when the Daily Mail headline screamed "15,000 teachers go sick each day". More than a headline, actually: an entire front page. How dreadful. How do we have the audacity to be sick in term time, the article wondered? The editorial called upon teachers to be more "stoic".

The figures painted a dire picture: 5.4 sick days was the average number taken per teacher in 2007. Hang on though, the figure was only 5.3 days in 2002 and 5.1 in 1999, so an increase of 0.3 of a day over an eight-year period doesn't strike me as a "drastic increase". It doesn't strike Christine Blower, acting secretary of the NUT, as drastic either. Given the enormous pressure teachers face, both she and I are surprised the number isn't higher.

Let's look at some truly drastic figures, shall we? A total of 97 per cent of teachers have disruptive pupils in their classrooms; 56 per cent claim that poor behaviour frequently gets in the way of teaching and learning; and 75 per cent have reported violent behaviour in children under the age of 11. Is it any wonder that Health and Safety Executive reports placed teachers at the top of the stress league in 2002, calculating that people in the profession were 25 per cent more likely to suffer a heart attack and 50 per cent more prone to fatal strokes? And that was in 2002, before the behavioural problems began to reach their current proportions.

But, of course, I forgot - so thank goodness the Daily Mail kindly reminded me and all its readers - about the luxury of those 170 days "off" we have every year. You know, the ones where we all lie around in bubble baths eating bonbons, doing nothing and never being ill or scheduling our operations or dental work or check-ups.

Be more stoic, must we? Like the head of drama who suffered with a damaged knee, so the school show could go on. Or the teacher who scheduled a hernia operation for the holiday even though it clashed with a honeymoon. Or another who called in with cover work just before an emergency operation.

Stoicism? Don't make me laugh: it'll only induce yet another coughing fit.

TES Magazine, pages 10-17

Julie Greenhough, teacher of English at a London independent school.

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