Carried away by the stress of it all;Comment;Opinion

13th March 1998 at 00:00
I recently returned to work after a prolonged illness which was diagnosed as a chest infection coupled with the late onset of asthma. A month of steroid tablets led to mood swings (from aggressive to that of a Bath front-row forward) plus weight gain of sumo proportions. I don't smoke (unless I'm on fire), therefore the probable explanation for the illness is sharing recycled air with the hordes who occupy my classroom. My only hope is to never come into contact with pupils but my chances of a head's post are slim.

One of the joys of teaching in Glasgow is that all council workers are subject to the absence monitoring policy. A source of irritation is the "back to work" procedure whereby the teacher explains their absence to the headteacher, or in his absence, the depute. Describing illness mano o mano is not a problem but many female staff are uncomfortable relating gynaecological ailments. To be fair most heads have operated the policy in a sensitive way. GPs endure seven or more years of training. It is too much to expect headteachers to be able to give health assessments at a glance.

As the unelected Educational Institute of Scotland rep (is the post ever contested?), I called a meeting regarding absence policy, attended by fewer than half the members. The irony was not lost on me. I tried to reassure the audience that only "lead-swingers" had anything to fear, a comment that went down like a Richard Branson balloon.

Perversely I believe the policy can be made to help teachers. Part of the monitoring process must include research into the causes of absence. Stress is to teaching as backache is to bricklaying, the difference being that teachers build walls of silence when stress is mentioned. Industrial relations research has shown that stress is greatest among workers who are involved in repetitive tasks and have little or no influence over their working day. This rings a bell with Pavlovian pedagogues. It will be in the teacher's interest to declare the root of the anxiety.

Some staff are prescribed skewed timetables which label them as teachers of lower school and lower ability upper school pupils. A principal teacher may have his reasons for this arrangement but they are rarely given. A colleague who asked why it was always the same people who taught Higher classes was informed that "it was a successful Higher team". The "fringe" teacher finds it difficult to develop professional skills and should he decide to put in for a "transfer" an interview panel would be less than impressed with his lack of "first team" experience.

Depressed, he may find a day in bed more satisfying than four doses of S2 followed by two periods of S1. His absence pattern will then be used as an excuse not to give him a spread of classes. However, by declaring his initial treatment to be bullying in the workplace and a cause of stress, it could lead to management ensuring a more balanced timetable to avoid possible litigation. Indiscipline and the attendant frustration felt by classroom teachers lead to tension. Outrageous incidents are rare and are dealt with swiftly, but low-level misbehaviour ("Death by a thousand cuts syndrome") causes mental anguish. In the case of nervous breakdowns it can mean more than four months' absence. Councils may find it prudent to employ in-school psychiatrists to assess staff who may be ready to go sir-crazy.

I recently walked in on a class where the kids appeared to be role-playing the poll tax riots of 1990. The teacher had his head in his hands. "Which class is this?" I asked. "Christ knows," he sobbed. I believe 18 years of teaching has made me mentally ill and many colleagues, pupils and members of the senior management team would confirm this diagnosis. When put under pressure my response is to put my hands to my ears and say "I'm sick, I need help". Invariably they go away and I am left alone with my paranoia.

To cut absenteeism, classroom teachers must be given more support from school management and if necessary from outside agencies. In the absence of fair treatment, staff truancy is likely to increase.

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