Case study: Teaching with the menopause

5th May 2006 at 01:00
During a teaching career of more than 20 years I have been in many staffrooms and heard countless discussions. As society has become more liberated, so has the talk. Teachers now discuss lots of things: thongs, binge drinking, giving birth, and prostate cancer. These days there aren't many taboos. Perhaps mental illness is one. Another is the menopause.

Colleagues with young babies get support and sympathy for their sleepless nights and their children's sicknesses. Teachers with heavy colds are told to go home or given hot drinks. But menopausal staff are invisible. I have taught through three pregnancies, hundreds of colds and the occasional illness. But none has been as troublesome as the menopause.

That's not surprising when you consider that it commonly lasts years rather than months and has a huge range of physical and emotional symptoms. The most common, of course, are hot flushes, night sweats and headaches. But there are also bladder problems, weight gain, itchiness and loss of sexual desire. I suppose I should be glad that I have escaped the range of other possible side-effects which are listed in my menopause book: tooth loss, fibromyalgia, paranoia, syndrome X and panic disorder are just a selection.

Teaching with the menopause is frustrating, sad and sometimes rather funny. Taking students through a PowerPoint presentation, I find myself explaining the causes of the mid-Tudor crisis while wondering if I dare to remove my cardigan or whether the sweat patches on my blouse will disgust my students. At times I feel incompetent when I cannot retrieve the simplest words or names from my fuzzy brain. At faculty meetings I find myself drifting off after a sleepless night. At parents' evening I talk about Emily's progress while wondering how I can avoid a final clammy handshake. In lessons I have become adept at removing cardigans in a few seconds before the sweat reaches full flow, and at opening the window catch with lightning speed. Hardest to deal with is my moodiness, snapping at colleagues or students.

In the end, the menopause is a bit depressing. A pregnant woman puts on weight, and loses bladder control and restful nights for nine months and is rewarded with a baby. The menopausal woman puts up with the same for several years and is rewarded with infertility. The dilemma for a menopausal teacher is whether she should explain or just grin and bear it.

It is a stage of physical development which only middle-aged women seem to know about. It doesn't surprise me that children ignore it at school.

Naturally the development of breasts and penises and the start of periods and wet dreams are much more relevant and interesting. But if you don't learn it at school and you don't read Woman's Own, then you don't ever find out.

For men, the menopause is a bit like PMT: a bit of a joke and something women use as an excuse for their general emotional incompetence. This means that your behaviour seems irrational and irritating, yet to acknowledge its physical causes is a sign of embarrassing weakness. Younger female teachers want to know about the menopause as much as they want to know about the process of cremation. So, apart from confiding in a few female friends at work, I've kept quiet.

Are there any good aspects? A future without tampons is one. According to my book, I can also celebrate the possible shrinkage of any oestrogen-dependent fibroids and a decline in the symptoms of endometriosis, if I ever had it. And, strangely, the menopause has helped me empathise more with my teenage students. All the fears and insecurity of pubescence, the nagging voice at the back of the mind - "Can they tell?" - have returned to plague me. And I hope it has given me a bit more insight and compassion, which perhaps I have lacked in the past 20 years when my body was calm and predictable.

Diana Laffin teaches in a sixth-form college in the South-east

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