Change the tired tune of the stressed

29th March 1996 at 00:00
Last week I found myself in the back street of a shabby seaside town, searching for a doorway next to a discount motor spares outlet, with a bitter wind driving rubbish along the pavement from the railway station at one end of the street to the churning sea at the other.

I had reached the end of the line. I had joined The Stressed.

Having always been a paid-up member of the just-pull-yourself-together school of personal problem solving, I was mortified to find myself sent off by the GP to this natural health clinic, to see a homeopath who would do the pulling-together I could, apparently, no longer do for myself. But once over the mortification, sitting above the motor spares outlet recounting at glorious length all my ailments and insomnia and wintry anxiety, I discovered it was really cosy down there among the ranks of The Stressed.

Because everyone seems to be down there these days. I am stressed. You are stressed. He, she, it is stressed.

Over the next few days I logged how many times stress was spoken of in our household. A neighbour was stressed by her company's downsizing, a colleague by a prevaricating publisher. A houseguest was stressed half to death by the break-up of her marriage caused by her husband's stressful job, and then the husband himself arrived to say no, it wasn't the job - actually, he loved all that adrenalin - but the terrible stress of trying to keep his marriage going alongside it.

My husband is completely stressed by trying to put in his usual 11-hour days while being crawled all over by management consultants, and my children are stressed about who-knows-what. I only know that they spend half their lives announcing they are "totally stressed" or "in a stress" or "completely stressed out".

Much of my own stress comes from my work, because if you're a writer and the writing's going badly you end up feeling as if you've been sentenced to spend a lifetime in an empty room, quarrying meaningless words from stone with your bare and bloody hands.

Locked in my room, I stare directly down into a mobile classroom at the back of the village school and am swept with envy of what I see in that bright little room.

Imagine being a teacher, I think wistfully. All those fresh faces. The variety of the school day. The companionship of the staffroom. Imagine the sense of purpose and dignity you must draw from your work. The salary. The paid holidays. The sheer joy of having a national curriculum to tell you what to do, and training days to help you do it, and an inspection system to tell you how well you're managing to do whatever it is you're supposed to be doing . . .

Of course, I know it isn't like that. I know teachers put themselves right up there at the top of the national stress league, and that with the conference season coming up all their mounting grievances and embattled resentments are about to be given their annual Easter airing.

And I understand some of the reasons why. It can't be much fun trying to teach increasingly aggressive and anti-social children in a culture that prides itself on disparaging learning and achievement, and for a society that can't make up its mind what it wants from schools. And anyone who's ever worked in the "meedja" knows exactly how it feels to strive to do an honest job in the face of unremitting contempt and blame.

But I dread the light teachers will paint themselves in as they air their string of complaints, because I know that, to those of us outside the profession, so many of the things complained of will seem, simply, par for the course.

We all make our choices, and we all have to live with them. If I choose to write for a living, I can't then complain about the loneliness, the rejections, the minuscule income, or the dry deserts of writer's block.

If I were to choose, instead, to be a teacher, then surely it would have to be in the full knowledge that this would mean stepping into an area of public debate and scrutiny, where comment and criticism - much of it unfair - would wash around me like the sea. Where I must expect to be inspected and held accountable. Where politicians would always be poking their oar in. Where I would never have the resources and time to do the job I'd like to. And where the salary of an investment banker, and a life of international travel, would emphatically not be part of the deal.

Teachers deserve public support and should command our sympathy for the increasingly front-line aspect of their work, but they can't expect the great bucket-loads of special consideration that some seem to consider their automatic right.

In fact, I have a confession to make. Like many people outside teaching, I think Chris Woodhead talks a lot of sense, and don't at all understand the yelping rage that always erupts in his wake. I'm sorry "poor teachers" feel "lambasted" by his "nonsense". I'm sorry their backs are bowing under "constant knocks to their self-esteem", which "debase, disparage and demoralise" the profession. I'm sorry they resent his "multi-magnified salary" and his "insulting and condemnatory" approach to teachers, and that they feel aggrieved that he dares to criticise without offering advice and support at the same time - "What would we say of parents who rubbished, derided and publicly decried their child's efforts to write, speak or tackle sums?" grizzled one outraged critic.

But that comparison really says it all. Because, alas, even for teachers, life isn't a classroom, and like it or not, none of us adult workers can be expected to be treated as gently as we treat our hesitant infants.

Of course teachers must speak out against anything they see as unfounded allegation or misplaced prejudice. But they must do it with confidence and dignity, sure of their professional worth, taking criticism in their stride, and remembering as they do so that life beyond the school gate is no bowl of cherries, either.

Most jobs worth doing are tough in their different ways, and getting tougher, and which of us gets the reward and recognition we truly believe we deserve? Those are things we can only find for ourselves, in the actually doing of whatever it is we've chosen to spend our lives doing. And, yes, it's hard. And, yes, other people often seem hell-bent on making it harder. And, yes, we can all feel overwhelmed and demoralised and demotivated, pushing our individual rocks uphill, wondering whether other people, somewhere else, haven't got it a darn sight easier.

Because it seems that these days the land of The Stressed is a pretty crowded country, and getting more so - standing room only, for teachers and others alike.

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