Dear Ted

19th March 2004 at 00:00
I'm unexpectedly having to take sick leave for up to six months, depending on the outcome of my treatment. Should I tell my pupils the reason for my long-term absence?

Ted Wragg, emeritus professor of education at Exeter University, answers your professional problems, big or small, every week. Ask him for independent advice - or offer some of your own

Ted says

This is entirely up to you. You are under no obligation to describe intimate details of your medical condition, and most children will simply accept that some teachers are off school from time to time. Your decision will probably depend on the age and disposition of your classes, the nature of your illness, and your own personality and preferences.

Some absences, for pregnancy or visible injury, for instance, are self-evident. Others are probably a surprise to children, if their teacher looks fit and well. It is probably easiest to say: "I'm going to have to spend a couple of weeks in hospital and then a few more weeks recovering," rather than discuss private details.

You may want one of your colleagues to say you are going to be away for a few weeks, as they will find it easier to fend off any questions. If you adopt this approach, brief the person carefully about what to say.

Some teachers joke their way through it. I remember one man who told children he was going to have a head transplant, a ploy not everyone could get away with. When I was a pupil, one of our teachers told us to make sure we brought him some grapes after his operation. Three of us did, although we never knew why he was in hospital, nor were we curious.

The good news is that thousands of teachers have, like you, had to take a long-term absence, most returning to work later, fit and well. And think of all the wretched boxes your poor colleagues will have to tick while you are recuperating.

You say

You owe it to them to tell

If you are a primary teacher, you are morally bound to tell pupils and parents how long you expect to be absent. Many get used to a certain teacher and thereby gain some degree of security. But you don't have to discuss the nature of your medical condition if you don't want to.

A secondary subject specialist may also be regarded as irreplaceable to some degree. Supply teachers cannot always compensate for continuity and devotion.

Anthony Ireland, Manchester

Spare them surgical surprises

You are under no obligation to divulge the reason for your absence to your pupils. Speculation will be rife, though. I am consumed with curiosity.

I have considered all the possibilities and I would advise you to spill the beans if you are embarking on extensive liposuction to meet the Government's obesity targets; radical cosmetic surgery so you can take part in the next "I'm a celebrity" TV show or even gender reassignment to improve your promotion prospects. Because if you return as a pared-down shadow of your former self, or with knockers like Jordan's and a face like Joan Collins or Michael Jackson, your pupils will be shocked and confused: even more so if you leave as Miss and return as Sir or vice versa. You don't want to be sued a few years down the line for causing anyone post-traumatic stress disorder.

Whatever you decide, I wish you well.

Gill Tweed, south London

Halt that herd on the grapevine

As long as it is presented positively, and at an appropriate level for the children's age, honesty is the best policy. Rumours will hit the grapevine within days, with all sorts of suggested reasons for your absence. An illness serious enough to need six months off work may make you feel vulnerable, and the last thing you want is gossip. You don't need to give too many details, but tell them if the treatment may temporarily change your appearance - perhaps due to hair loss. That way, they aren't shocked if they see you in the street. Also, send a letter to parents.

Liz Parkinson, Stockport

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