How do you let off steam?

16th November 2007 at 00:00
Nothing divides opinion like a teacher who takes drugs. Madeleine Brettingham talks to some who do.When cannabis user Nicola Cooper, 43, escaped a prison sentence for supplying the drug to her teenage children last month, much was made of the fact she had worked as a teaching assistant at a nearby school in Suffolk.

"Teacher in drug scandal" and "Exposed: teacher hooked on crack" are just some of the headlines that have greeted revelations about teachers' drug use in the past.

With more than a quarter of 20 to 24-year-olds admitting to taking illegal drugs in 2006-07, it's no surprise that some younger teachers are combining a career in the classroom with weekend drug use. But do teachers have a duty to be positive role models and stay clear of drugs? Or should recreational drug users be judged no more harshly than those who like a drink?

Adam, 31, knows how hard the media can come down on teachers who step over the line. In what he admits was a stupid act, he was caught buying heroin from a prostitute in his home town of Nottingham. He says it was the first time he had sought the drug (he describes it as a drunken moment of madness after an evening dinner party) and he was given a two-year conditional discharge in 2004. "I got my come-uppance," admits Adam. "Heroin as a drug sits in its own category in terms of the addiction and crime that comes with it, and I crossed a line as a teacher."

He lost his job and then, thanks to a well-publicised General Teaching Council (GTC) hearing resulting in a reprimand, lost a second job in marketing after he became front-page news in his local area.

Although a weekend user of ecstasy at the time, he regrets his drunken foray into harder substances. "When the police jumped out on us I didn't know what was going on. They said: 'What's that in your hand?' And in my drunken state I just said, 'Oh, it's heroin'."

Adam, who co-operated with this article on condition his surname was withheld, describes himself as a good teacher who had the support of his colleagues but, unfortunately, not the governors.

"My head of department's attitude was that she smoked 40 a day, but still taught PSHE lessons against smoking. Everyone makes mistakes in their personal life. It wasn't as though I did it at school or brought it into school."

The school governors disagreed. Indeed, given the bad publicity that attends such revelations, many governors will sack a teacher who is exposed for drug use, whatever their previous conduct.

The GTC takes a more cautious approach. Out of 10 cases heard from July 2006-07, only six were banned from teaching. The rest were reprimanded or allowed to continue teaching with conditions. For example, Ann-Marie Carlin, a maths teacher from Nottingham caught with pound;120 of cocaine, heroin, amphetamine and cannabis in 2004, was allowed to go on teaching provided she agreed to take drugs tests when required.

Not all teachers believe weekend drug use affects their performance. Carolyn, a 30-year-old drama teacher from Hertfordshire, takes ecstasy and cocaine during the holidays and believes she can balance it with life at school.

"I have a big blow out probably five times a year," she says. "I suppose it is about wanting to go back to a time when nothing mattered, when I had no responsibilities and when it didn't matter if I screwed up." On one of these blow outs, Carolyn will spend up to pound;100 on drugs, typically taking up to four ecstasy tablets, as well as lines of cocaine. But term time is sacrosanct.

"In my first year of teaching I went out on New Year's Eve and was back in school on January 3 with a huge comedown. I felt so rough by Friday, I was on the point of taking drugs to make me feel better again. I couldn't cope with 30 kids in front of me. I couldn't be as off-the-cuff, I was conscious of my jaw because my mouth felt tender (a temporary side-effect of ecstasy) and my vocabulary went to pieces." Carolyn stresses she has not been to work in this condition since.

Ella, a 25-year-old art teacher from Sussex, also occasionally uses cocaine and ecstasy. She went out three or four times a month during her PGCE year, but has toned down her social life now. "I was turning up at the Catholic school where I was teaching shaky and unable to focus. In the end I felt I wasn't being fair to the kids. When you're responsible for their education, you owe it to them to be present not just physically but mentally."

Ella's experiences have convinced her that today's drugs education is a shambles. "I feel embarrassed to deliver the programmes we are given," she says. "They are patronising and superficial. We have to do a role play implying pupils might take drugs from a total stranger, which is insulting to their intelligence and out of touch with reality." Ella would like to see more programmes delivered by trained drugs education professionals. In Scotland, the Government has recently announced plans to give drugs education lessons to every teacher.

All the teachers The TES spoke to reported some discomfort around drugs education, whether dodging questions from curious pupils ("If they ask whether I've taken them, I say I've been offered but said no," says one) or actively condemning a lifestyle they pursue ("my attitude is not 'this is bad don't do it', but 'if you do it - this will happen,'" says another). Some thought they delivered the lessons better because of it. "I think it would be hard to do well if you were completely clueless," says one teacher.

With the rising availability of drugs, it is a dilemma that an increasing number of teachers will face. There are no accurate figures on the number who take illegal drugs (a small National Union of Teachers survey earlier this year found 35 per cent of respondents used nicotine, alcohol, food or other substances excessively to cope with stress, but did not specify which) but the national figures give some idea. A quarter of 20 to 24-year-olds and nearly 7 per cent of 25 to 29-year-olds used illegal drugs in the last year, according to the British Crime Survey, a proportion that has increased since 1998, largely down to the growing availability of cocaine. Of course there are those that believe such teachers shouldn't be in the classroom at all. Anna Nichols, spokeswoman for the support group Families Against Drugs, says teachers who take drugs, even recreationally, risk compromising their teaching and their ability to deliver an anti-drugs message.

"We know that a young person contemplating whether or not to use drugs may well be persuaded to experiment if someone they admire uses them," she says.

That is not to mention that drug use is illegal, often implicated in prostitution and gun crime, and comes with well-known side-effects. There is evidence to suggest ecstasy use damages abstract thought and memory, and can cause psychosis and depression. The same is true of cocaine, which can also damage the lungs and heart.

"The issue is that enough people get away with it enough of the time to think it's OK - because it's never them," says Dr Ken Checinski, senior consultant in addictive behaviour at St George's, University of London, and a spokesman for the Government's drug advisory service, FRANK.

But some teachers believe that, like drinkers and smokers, they know the risks and should not be judged harshly. "I am a normal middle-class woman with a normal life, and drugs are just something I use from time to time," says one 27-year-old teacher. "I have never considered myself an addict. In my view, alcohol is a higher risk."

Some names and details have been changed. If you are concerned about your drug use or want to find out more you can contact the government advisory service, FRANK.

Crime then punishment

2007: Nicola Cooper, a teaching assistant in Suffolk, is ordered to do 200 hours' community work after supplying cannabis to her son and daughter.

2006: Ann-Marie Carlin, a maths teacher in Nottingham, is ordered by the GTC to take drugs tests as required after being found in possession of cocaine, heroin, amphetamine and cannabis.

2005: Mark Goodwin, a primary teacher in Coventry, is banned from teaching for three years after letting drug dealers operate from his home.

2002: A Nottingham teacher is given 180 hours' community service after allowing friends to grow cannabis in his garage.

Who takes what

- 50 per cent: the proportion of 20 to 24-year-olds who have used illegal drugs in the past.

- 24.8 per cent: the proportion of 20 to 24-year-olds who have used illegal drugs in the year 2006-07.

- 10 - the number of cases heard by the GTC last year that dealt with drug use.

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