I thought stress was an excuse for laziness... I was wrong

17th December 2004 at 00:00
I am a head in my eighth year and I know from experience that teachers work very hard.

But I have seen exceptions, and one was the special needs co-ordinator at my school. She was well-meaning but contributed too little to the school, mismanaged her responsibility and was not seen to be supportive of individual children. She was too often absent and did not help teachers learn to manage differentiation.

I made a reasonable suggestion to her about her work and she left in tears.

She left not just my office in tears, but the school and profession. I was disgusted that her GP signed her off for a month and a couple of weeks later for a whole term! I was amazed that it was so easy to be signed off and had no sympathy whatever for the teacher. I could not believe that a person could walk away from work just like that and still receive her salary!

I found the personnel service at the LEA totally supportive, professional and neutral and though I was infuriated and impatient with the system I followed the guidelines carefully. I wrote to her at appropriate times with procedural details and sent informal greetings and good wishes at intervals.

All the time I was outraged by the situation. But I was impressed by staff from the personnel service who explained to me clearly how to handle the issue. Matters followed their mysterious course and the teacher's resignation ensued.

At the time, I felt the medical profession gave out sick notes far too easily and thought it was no wonder the country was going to the dogs. My opinions were shared by the media, which at the time was reporting that it was too easy to get signed off work.

Recently, however, I have had to revise my views.

I have now been signed off work with a stress-related disorder. My thoughts about GPs and their services are now more considered. My views of teachers signed off work are now different.

To many of the people I dealt with in my work, until my sudden disappearance, I probably seemed normal and competent. (As a headteacher I was under the spotlight, and judged by LEAs, Ofsted and governors to be doing a good job). Some would be amazed that suddenly I am off work, on full pay, living the life of Riley having who knows what sort of holiday!

Now I am at liberty, should I wish, to avail myself of the services of those very same staff from personnel who helped with my Senco. But now the boot is on the other foot (as well as being in my mouth and elsewhere). I hope that others are more understanding than I was to that teacher.

A person may be functioning well but at the end of his or her tether. In my case, a straw broke the camel's back and the camel collapsed allowing everything to spill out of its baskets. Professionals who are not up to the job should not be carried by others, but teachers with good records who suddenly find themselves signed off should receive support and understanding.

My message to fellow heads is to assume that there is a lot going on about which we know little or nothing, and to trust your hard-working colleagues when they say they can't go on any more.

The author is a headteacher currently on sick leave

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