`I'm divorcing my teacher husband, citing the school as his mistress';First person

12th June 1998 at 01:00
The `classroom widow' who made that comment was only half joking. Peter Lewis has spoken to dozens like her since he set up a helpline for the spouses of overworked teachers. Still, he feels powerless to prenet his own wife from `working herself into an early grave.' Clare Jenkins reports

Peter Lewis's wife leaves the house every morning at seven. At her primary school, she spends an hour preparing for the day ahead.

From then until the bell rings at 3.30, she's working: teaching, marking work, preparing lessons, doing playground duty, listening to individual children's woes ... the 1,001 tasks of any primary school teacher. She takes no coffee breaks, no lunch break.

At 3.30, she clears up, prepares the room for the next day, attends meetings.

She arrives home at around six, collapses into a chair, has dinner with her husband and five-year-old son, and watches a little television.

At 10, she's back with her paperwork. She gets to bed around 2am. Sleep takes longer. At six, she's up again.

"Her mind is on school all the time," says Peter, a house husband and former singersongwriter of hymns and children's songs. "She talks about it all the time. The house feels like an extension of school."

As term progresses, he detects a pattern. His wife - anonymous at her own request - sleeps more and more badly and has more headaches. "She often has to take a headache tablet before going out to school." She gets rattier with her husband and their son.

"It's the families who bear the brunt," says Peter. "What she's giving the school, we're losing out on. Teachers give all their patience, tact, sympathy and sensitivity to the school, and they're brittle at home because they're drained.

"It doesn't take much for my wife to blow up or burst into tears. Her nerves are raw. So it's best to say nothing."

Instead, he has to stand by and watch stress take its physical toll on his wife: continuous sore throats, a bad neck, colds, stomach upsets and other minor infections. When half-terms and holidays arrive, she's usually so run down she has to take to her bed, "convalescing". No sooner has she recovered, than the whole round starts again.

Peter, meanwhile, feels his own anxiety building up. "It's a vicious circle.

I'm frightened for her and she's concerned for me. I want a wife, and our son wants a mother. But she's working herself into an early grave and I don't want her to die."

Although her doctor recommended anti-depressants, she refused to take them. On bad days, she talks of giving it all up and becoming a shop assistant. "But she loves teaching. She's committed to it."

Last year Peter persuaded his wife to consider early retirement through ill health - she is 47. Too late, said their local National Association of Schoolmasters Union of Women Teachers representative. To qualify, she would have to be off work for at least six months before she could apply, and it's rare now for any teacher to be given early retirement. Too many people wanted it in the past.

What he did suggest, though, was contacting others like themselves - families under pressure because one or other parent was a teacher - through the union magazine.

Peter had no idea what he was starting. The phone calls began. Then came the letters, hundreds of them, often marked confidential. They came from spouses, partners, colleagues, friends, even doctors and clergy, and all said the same thing: "This person is under great stress. What can be done to help them - and us? Teachers have their unions. But there's no union for us."

What there is now, though, is a helpline, staffed solely by Peter, and a title - COSST (Concerned Spouses for Suffering Teachers).

"My wife was not keen on me doing this because of how people might see her,"

he says. "And, yes, it does add to her stress, She's worried about being identified."

One message that comes through the letters is that the problems of Peter's wife are far from unique. "We're counting our blessings compared to some people," says Peter. "There are 72-hour weeks, divorces by the dozen, heart attacks. One woman had a serious car crash because she was driving along thinking so hard about work."

He shows some excerpts from the letters: "Many nights I lie awake composing letters to my husband's headteacher conveying my fears for his health and for the lack of time he is able to give to his family..."

"I'm the 66-year-old husband of a greatly overburdened headteacher who can work in excess of 18 hours a day..."

"Soon the children and I will never see my teacher husband at all. Maybe that will be the time to divorce him, citing the school as his mistress!"

One letter, about teacher friends, is from a vet. "Soon," he writes, "I wouldn't be surprised if teaching overtakes veterinary science as the suicidal profession."

Another is from a professor in Dorset: "I feel strongly about excessive hours worked by over-diligent teachers, who include my wife. She's often off sick with stress. A heart operation was the result last year. She works 50 hours a week and has no time for a social life.

"Teachers are their own worst enemies," he adds. "No industrialist would expect staff to carry the load most heads seem to think is reasonable."

Some might see it all as just another case of whingeing teachers -- seeing themselves as "victims", to use David Blunkett's word. Not at all, says Peter Lewis. "Teachers don't complain in public to anyone. They know they've already got an image problem. Even when the unions speak out, they're muted.

So teachers just carry on from day to day in the hope that things will improve."

Of course, many professionals work long hours, but few do so under quite the same constraints and pressures as teachers. "There is no non-contact time for my wife. All her day is bustle and noise. If I go to pick her up, I'm glad to be out of it after an hour. Does a doctor have that? Does an accountant?

"There's a so-called joke poster in her school about the 10 things a teacher is: social worker, police officer, referee, diplomat, and so on. She's pulled in all directions. She's always on the go."

Things started going downhill, he believes, when her school -- in a deprived area of Yorkshire -- became locally managed, becoming more like a business.

"She was very fulfilled until then."

Staff had to re-apply for their jobs, and one post had to go. She kept her job, but was distressed for the women who didn't.

Then came the national curriculum. Then national tests and league tables, all leading to more directives, more meetings, attainment level checks, marking ... "She struggles home at night with a bag full of files she can just about lift."

Maybe she's just a bad time manager? "My wife is very good at time management.

To survive in her school, you have to be conscientious. But how can anyone manage time when things are changing all the time?"

Having spent hours on the phone listening to similar stories, and yet more hours answering letters, what perplexes Peter now is what to do next. "One woman wrote to me saying, if you can't come up with a solution, if it's just a case of sharing sob stories, don't bother writing back. But I can't offer any solution."

What he is able to offer is a starting point. He's not militant or political, he says. "I'm doing it for my wife. My prime object is to help her. But the only way to do that is for things to change in education. If teachers could hand over the paperwork to administrators, they could do what they do best - teach - and the situation would improve overnight."

Anyone interested in finding out more about COSST can contact Peter Lewis via 'The TES', Admiral House, 66-68 East Smithfield, London E1 9XY

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