It makes me sick

27th August 2004 at 01:00
Geoff Brookes says teaching should carry a health warning

Things have changed in the staffroom, suddenly and without warning.

A health team has been working with a group of Year 7 pupils. They kindly offered to run some simple health checks on the staff during an Inset day - cholesterol, blood pressure, that sort of thing - and many made appointments.

Oh dear.

Eight - that's nearly 20 per cent - were found to have dangerously high blood pressure. They were told to seek urgent appointments with their doctors.

This was during an Inset day. Relaxed. No pressure. What would it be like on a real school day? We'll soon find out. Alarmed, the team has offered to bring the equipment back and check readings on a weekly basis. Prevention is better than long-term sickness.

Now the staffroom is full of fear. Urgent discussions about diets and lifestyle have replaced complaints about cover. Everyone is watching out for silent killers lurking in sandwiches.

Perhaps we don't look after ourselves properly. Perhaps, because we work with children, we never confront the consequences of growing old. We talk about stress without ever thinking about what it really means and what it does to us. We don't see ourselves changing. We teach challenging pupils and challenging subjects. We manage transition and change. We don't work.

Ordinary people work. We vocate.

And at what cost to ourselves? We stop to draw breath and find that our blood pressure has gone through the roof.

There should be more occupational health for teachers; a recognition of what we do and the price we pay. Well-educated pupils are the product of good teaching. The workforce needs to be healthy and to feel good about itself.

We do, of course, have generous holidays, but this is a small price to pay for the function we perform and the influence good teachers can have. We are often the cement that holds society together - or, at the very least, stops it falling apart.

The job is unique. We are expected to perform brilliantly five or six times a day: multi-media surfers, calmly providing inspirational moments to change the lives of others on a daily basis. And then we do the paperwork.

Of course, in the end it's impossible. We are expected to manage the emotional exhaustion of being nice to people who don't value what we do. We are expected to set and achieve targets. The pressure is relentless. The adrenalin pumps and our bodies tell us to run. But we stay where we are, resolving conflicts, juggling, trying to do the impossible. But we have to learn to say no. We have to break off; go home early; manage our workload by deciding not to do something, rather than trying to do more.

Teachers are intelligent and well informed. As subject specialists, many are guardians of obscure knowledge. But often we seem to know nothing about ourselves or our needs. Hence, too many hurried lunchtimes and school dinners - teachers giving their time freely to others, never to themselves.

Stress? That's for wimps, for people who can't cope. I love my job, I love the children, I will do an extra lesson at lunchtime, it doesn't bother me.

Nonsense. No one is invulnerable. And it is not unprofessional, just sometimes, to put ourselves first.

The constant pursuit of improvement might be a good thing, but is it good for our health? The job is all about responsibility and professional duty.

It's about children. It's a big job and good teachers will always have a deep-seated concern for their pupils. We are there to teach the people who will build the world a better future. But this doesn't come cheap. My fear is that someone I know is paying for that happy, shiny future with their life.

Geoff Brookes is deputy head of Cefn Hengoed comprehensive, Swansea

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