'My husband's left I Please don't ignore me'

19th November 2004 at 00:00
Caroline Berry was devastated when her husband of 15 years left the family home and started divorce proceedings. Nevertheless, she dragged herself into school after just a few days. She says: "I had a Year 6 class that year, so even though I was going through hell, I felt guilty about their Sats, which were coming up in a few weeks' time," says the primary school teacher from Colchester, Essex. "I knew the supply teacher wasn't much good and I didn't want to jeopardise their results."

Being at school was a welcome relief from moping around at home, but Ms Berry wasn't prepared for the reaction - or lack of reaction - from her colleagues. "I knew everyone knew what had happened, but they didn't say anything. It made me feel so isolated," she says. "Months later my colleagues said they'd wanted to help but thought I'd rather not talk about it, but they couldn't have been further from the truth."

In times of crisis, few teachers can afford the luxury of licking their wounds while colleagues field their calls. As the front line of education, they are expected to wear a brave face regardless of what might be happening in their personal lives. Many struggle back to work before they have a chance to come to terms with bereavement, relationship breakdown, serious illness or other difficulties they might face. Without the support of colleagues and senior staff it can be a very lonely time.

According to Tom Lewis, director of services at the Teacher Support Network, this is a common reaction. "When people don't know what to say, they often say nothing," he says. "This can make you feel as if they don't care, but it's not the case."

They key is to strike a healthy balance; while you're unlikely to want the sordid details of your husband's affair or the ins and outs of your prostrate troubles broadcast around the staffroom, a discreet "How are you doing?" or "Is there anything I do?" can make all the difference in ensuring a smooth return to work.

"Although you may be grieving or deeply upset, try to let colleagues know how you would like them to be with you," says Mr Lewis. "Let them know whether you want to discuss what's happened or not. If you've been away from school, ask a senior or trusted colleague to explain how you'd like your colleagues to behave towards you when you return."

Dealing with students' reactions may also require some thought. As Joy Reddy, an English teacher from Sussex, discovered, they can miss you more than you'd imagine. She explains: "When my mother died suddenly three years ago, I was devastated. After the funeral, I had almost a month off work. I received quite a frosty reception - particularly from my GCSE class. One girl said she'd seen me in the hairdresser's and I'd obviously been skiving. Another said her parents had to get her a tutor to help her catch up because I'd been away.

"My first reaction was anger. How dare they speak to me like that after all I'd been through? Fortunately, I gave myself some thinking time. Of course they'd behave like that: they were angry that I'd let them down. As egocentric teenagers, they hadn't even thought that I might have had some problems in my life. I took a deep breath, said I was sorry I hadn't been there to teach them, but my mother had died and it had been a very difficult time, but I'd do everything I could to make sure they caught up in time for their exams. They were actually very sympathetic."

Mr Lewis believes she made the right choice in being open with her students. "How honest you are is up to you, but you can't expect to breeze into the classroom and carry on where you left off," he says. "At the very least, acknowledge the absence and provide them with some reassurance. And make sure you've thought about the comments and questions that might be thrown at you. Children can be very direct and it will help if you've got some answers."

Enlisting the support of senior colleagues is also vital. Prior to your return, it is a good idea to arrange a meeting with your headteacher or a senior colleague, says Mr Lewis. If you still aren't feeling 100 per cent, it may be a good idea to negotiate working part-time for a while, a staggered return to work, or more flexible working hours to help you reintegrate. Inevitably, there will be emotional, even tearful, moments but knowing you have a support network should help ease any anxieties.

Headteachers would do well to remember that offering support when the chips are down can boost teachers' performance, says Cary Cooper, professor of organisational psychology and health at Lancaster University management school. "Employers need to be compassionate and flexible," he says. "More than anything, headteachers need to ask how they can help or make things easier if a teacher is having a difficult time. It's difficult enough retaining teachers as it is. If heads don't show they care when the going gets tough, teachers will leave and never come back."

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