Not to be sneezed at

9th January 2004 at 00:00
You're tired, you're stressed, you're run down - and your new pupils' coughs and sneezes are bathing you in a noxious brew of unfamiliar viruses and bacteria. But, says Alison Shepherd, there's plenty you can do to keep your mind and body healthy, happy and relaxed

Schools are hothouses - of learning, hormones and bugs. The first you should welcome, the second should make you wary, and the third should send you to your medicine cabinet to check your stocks.

In 2002, teachers in England and Wales took more than 2.5 million days off sick. Many are off with long-term, stress-induced illnesses - but just as significant were those who took the odd day or week to recover from a virus or other infection caught in the medical research labs also known as classrooms.

Anecdotal evidence would suggest that at particular risk is the newly qualified teacher whose immune system has not yet created the antibodies to deal with 200 cold viruses, numerous ever-changing flu viruses or the millions of bacteria that can cause sickness and diarrhoea. It's even worse if you're teaching infants - the under-sevens find it hard to grasp the social niceties, let alone the public health issues, surrounding snot and saliva.

Helen Black has just completed her fourth term, including her induction year, at Northend primary school in Erith, south-east London. It is not an easy school to teach in. It serves a deprived area of the borough of Bexley, with up to 40 per cent of pupils eligible for free school meals and many spending some of their time in pupil-referral units.

Ms Black was recovering from her umpteenth cold when I spoke to her.

"Lemsip is the answer. Stock your cupboards with the stuff," she advises.

"All the staff here know that you have to soldier on through coughs and colds because our children rely on that continuity. But lots of liquids and sleep can see you through most weeks." She also praises the medicinal effects of a glass of white wine before bed, although experts say the antioxidants in the red variety may be even more beneficial.

Although Ms Black only completed her training year in July, she is Northend's personal, health and social education co-ordinator, as well as the link for its involvement in the Healthy Schools Initiative (HSI), the government scheme set up four years ago to improve health standards across state education.

She has worked closely with Tricia Oates, the local HSI project officer and a former teacher, to bring good practice into Northend, to the benefit of both staff and pupils. "We work a lot on stress management for staff in training sessions and workshops," says Ms Oates. "As well as help with lesson plan strategies and team building , we introduce teachers to the Alexander technique, aromatherapy and counsellors, which can be a great help to new and more experienced teachers alike."

Ms Oates, who was a teacher for 24 years, strongly believes that the initiative can make a difference in any school. "The standards are brilliant. I only wish they had been around when I was in the classroom.

Schools and education authorities can tailor them to their needs, to benefit their staff," she says.

The training and presentation sessions organised by the programme are brought into the staffroom via Ms Black, who regularly updates the staff noticeboard with contact numbers for complementary medicine practitioners, training courses and counsellors. She has also organised social events, which can help teachers relax.

Bexley's schools have also received a hygiene pack with details of how to prevent the spread of germs, advice Ms Black takes seriously in her classroom. "I encourage all the children to regularly wash their hands, not just after they've been to the toilet, which is obviously important, but also after blowing their noses, or coughing into their hands. Dirty tissues are put straight into the waste basket."

From nursery, the children at Northend are encouraged to be independent in their hygiene and are given tissues to wipe their noses.

In the drive to make the school not only healthier, but higher-attaining, headteacher Nicki Stockdale, has organised several behaviour and classroom control training courses, in the belief that reducing stress levels will have a knock-on effect on staff and pupils.

"The training has really helped," says Ms Black. "Now the children are quiet and concentrate sooner, and there is none of the running around, shouting and swearing there used to be. Teaching is easier, so we all feel better about ourselves."

On this wider health issue, Ms Black believes that the best that new teachers can do to keep well is to maintain, as much as they can, a life outside school. "I was a mature student, who had been in the workplace before, so dealing with the work-life balance was not new to me," she says.

"It must be absolutely awful for those who come straight into teaching from school and university and have to deal with it all at one time. It is so stressful that if you can't get any real perspective it will be a nightmare." And, of course, your health will suffer.

She believes it is essential that new teachers should choose their school carefully. "Make sure they have a working NQT policy. Find out if there will be more than one of you, someone else to share the experience with," she says. If it is already too late for any of that, she recommends you join a union. "Just make sure there is someone that you can talk to, don't try to do it all on your own," she says.

For advice on disease control in schools, visit www.hpa.org.ukFor details of the Healthy Schools Initiative, visit www.wiredforhealth.gov.uk

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