An occupational hazard

30th August 1996 at 01:00
It's funny what cheers you up when you're feeling as dreadful as I do at the moment. The high spot of my last few weeks was the doctor telling me that some of the most tired people he ever sees are teachers at the end of an academic year.

As he signed me off work - with four weeks of term still to go - he assured me that teaching was a very high stress occupation. In one sentence he managed to appease my guilt about the time I was taking off, and reaffirm my competence as a human being. I am not a failure - the system that demands so much and constantly criticises us, whether we fail or succeed, is.

My last three weeks have been a bewildering succession of visits to my doctor, speech therapist, psychologist and a neurologist (who assured me that there was no organic cause to my illness). I have gone from being a competent, confident professional to a frightened, bewildered patient.

My brain, you see, decided to switch off those bits of me that are essential to my job. Over a weekend, my speech deteriorated until I was stuttering so badly that talking exhausted me. My hands became numb, unresponsive and painful. My doctor diagnosed stress. I laughed. I didn't actually feel too bad as it was the run up to the end of term. True, I still had an enormous amount to do, but with year's 11 and 13 gone, I should manage most of it - and the rest? Well, there's the summer holiday. Despite my protestations to myself and the doctor, there was no arguing with the symptoms. I have been signed off work ever since.

I can't blame it all on my job of course. I have had a pretty difficult year in my home life. I do believe however, that the unrelenting pressure of teaching has finally taken its toll.

The paradox is that I love it. I enjoy what I do but am constantly overloaded with admin, and because of the underfunding of state education, I have few resources and no time to do it. I frequently feel guilty because I know that I should do more marking, and preparation, and give more feedback to do justice to my pupils, but I simply cannot.

I am not untypical of teachers everywhere. I hope no-one else ends up like me, but until we are accorded the recognition we, and everyone's children, deserve, until the state system is properly funded, and until politicians stop pushing us about, then some people will.

Cathy Want teaches drama and is head of a sixth form in Cumbria.

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