You're ill. But you're a teacher. It's one of life's unresolvable dilemmas. Staying in bed? It's for wimps

22nd June 2001 at 01:00
You're standing in front of a class trying to discuss Sylvia Plath's relationship with her father. Your head is spinning, but you haven't consumed vast quantities of vodka. You're burning hot and you're sweating, but you aren't near the gym. In fact, not being near the gym is the only redeeming feature in this nightmare because you can't think straight, your voice sounds like it's coming from a million miles away, and you know that there's still another hour before the bell goes.

You're ill. But you're a teacher. One of life's unresolvable dilemmas. Teachers don't get ill like other people. Colds and small viruses mean nothing to us. I have taught lessons with bits of tissue stuck up my nose and a temperature that was heading for tropical. Because what are the alternatives? Staying in bed? It's for wimps. We are the germ-busters, we can keep going until the head germ sends something really disgusting for us to deal with and we're prostrate for two weeks longer than we should have been in the first place. Anything is better than admitting that you should have taken that one precautionary day at home when it all started.

I can't bear the guilt of being off sick. I can't bear knowing that I have hastily planned lessons that probably won't work, and inflicted them on my colleagues who are giving up their free periods to do my cover. I can't bear knowing that my long-suffering classes are going to have to work in silence on some task that they know is prefabricated and dull, and conceived to keep them as silent as possible for as long as possible. I can't bear going back the next day to a pigeonhole full of notes and messages - and my colleagues telling me why my cover lessons caused hassle.

If it means getting out of a double lesson of silent working, my Year 11s are guaranteed to swear blind that we are not doing the book I said we are, that they haven't got any of the work that I left them - that I don't even teach them. I have spent the whole day setting detentions for kids who thought I wouldn't notice if they did their physics homework in my cover lesson, and then didn't have any English to hnd in. I run around apologising to my colleagues if they couldn't find the file paper, or some textbooks weren't where I said they would be. It is too stressful to take a day off school; returning makes you want to take to your bed again.

Being off ill is a good lesson in humility. Before you take that day off, you have this feeling that you are indispensable. You're convinced that the school isn't going to be able to function without you. How will the Harry Potter Appreciation Club run at lunch break? Will a riot break out because you're not there to do your duty in the canteen? Will your form remember to bring back their slips for the science trip? I lie in bed watching Richard and Judy in an agony of desperation and indecision. Check the temperature. If it's gone down by break I'm going back in. Take a few more extra-strength Lemsips. If I can take three more then I might just make it back to do my after-school activity. You're mentally measuring the day by the times of the bells: third lesson, fourth lesson; right, that's double Year 11 out of the way. If the phone rings now they've caused a fireI It's not exactly what you might call restful.

And, strangely enough, people always cope. There must be some easier way of dealing with teacher illness. I would estimate that most teacher days are lost through sickness brought on because the teacher didn't take the original day they needed when they first felt ill. It has to develop into a full-blown crisis before we stop teaching. There's so much guilt and pressure to keep you in that classroom; I've heard many teachers say "it was easier to just keep on going". Easier for whom? The kids who get the wrong end of your temper? The colleagues who've got to breathe your germs? Your family when you pass out in bed the minute you get home? I've known people in other professions to take a week off if they have a sneezing fit. Let's take martyrdom out of our job description. And then breathe all over the people who put it there in the first place.

Gemma Warren teaches at the Latymer school, Edmonton, north London

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