It’s 2am on a Thursday morning and I’m a) wide awake and b) feeling guilty. I feel guilty that both my children are ill and I’ve not been around to look after them; guilty that I’ve forced my parents to cancel their social lives to wipe snot and dispense Calpol; that in my hurry to get home I left a messy classroom and unmarked maths books for my job-share partner; and that I forgot today was my godson’s birthday. I’m also feeling guilty that the deadline for this column was about nine hours ago and my editor is just the last in a long line of people I’ve let down today.
Guilt trips follow teachers like night follows day. While some of the guilt comes from other people (my toddler pleading with me not to go to school this morning is a case in point), a great deal is probably self-inflicted. This being the case, am I simply wallowing in it; actively searching out new things about which to feel guilty? I have a guilty feeling I might be, which immediately sets off a wave of guilt that I am wasting my time and energy feeling guilty when I could be doing something more productive.
Maybe it’s just the nature of the job. Everything about teaching feels high-stakes with seemingly infinite possibilities for letting people down. Every poor test result, every unhappy child, every forgotten meeting, bad lesson observation and pile of unmarked books stands testament to how you are failing children and probably ruining life chances to boot. I know few teachers who don’t regularly beat themselves up over the things they’ve failed to do. Édith Piaf would never have sung Je ne regrette rien if she’d spent a few years in a classroom.
Then there’s the gender factor. When it comes to self-recrimination, women are leagues ahead. It’s surely no coincidence that Mr Rochester was more than capable of quashing any bigamy-related qualms he might have had when leading Jane Eyre to the altar, and Macbeth was able to plough on regardless after his murder spree while Lady Macbeth immediately descended into hand-wringing and agonised nocturnal wanderings.
And having children of your own is a great way to open up more pathways into guilt. I was discussing this with a friend the other day who told me about the keynote speaker at a recent Women in Business event who said, “When they took the baby out, they put the guilt in.” Maybe this shouldn’t be the case but I distinctly remember spending the first few months of maternity leave feeling permanently anxious that I was getting it all wrong. None of this parental guilt was shared as it took Mr Brighouse a good three months to grasp that parenthood involved anything more than buying nappies and periodically re-enacting the opening of The Lion King.
Maybe he’s got the right approach. I’ve resolved to work on limiting the guilt, but old habits die hard. My goal is to feel as guilty about not marking Billy’s homework in detail as he feels about handing it in four days late. I’m not quite there yet but until then there’s always wine – and Piaf.
Jo Brighouse is a primary school teacher in the Midlands