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What keeps me awake at night - Seeking 'safe' levels of stress

For the first week of the summer holidays I was still at work, trying to sort out the mess of handouts, folders and books that I had stuffed into boxes and cupboards every time I was forced to clear space to stay sane. Much of it was stuff I had searched for in a panic during lessons, knowing it was somewhere. What a waste of time and effort.

Then I took some time off. I swam in the sea a few times, read for enjoyment, spent time with the kids, had conversations with my husband, baked, gardened, saw friends and slowly loosened up.

I began to feel my muscles again. I found myself running up stairs without thinking. I woke naturally at 7.30am, 8am, 9am and felt ready for the day, eager to be up. I found myself humming ... and then came results day.

My A2 results were dire. The three students who had been clear A* students since Year 9, and whose coursework marks - approved by the board - gave no hint that they were under par, gained C, D and E for their exams. Several other students got Us.

My first serious wobble lasted until GCSE results day, and then I realised it was all a farce: we sent the papers back to be re-marked. So what is keeping me awake now?

As the new term approached I planned, organised resources, and transcribed the various meetings and consultation evening dates from the school calendar to my diary. A familiar sense of dread threatened my new-found determination to insist on "safe" stress.

When Sir Michael Wilshaw said that teachers do not know what stress is, he misread his notes: they do not know what safe stress is - the energising, invigorating stress that leads to creative problem-solving. I'll say yes to that, but no to stress that pushes people towards ill health and even suicide.

So I have taken on an allotment, signed up for dance classes with my daughter and weekend art classes with my friend: things normal people fit into their working week.

Some years ago, the Teacher Support Network listed "unmanageable workload" as number one of its top 10 forms of bullying - it is time to stand up to those bullies.

Generally a 45-hour working week is considered safe, health-wise. My natural inclination would be to do more to make up for the holidays, but sod it, that won't change the public's minds about the 13 weeks' holiday they consider so unfair, so I may as well benefit.

Last year, I found trying to drop from a 60-hour week to a 50-hour week one of the biggest causes of stress. I haven't yet figured out how I'm going to further reduce it this year, but I am determined to stay human, even if it costs me a few nights' sleep.

The writer is an English teacher in Dorset. To tell us what keeps you awake at night, email

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