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On yer bike

Call this a vocation? When Simon in 'Teachers' upped and left, even NQTs knew it was not that easy. His rapid exit delighted staff ground down by classroom demands. It also displayed a healthy attitude to the stresses of the job, according to some experts. Chris Bunting reports

It all looked so incredibly easy. Struck by a mild twinge of ennui, Simon, the incorrigibly irresponsible star of Channel 4' s Teachers, skipped on down to the travel agent, bought himself a ticket to South America and had left his job within the week.

Of course, we all know it's not that simple. Real teachers have families to support, careers to build and - even though the thought never crossed Simon's mind - responsibilities to pupils.

Simon made an entertaining comic character. It has been fun cheering at his mounting lawlessness from the safe distance of a television screen, but would any of us want a real Simon working in our children's school or in our own staffroom?

The clinical psychologist Oliver James, author of Britain on the Couch, says we should think carefully before we answer the question.

"I think Teachers and that character in particular carry a very serious message for teachers. It is not a realistic programme; it is pure fantasy, but it's asking the very important question as to how seriously teachers should take their jobs. It is trying to say that life is very difficult for teachers but they don' t have to take it seriously."

Indeed, James goes so far as to describe the programme, which has become popular among teachers despite disapproving comments from people near the top of the hierarchy, as a kind of "samizdat literature" for the teaching profession.

"In the Soviet Union, they used to secretly publish books and secretly hand them around, making fun of the crazy system they were living in. It was a way of making life bearable to live, and I don't think it is any exaggeration to say that Teachers can provide the same consolation for some people in the education system."

James believes the future of the profession will bring a continuing, centrally directed drive to deliver "a very narrow view of education, constantly supervised, without much room for personal freedom".

"That could be profoundly depressing for those with a more liberal intellect, but you basically have two ways to stay sane. The first alternative is to leave; the second is best shown in Teachers - you can try within a totalitarian system to playfully live within it, to keep a sense of yourself, and then maybe you can give something extra to the children."

Another leading expert on occupational stress, Cary Cooper, professor of organisational health and psychology at the University of Manchester Institute of Science and Technology, agrees that it is vital for teachers to avoid being consumed by their jobs.

"There is no doubt that teaching is one of the most stressed professions I have come across," he says. "There are going to be stresses in any profession, but teachers have this huge pressure put on them by society. The expectation from the public and the Government seems to be that they should give up their lives to it, and those kinds of moral imperatives can make it difficult for teachers to deal with their own problems on a personal level.

"When most people clock off at 6pm, teachers are supposed to be working 24 hours to improve the lot of children."

Professor Cooper points to research he conducted into chemical signs of stress in teachers before and after a term's teaching. He found that not only did teachers have high levels of cortisone, a stress indicator, compared with other professions, but that they had abnormally high levels even before they started the term.

"In other words, the very idea of teaching was causing stress," he says. "There will be real causes of stress in the work situation. Everybody is different. Some people will find that working in the evenings is highly stressful and so we might be thinking about trying to pack in as much as possible at school during and immediately after the working day. Others will tell you they find it less stressful to be working at home with a cup of tea.

"Your stress might be caused by workload, or interactions with colleagues or the pressure to make children perform in tests - but in the end, the most basic thing to remember is that teaching is just a job. It is a great job, but it is a job.

"If you are going to do a job well, you must feel enthusiastic and that means that you must have a private life, even if the public wants to turn you into a robot," says Professor Cooper.

A third series of 'Teachers' begins on Channel 4 next year

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