The #GuiltyTeacher. Guilty as charged! by @TeacherToolkit

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Ross Morrison McGill founded @TeacherToolkit in 2010, and today, he is one of the 'most followed educators'on social media in the world. In 2015, he was nominated as one of the '500 Most Influential People in Britain' by The Sunday Times as a result of...
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Last week on Educating Yorkshire, we watched Deputy Headteacher Michael Steer develop a serious skin condition whilst at work. Kicking and screaming at the television, Steer delayed the decision to go to hospital. (S1-Ep6: Death Trap)


Steer has senior responsibilities, that perhaps, prior to the DfE’s ill-timed announcements on examinations, can be considered the most important job in the school – raising attainment in both Maths and English at GCSE. He is obviously a workaholic, and like the majority of teachers, has a relentlessness to assist the outcomes of all students.

Deputy Head - Michael Steer
Deputy Head – Michael Steer

It took a serious pain in his right leg, plus a direct order from his Headteacher, Johnny Mitchell, to take one hour off from work, to attend a hospital appointment … We then see Steer plodding off down the school corridor, into the school car-park and leaving the school.

Steer is, the ‘a-typical’, #GuiltyTeacher.

Headteacher - Johnny Mitchell
Headteacher – Johnny Mitchell

In the next television scene featuring Steer, we see his hands heavily bandaged. His dexterous movements are severely restricted, as he tries to navigate the school emails on his computer keyboard and mobile phone, whilst hopelessly supping a drink from his cup of tea!

Educating Yorkshire

This image, poses a multitude of thoughts; from sympathy to familiarity. Is Steer another example of #GuiltyTeacher syndrome?

Definitions of a #GuiltyTeacher:

  • Reluctant to ask for help.
  • Unwilling to recognise that they do need help.
  • Workload is increasing.
  • Mistakes are more common.
  • Emotional temperament is frayed.
  • Anguish is etched across your face.
  • Finds it difficult to ‘let-go’ or say ‘no’.
  • Considers perfectionism normal.

I could go on, but hopefully you will understand, that the definition of a #GuiltyTeacher is a teacher who ignores the ‘signals’ of some of the factors listed above, and refuses to let go of their routine and commitments.

Typicality Question?

  • How many of us, despite the signals, would refuse to take time off work?
  • How many of us have allowed work to exacerbate ailments?
  • Are you one to continue to teach and bury your head in the sand?
  • Does the pressure of work blur reality? For example; you would rather go into work, instead of setting 5 periods of cover.
 Photo Credit: nickwheeleroz via Compfight cc
Photo Credit: nickwheeleroz via Compfight cc

I’m sure these are all familiar to us all. A case of broken eggs perhaps? (i.e. use it or throw it away and carry on. You have plenty more…)

What is the #GuiltyTeacher syndrome?

This is nothing scientific in the definitions provided here; these are only based on my own teaching and leadership experiences. Put simply, this is when you are reluctant to take time off for genuine sickness; doctors appointments and family emergencies.

When and if you do, you will either be made to feel:

  • like a #GuiltyTeacher by other external factors (e.g. work demands; loved ones; colleagues), or
  • like a #GuiltyTeacher, based on your own perceptions and expectations of work demands.

Either way, both possibilities can be associated with genuine and not-so-genuine ailments.


In Steer’s case, I fell victim to #GuiltyTeacher syndrome again, this very week. This probably happens at least once a year; mostly during the autumn term, when the suns goes down and jack-frost makes an appearance.

It is all too easy to continue with the mindset that; ‘you are invincible; I love my job; I will not take time off; what about my attendance?; what about the cover work?; I cannot miss that appointment!’ All symptoms and scenarios we all consider, when we know ‘something’, just doesn’t feel quite right.

This week, I fell genuinely sick for the first time in years and refused to accept that it was happening. Why? Probably because, I didn’t feel or look typically ill.

Photo Credit: friendlydrag0n via Compfight cc  'Medication time'
Photo Credit: friendlydrag0n via Compfight cc ‘Medication time’

Now, Tennis Elbow (or Student’s Elbow which is my preferable name), given that I sit at my desk most days writing) is not incredibly painful, but it is unsightly and noticeable. Having ignored this for one whole day, and then spending the second day showing off my newly acquired ‘lump’ to my friends; my nearest and dearest coerced me to attend my GPs; albeit, (please take note) after school-hours!

On arrival, the doctor examined my arm and drew a circle around the effected area. The total area in question, measured 12cms in circumference. After a phone-call and a second opinion, he immediately referred me to go to Accident and Emergency at the nearest hospital.

Henceforth, I dashed home and packed an overnight bag – just in case – and resigned myself to 6, maybe 7 or 8 hours of waiting(!); and a long sleepless night before work in the morning!

Photo Credit: SalFalko via Compfight cc
Photo Credit: SalFalko via Compfight cc


Work didn’t come the next day. On doctors and very strong family advice, I opted to stay at home and rest. I was incredibly frustrated. The only symptoms I was showing, were flu-like during my sleep and a slow-evolving rash, orbiting outwards from the tip of my right-elbow. On day 2, the effected area was now measuring 15 cms in circumference and so it has continued …

and so, this has continued for the past 4 days with pricks, conversations; blood tests; X-rays; waiting; more waiting; topping up the car-meter; texting home; checking work emails; tweeting and so forth … and when school was closed due to the teacher-strike, I was again, back at hospital.

During the course of the first autumn term of 2013, I have only completed one full week at work! This was only last week at the date of writing this post and I would assume that many readers will think ‘what on earth has been going on?’

My absences have not been from sickness related events alone. As a conscientious soul, I must stress this point. Some absence events have been intentional and of course, other unforeseen circumstances. But how many absences have been due to the #GuiltyTeacher?

This half term is certainly not a typical picture for me. I have managed a 100% attendance period from 2004 – 2009. (Yes, I even got a school letter of congratulations from the Headteacher and was also commended, during an interview in 2008.) More often than not, like most teachers who are ‘declared fit for work’ to carry out their responsibilities, I manage to keep between a 95-98% attendance rate every year.

Guilty or not guilty?

Consider if some of my own absences, have been subject to #GuiltyTeacher syndrome/definition?

This half-term, I have been unable to complete a full working week, for the following reasons:

  • 1st week: x1 INSET day
  • 2nd week: x2 days off for child sickness
  • 3rd week: x1 INSET day and a x2-day interview
  • 4th week: x1 INSET day
  • 5th week: x1 interview
  • 6th week: No absences
  • 7th week: x1 day illness (see photos above); One day teacher-strike and 1/2 day family emergency.
  • 8th week: Week not yet started – but, I’m sure something will happen! It’s been that kind of term.

(Note; all INSET days were whole-school events and on-site.)

...Cutting the mustard...
…Cutting the mustard…

Cutting the mustard:

I wouldn’t go as far to describe this week (7th week) as the week from hell, but in terms of emotions, it has been very close personally and professionally. I have dragged myself into work and into hospital for daily IV injections in order to a) get healthy and b) avoid taking time off work and falling behind the carthorse.

How often does real-life make a detrimental impact on your work and your own performance? Where possible, how much of this effects you in the classroom? Do you use the situation to your advantage; to inspire students?

For many of us, we can be torn between the; “f**k everyone” attitude or the, “we’ll survive without you for one day”; to “poor kids” or, “poor X teacher who has to cover my class today”. It’s always a tough call for any teacher to stay at home and rest and I am certainly not practising what I preach here today. I should be in bed(!), but I’ve been dying to write this up since I became ill, having smirked at the decisions of Steer in Educating Yorkshire!


There are hundreds of solutions out there and I’m sure you will have your own viewpoints too. I am confident that the (teacher)-reader among you, will identify with symptoms of #GuiltyTeacher very, very well.

The solutions range from the simple to the professional. From going to bed early and developing a stringent routine for work and for play, to ensuring you relax once or twice a week, away from school-related distractions at home. For example, emails synchronised to your computer and mobile-phone device; or having the school laptop perched on the arm of your sofa whilst you watch television! Do these sound typical? Check the ‘Typicality Questions’ at the top of this article once more…

Other sensible approaches include, seeking professional help to assist with stress; depression; anxiety; blood-pressure and general ailments that many teachers do suffer from.

As a classroom teacher, I would advocate:

  • Play a sport or join the gym.
  • Go out with loved ones and friends, every weekend.
  • Travel as much as you can during the holidays.
  • Spend one, maybe two late nights at work marking, and that’s all!
  • Eat fruit!
  • Talk to someone.

As a middle-leader I would advocate:

  • Share any concerns with your line-manager as soon as possible.
  • Grab a close colleague and share.
  • Make a clear line between work; home and play.
  • Spend time with your family.
  • Go to bed early.
  • Talk with your Headteacher and flag up any potential problems.

As a senior teacher I would advocate:

  • Share any concerns with your line-manager as soon as possible.
  • Go to bed early.
  • Drink plenty of water and eat plenty of fruit.
  • Limit yourself to 3 late nights at work; per week.
  • Spend quality time with your family.
  • Talk with your Headteacher and flag up any potential problems.

Even the resolute, have to accept, that sometimes teaching is just a job. Health and well-being is far more important than school events and meetings; publications; examinations and important visitors. We are all replaceable and schools ‘do survive’ for a day (and more) without you and I. That’s a fact!

When we are properly and potentially, seriously ill, we just need to remember, that you need to take well-needed time off to recuperate and do what is right for yourself.

I am pleased to report that I am on the mend,



On a totally different note and in case you missed it; someone has published a book by Michael Gove: ‘Everything I know about teaching.’An absolute bargain for £4.99. Well worth a quick look here.

Everything I know about teaching.
Everything I know about teaching.

14 thoughts on “The #GuiltyTeacher. Guilty as charged! by @TeacherToolkit

  1. Thanks for this, Ross. I love Educating Yorkshire but found the Michael Steer episode quite disturbing. We HAVE to look after ourselves and not put our health (physical and mental) at risk if we’re to be really effective professionals. I know it can be hard to get the balance right, but teachers and school leaders have to fit their own oxygen masks before they can properly look after others.

    Hope you’re fully better soon.

  2. I can totally relate to this! I’ve recently had an operation which means I’m off work for the next 6 months….I opted to have the operation during the summer holidays and before the start of term so I didn’t disrupt my class all because I felt guilty about leaving the children and causing problems in finding a supply teacher at short notice. I think it’s times like this though, that I realise that as much as I might worry about what’s happening at school, my health is far more important, and rushing back to work will do no one any favours in the long run…

  3. Try breaking your hip (at 35) 3 days into a new HoD job! No choice about the time off – frustrating as hell and the effects of that then affected me for the next year! Four months later back into try again on my crutches!! Am guilty of the I’ll be alright situation as you are sweating, dizzy and nauseous on the way to school – the ill days not when ofsted are in – although similar symptoms display. Hope you recover soon, I like Jill’s comment about the oxygen mask!

  4. I’ve been struggling to go in and with the workload of my new school for 7 weeks. I finally gave in this week. I went to my doctors and she immediately signed me off for a week! I’m 11 weeks pregnant and it turns out what I’m experiencing with morning sickness is not normal. It can be made worse by stress. So I’ve been told even if I feel better I’ve not to go in but to rest. That’s easier said than done. Setting cover is bloody hard work and I’ve run out of ideas for one class!!

  5. I too fell foul of this syndrome. After two months of intermittent pain, it took the threat of my Principal ringing my wife and my skin turning yellow during the day to get my to hospital. I took my latest book expecting a long wait but to be home that night.

    I came home a week later… without my gall bladder. It took another week for me to be able lie flat in bed to sleep at night.

    I have three young children and this was a real wake up call for me, at first the doctors thought it was liver failure; I count myself lucky it wasn’t worse than it turned out to be. I still work hard (probably too hard) but consider my health more – for my family if not for me.


  6. Thanks for sharing your experience. I think the problem is when we see someone else doing this sort of thing, it looks mad, but when it happens to us it seems like completely normal and responsible behaviour. I went over 12 years without a single day off sick. My father died and I had only two days off – one the day he actually died and one for the funeral. A few weeks later I started to feel quite ill but kept shrugging it off, thinking I was just a bit under the weather. Feeling worse and worse, I kept pushing myself to go in. At the weekend, my husband insisted on calling the doctor when my pulse went up to 130 when resting and I could hardly get out of bed. The doctor sent paramedics and I ended up being rushed into hospital. It turned out I had a very overactive thyroid which was completely treatable, but because I’d left it so late to seek help, it got to a point where it could have killed me. I then needed 3 full weeks off to recover, followed by a phased return over the next 3 weeks. I still wouldn’t take time off lightly, but I hope I’d be more ready now to take heed of the early warning signs and get things checked out. Hope you make a speedy recovery.

  7. When I’m too sick to work, I stay home. Everyone else comes in, sneezing and coughing over everyone plus making presenteeism look normal. Every time I am sick, I have to explain myself and there are conversations about the poor person who covered or the poor person who had to take my call in the morning or how the children have missed out. This means I’ve started to come in work sick and feel anxious/undervalued/weak the whole time (meanwhile coughing and sneezing over everyone) and am seriously close to getting stress leave because I can’t take it any more.
    I’ve missed 3 days of lessons this term (started in August), by the way. Plus a day where I only have meetings.
    Seems to me management’s role in preventing sickness absence is similar to holding water in their hands. Making a fist is the worst thing they can do.

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