The #GuiltyTeacher Revisited

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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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How did you feel when you needed to take a day absent from work/school/the classroom? 

Was this an easy decision to call into work, to say that you were sick; or that your child was unwell?

Two years ago, I wrote about Michael Steer – from the television series Educating Yorkshire – who inspired me to write about The Guilty Teacher. This blog resonated with so many teachers …

Steer, like many teachers are by nature, perfectionists. The upturn of this, is that teachers soon become workaholics and like the majority, have a relentlessness desire to assist the outcomes of all students. This unwritten expectation of ourselves is not sustainable and perhaps why so many teachers burn out within 5 years.

Educating Yorkshire

In one television scene featuring Steer, we see his hands heavily bandaged. His movements 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!

The long story short, it took a serious pain in Steer’s 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 him plodding off down the school corridor, into the school car-park and leaving the school.

Michael Steer well being ill Guilty Teacher

Childcare vs. School:

Today, for the first time this academic year I chose not to go into work. Now, this wasn’t because I was feeling ill, it was because my son has been unwell since the weekend. On Monday my wife called in to take the day off school; and yesterday we paid for a babysitter to look after him for the day, hoping that he would be well enough to return to school. Sadly, this was not the case and overnight I made the decision to stay at home.

Over the past 12 months in my new job, my increased workload and responsibilities have made this decision even more harder to make. All in all, I think I must have took two or three days off for childcare throughout 2014/15. In my school where I worked before, the last time this happened to me was during an INSET day. We were let down by our childcare provider, so as CPD leader, I took the decision to take my son into work and keep him my office! This also meant I avoided taking time off work. Here is the photo!

Thankfully in both cases, I have had understanding headteachers.

Typically, many teachers – whether we call in sick to work, or take the day off to look after a loved one – would feel the symptoms of guilty teacher syndrome. As I have blogged before, there is nothing scientific in the definitions I provide here; it is just common-sense. This is only based on my own personal living and leadership experiences. I would imagine it is the same for most …

What is #GuiltyTeacher Syndrome?

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; you will probably feel guilty!

shutterstock_152516051 a man wearing a suit, with handcuffs in his wrists Guilty Teacher

Image: Shutterstock

Definitions of a #GuiltyTeacher:

  • Places work before family.
  • Places work before well-being.
  • 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.

Flexible Working:

What we need more of in today’s profession, are supportive headteachers and (networks of) schools that allow flexible working conditions for hard-working teachers. If we truly want to raise the status of the profession and make this a much more tolerable job to do, we must not allow our teachers to feel guilty if they have to take a day off from school. If we do not put these mechanisms in place, then recruitment and retention will only be harder for us all to achieve; never-mind the government trying to help the profession!

We must all understand that schools and headteachers are working with reduced budgets to manage, and that we can’t make slapdash decisions, giving teachers time off work willy-nilly. Every school needs a Sickness and Absence policy and in your school, your local authority, or within your academy/free school, a policy should exist. There will be a local agreement and an agreed number of days that a teacher can take off from work to support your own family; this should be statutory and without guilt before a threshold number of day equates to pay deductions from your salary.

However, this aside, many of us will choose to ignore statutory obligations and choose to go into work; or pay for a childminder in order to go into work and avoid absent days recorded. Like me, I’m sure many of you have weighed up your salary deduction (by day) versus the cost of one days childcare. You will also consider a) to avoid the absence impacting on others b) a set of important events already in the calendar that you do not want to miss or c) that you have reached the threshold and will receive a pay deduction and/or a telling off!

Supportive Headteachers:

I am pleased to report that I have very supportive headteacher who is also family orientated. Taking time off work is never and easy decision to make for any teacher, And I hope that you reading this, if you face this decision too, you also have a supportive headteacher who understands the importance of family, well-being and your other responsibilities outside of your job. After all, education is about educating children to become a rounded person and therefore we should never forget that the teachers – our workforce and a school’s most expensive asset – are also rounded individuals with professional needs outside of school.

Today with my son, I have used what energy I have from broken nights sleep to look after him. And although I feel guilty about not being at work, I have managed to read the ‘odd email’ and most importantly, reflect on the what I am doing at school and what matters. In many ways it has given me a much needed boost in what has been a very, very busy half-term.

Freddie McGill @FreddieWM unwell childcare

To support the profession and the recruitment crisis, I encourage all headteachers to listen and support our hard-working staff. They are out greatest asset and we cannot rely on the government alone. If your staff are unwell, trust that they are making the right call and need to stay home …


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4 thoughts on “The #GuiltyTeacher Revisited

  1. Also, when I was a student my mum would let me stay at home now and then – not because I was ill – but because I was working so hard in school and on all the extra clubs/societies that I’d sometimes just need a chill day. The pace of school is frantic, especially for introverts. My favourite days were those long ones at home where I’d go into more depth on some work I’d not have time for, if I’d gone to lessons. Now I’m discovering (to my surprise) that routine for the sake of routing makes me ill, just like how others need routine to stay healthy. Things will get interesting in formal education as we start acknowledging the brilliant variety people have or feel free enough to choose to have.

  2. This all rings so true. I was sent home at lunchtime today by my very understanding HT with a +100 temperature and a swollen face (sinuses). I’ve been fighting this bug for a month and it finally got me. The problem I face is I have Ulcerative Colitis which, at its worst, could hospitalise me for months at a time. I worry that I shouldn’t take time off for a bug when I could potentially have to take a long stint off (although this hasn’t happened in my 9 years teaching).
    The thing I often forget is by not taking rest when I need to, I increase the chance of a UC flare. However, the last time I was off (bronchitis) I was made to feel incredibly guilty by a parent of a child with additional needs, because I hadn’t spent time informing every different supply teacher about her behaviour chart.

  3. I agree with the sentiment here entirely but it relies on a sympathetic leadership (and is perhaps much easier for a member of SLT than the rank and file). Unfortunately I have seen this kind of caring action taken by what you rightly describe as a guilty teacher used against them by a vindictive leader who used it as a stick with which to beat them.

  4. Unfortunately I know of one local authority that has stopped all paid days off to look after children etc – if you need to take a day, you immediately take a pay cut. Everyone I know in industry is able to ‘work from home’ on these days or at least take a day’s paid holiday. Not an option for teachers!

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