Gilt-Edged Guilt

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John Dabell

I trained as a primary school teacher 25 years ago, starting my career in London and then I taught in a range of schools in the Midlands. In between teaching jobs, I worked as an Ofsted inspector (no hate mail please!), national in-service provider, project...
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Do you suffer from professional guilt?

For 2 solid months one year I heard nothing but rock music in my ears. No one else could hear it except me. I couldn’t get rid of it and I thought I was going mad. I didn’t recognise any of the music and as far as I can tell it was all original work, some of it actually really good stuff. Apart from feeling like a rock star for a short while it was actually driving me nuts and I started to fret.

I had what is called Musical Ear Syndrome (MES). This is the condition where you hear phantom sounds of a non-psychiatric nature, and this is often found in, but not limited to, elderly, hard of hearing people with tinnitus and those who lack adequate sound stimulation. I fitted none of those ‘typicals’: I was young (ish), had no specific hearing problems and spent all day in a sound-rich and sometimes noisy classroom.

Music To My Ears

The rock music eventually stopped and just disappeared one day and suddenly I felt like my hearing was pin-drop clear again but this was a weird experience. I thought that it would be horrible to have it as a permanent condition.

But then there is another syndrome I have had all my teaching life and this does appear to be a permanent thing: it’s PEGS and I don’t think I will ever shake it off.

What Is PEGS?

Pedagogue Expressing Guilt Syndrome (PEGS) is basically professional guilt that you are not doing enough or that you could do much better. A PEG sufferer is typically a highly competent teacher going the extra mile and doing everything humanly possible.

It’s guilt with gilt-edged anxieties. PEGS normally presents itself as a nagging doubt, fear, or haunting inner teacher conscience and involves sleepless nights and lost weekends.

Who Gets PEGS?

Idealists, rationalists and moderates all seem to experience PEGS to some degree but ‘practitioners’ seem to suffer the most. Practitioners are perfectionist teachers that love their subject, love their work and fundamentally want to make a difference to their pupils. This is all fertile ground for PEGS to take root and really establish itself and grow like Japanese knotweed. PEGS is the curse of a perfectionist because nothing is ever good enough (If you want to know what type of teacher you are then take a look at Why Teach a report written by the education and youth development ‘think and action tank’ LKMco).

What Causes PEGS?

In most individuals with PEGS there is no single underlying cause but there are triggers: lesson observations, planning, marking, delivering training, meetings, Ofsted, senior management, under-performing pupils, achievement gaps….anything really, big or small.

Can PEGS Be Treated?

Professional guilt is extremely hard to treat and there are no known interventions that seem to work effectively. Some teachers with PEGS actually wouldn’t want it any other way as they feel that its part and parcel of the job intimately linked to their responsibilities; it keeps them on their toes. Treatments that have been known to have some short-term impact include senior management providing lots of praise and reassurance mixed with a well-being policy that recognises the stresses and strains of the job. Mindfulness has also proved useful. However, saying “TGIF!” to someone with PEGS is completely ineffective because they recognise that Friday is actually a lot closer to Monday which leaves very little time for preparation and marking.

Our Best Might Not Be Good Enough

But wait, professional guilt is a serious issue.

It’s not at all unusual for teachers to be plagued by insecurities and crippled by anxieties because we are part of a vulnerable profession and molten system subject to constant change and eruptions.

Who wouldn’t be looking over their shoulder every five minutes? Meeting different challenges and setting yourself high standards inevitably leads to feeling out of control on occasions.

It is perfectly normal to feel guilt throughout a professional journey. Teachers try to do their best every day but there can be many times when you doubt yourself and worry that your best is just not good enough. There might be an interaction that you could have managed better, a lesson that could have been better, planning that could have been better and plenty more besides.

If you do have PEGS then don’t try and fight it. Accept that you are a professional and professionals care deeply about what they do. Being able to look at guilt, share it, accept it and realise that you are a respected professional could help to resolve it.

Take The Riff With The Smooth

If you keep hearing rock music then keep on rocking, take the riff with the smooth and who knows one day you might just stop hallucinating that you aren’t up to the job when in fact you were born to teach.


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