Teacher in a Wheelchair Series – No 2 – Why Bother?

I’ve lost count of how many times people have asked me how I appear to just carry on despite rapidly falling to pieces. Just as often I look confused at them & say “err I just do. It’s nothing special.”.  Looking at it objectively, actually my ability to hold down a full time job is thanks to a million little tricks and adjustments. This series of blogs is all about unpicking those adjustments & sharing them. Number 1 shared some tricks on making it through the day in one piece, or at least in as few separate pieces as possible. This week, I’m focusing on mental health.

For those who don’t know, I have Ehlers Danlos Syndrome – a genetic condition which affects connective tissues throughout my body making them stretchier than they should be. For me this meant undiagnosed joint pain, weird injuries, & enormous anxiety as a child; later this became chronic pain in my back & gastric issues; finally (and this isn’t my final form) in my mid 30s I dislocate daily, have dysautonomia, intense fatigue, & the joys of adrenal imbalance making me easily “stressy” and unable to sleep at appropriate times.

Life could very easily get very dark; I could easily dwell on the potential of overdoing it & rupturing an important organ; it’s not unusual to do the 2am game of “which body part hurts the most?” – tonight, come on down thoracic vertebrae! We have a winner! ; I am human & the odd week long pity party for one is allowed (and frankly, quite health behaviour when you are faced with similar pain to a broken bone all the time & for the rest of your life). At my PIP interview the assessor took Mr Geek aside and said bluntly “keep.an eye on her, that brave face is going to slip soon & she will crash and burn”. PIP or Personal Independence Payment is the UK disibility benefit to enable us to pay for care & mobility aids. It has a very bad press & the process tested my mental health to the absolute limit. I lucked out with my assessor who was kind & fair and was so jaded by the system that he just asked me straight rather than trying to trip me up. I thought he was being dramatic when he said to look out for my mental health. He wasn’t. 

So here’s some pieces of advice on mental health in the workplace when you have chronic pain. 

1. Every Little Helps

It’s very easy to feel like Sisyphus forever rolling that boulder up a hill & getting nowhere. As teachers, even after years, we have this idea in our heads that we can create a community of well behaved & engaged kids. That ideal will never go.

When I first used my wheelchair at school, I was scared that it would impact on my authority and the kids wouldn’t behave. Quite the opposite. It’s allowed me to be softer with them because I’m in less pain, so have more patience, and they copy my more happy style.

It’s not all sunshine & rainbows though. This week I’ve encountered all sorts and it’s worn me down. We’ve had uniform “adjustments”, monosyllabic grunting  (that drives me up the wall), swearing, use of the words “retard” “gender bender” “gay” “mong” (can you say detention with an essay researching the history of why that is offensive?), graffiti, large items thrown through windows, parents complaining that I’m horrible. I’m painting an awful picture, but this is not business as usual. 

I work in an outstanding school. Not because Ofsted say so, but because it’s a place I want to go to. I gladly increase my pain levels to spend time with the kids & my colleagues. And you can bet any amount of money that each of those issues will be dealt with in a style similar to Thor’s Hammer.

Yes, I’m sick to the back teeth of kids talking to me like something on their shoe, but what they don’t realise is that I’m grittier than them. They will pass this course if I have to drag them kicking & screaming. I secretly like them. Even when they’re making my life hellish.

And that’s my secret weapon. They don’t need to like me, they need to know I have their best interests at heart. They initially think I’m evil. I set all this homework and demand proof that they’ve revised. Then had the audacity to set a test for year 11 on Tuesday. They got their results today & the majority did wonderfully. I gave them proof that their hard work paid off. I won.

2. It’s not personal

Meet the teenager who greets you with “let me sing you the song of my people: that teacher hates me”. The song translates to a number of things:

  • “that teacher set me work that I don’t immediately understand and they won’t do it for me”
  • “That teacher won’t let me sit with my friends and chat”
  • “That teacher doesn’t understand why I’m struggling in class”


In the 3rd instance, yes, we’re in the wrong. And we are not infallible and do miss things. But when those complaints come in because you set high expectations & push for independent thought  (and they will), it’s not personal. Not for you as the teacher. It’s hard for children (and nd adults) to adjust from being spoon-fed answers to being investigators. It’s natural to dislike the person who is pushing you out of your comfort zone. I hated my programming teacher. As he strode around the classroom proclaiming we were all useless & a waste of his precious time so no he wouldn’t lower himself to giving us the answer! We resolved to make him look stupid by proving him wrong and aceing the module. We were played. Looking back, he was one of the best teachers I’ve ever had.

I’m not suggesting his style of teaching. But be firm. Follow your behaviour guidelines. Write home. Know that you are the target for their fear of failure & self doubt.  And by knowing that, you also know it’s not as personal as there words suggest.

3. Cake Monday

Make time for your colleagues. They are your support network. This year is arrived on our first day back with a home baked black forest cake and declared Monday breaktimes “Cake Monday” where we all stop, Drink tea, eat cake, and most importantly talk about us (not work, but what’s going on with our lives). That 20 minutes each week allows us to touch base & gauge if anyone is wobbly. Case in point being my wobble over going to hospital in October – I talked about my fears & whilst they can’t fix it, they are keeping it low key with questions about it banned unless I bring it up.

4. Mark your work!

Err how is this good for mental health exactly? Well, set a routine with books. Collect then in each week & leave a minimum of one positive comment in there. Where they need to improve, ask a question instead of telling them.

When you write down positive things about your class, you feel more positive towards them. This is especially helpful for new classes, or ones you find challenging.

My favourite right now is to buy packs of DC & Marvel stickers which go on the cover of their books if they show effort or grit or self control. These also equate to housepoints, but they love my silly comments of “super effort” or my personal favourite “incredible homework ” accompanied by a sticker of the hulk.

4. Ask for help

Do as I say, not what I do. I am so bad at this & am paying the price. My job this weekend whilst away is to put together a list of tasks that are causing me pain, or issues at work.the reason being so I can propose a change in my support from Access to Work. I’ve reached a stage where I’m aware that I’m overstretching my physical capabilities and need a support worker in some capacity. Travel in a converted van with my wheelchair strapped down is painful & noisy to the point of tinnitus.

As part of this, I used an accelerometer on my phone to measure some of the bumps over my 30 minute journey into work. These show a reading in m/s2 (meters per second squared)

Remembering that travelling in a wheelchair means you are sat bold upright thus placing the ptessure of any bumps directly onto the spine: at it’s highest reading, this was a 3g pressure downwards. That’s on a par with a roller coaster. This could explain why I start each morning with tea & painkillers.

This kind of data will help me to legitimately ask for help & not be seen as moaning. It’s unlikely that’s they would, but I’m my head I’m biting the hand that feeds me.

So, a bit of a long rambley post which I guess is fitting for looking after your mental health when you’re dealing with life & chronic pain. 

Until next time xx

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When The Going Gets Tough, The Tough go and have a little cry in the corner

I don’t often blog about the reality of teaching. It’s what one would describe as a CLM (career limiting move). But despite that, here I go nonetheless. Mainly because I need some sleep which means this scenario rolling around in my head needs to be fed to the ether and go away.

I profess about being fine and dandy in my wheelchair. And to a degree I am. It’s my safety net, my means of mobility, and a damned fine piece of equipment. It’s also a bit of a prison. It makes me physically lower than any child I teach who stands up. It makes me feel vulnerable…. And like hyenas, kids in senior school can smell the fear of a teacher.

This particular class is year 8 (that’s 7th grade in the US), so one of the youngest  years in the school. I’d had two hours of incredible lively and productive lessons with them where they are creating animated videos about how words and images are stored as binary. The kids were lapping it up and I was throwing house points about like it was Hogwarts.

Then it changed. My classes have a seating plan so I know who sits where and I can manage behaviour. These two particular boys were not going near each other (a few weeks back  I’d already had to put myself physically between them as they went nose to nose, and that was going to happen again over my dead body). So anyway, my classroom, my rules.

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Or not apparently. At age 12, we deem it acceptable to shout across the room “I’m not moving, what are you going to do about it?”; at age 12, we deem it acceptable to square up to a female teacher with clenched fists; at age bloody 12, we deem it acceptable to be physically threatening towards a member of staff and then verbally threaten them. What a charmer!

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Because of the physical surroundings & availability of staff at that time, I had to take a decision over whether I backed down and lost authority for the rest of the year with them, or stood my ground and face what I perceived to be the very real possibility of being physically assaulted. (I’ve been working with volatile kids for long enough to tell which ones are mouth & no trousers and which are ready to swing). I trusted my gut on this and ditched any respect – this was the first time since I left youth offending that I’ve felt genuinely concerned for my physical safety. My decision was based very much on the images in my head of the level of damage that child could do. If standing up can take out a hip, what would a punch thrown in anger do? I certainly don’t have the speed or mobility to duck.

And so here I am at nearing 1am with the scenario rolling around in my head.

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Legally & contractually I cannot refuse to teach this child. That’s not the way through this anyway. There is an inception style level of issues that this has raised for me.

Top level: What string of events has led this child to think that it’s acceptable to be physically threatening in order to get his way? I’m angry at myself for backing down as any threat I make now is useless (I threatened management, but they never came).

Dig deeper: What have I missed that could give me the key into a positive dialogue? What if that had been another student he tried to intimate?

Dig deeper: I allowed myself to be intimidated by a 12 year old. And the class saw. Most are just used to him & roll their eyes – how is that fair on them? What if we’re not seeing this happen to others? If I was scared, how does a tiny year 7 feel?

Dig deeper: is this about one child kicking off, or a deeper fear that I don’t have the same authority that I had as an able bodied teacher? Without the same mobility or ability to physically defend myself, should I be teaching?

And there’s the big question. This year I have seen a marked increase in aggressive behaviour, but also a marked decrease in support from parents (gone are the days of a phonecall home resulting in punishment – it’s now more likely that they’ll be a complaint about you picking on their darling little thug
Before you grab your pitchforks, 90% of the kids we teach are amazing. They shine. I love spending my days with them, but that 10% is killing your child’s chances of getting the new, harder levels expected because of all the disruption. If your child is that 10%, I’m here to help you, but if you fight me as much as your child does, the overseas job sounds much rosier, as does developing that app.). If there are not systems in place, not just in school, but at home as well, to demand a level of respect for those adults in charge, is teaching a career for someone with a physical disability? In fact, is teaching something anyone would want to do?

Edit: this took me a few days to post as it shook me. I’m still questioning my personal safety, but moreso my competence as a teacher, because it’s what we do as teachers…. WWW & EBI (what went well & even better if)

Let Sleeping Teachers Lay

11pm – laying in bed rolling over possible ideas of how to get ‘that class’ to knuckle down to some real work. They’re clearly learning something, but the behaviour leaves a lot to be desired.

As I stand at the front of the class using positive language and body language to show that I’m waiting for them to shut the hell up be quiet and let me speak, I am mentally channelling this guy:

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In my head I am repeating that these are not bad kids. They’re really not. They have no idea how important the time that they are wasting actually is and it’s my job to drag them all the way through to the end. Mr Drew is a bit of a hero of mine. I draw on that mental image of him greeting each child personally in the corridor as I enter ‘that’ classroom. I make sure I start with a smile – there’s a lot to be said for expecting the best. These kids are not grades on a bit of paper, so no matter how much they ‘banter’, I am not giving up.

At the start of last year, one of them announced proudly to me that they’d got every teacher they’d had as a class to leave within a year & I was next. Bless them. I made it through last year & this year, well, this year I’m back in true terminator style. And this time I’ve got handouts.

My mission this year is to find that tactic that breaks down the teenage bravado exterior and feeds the intelligent child inside that was swallowed up by testosterone and overly liberal deodorant. There have already been lessons where I have needed to breathe deeply (not too deeply, remember the deodorant) and rationalise that not every battle can be won. But every victory on my part brings them a step closer to succeeding.

This week’s small victory was to set a test, where they all scored over 50%. Every one of them. I chose five of them to give verbal feedback to in the form of a video where I talked them through their paper, the rest were marked traditionally. Verbal feedback is personal, but can be embarrassing when you are a teenage boy with a reputation to uphold. Easier then to have a video that you can watch when your mates have gone away which praises your efforts and shows you how to move forward. This is diplomacy at its best – I’m meeting them half way, but on my terms.

There will always be lessons where I may feel like this inside:

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But that’s only because I can see this big picture. I want them to do well, and it upsets me to see them waste the precious little time they have left at school.