She was bleeding heavily that week. The changes taking place in her body were both expected and completely normal, but terrifying none the less. The worst of it was that it was just so unpredictable. The fear that accompanied the possibility of leaking all over her uniform effected her focus and ability to function at school. The abdominal cramps affected her appetite, as well as her desire to be active, and a myriad of other personal symptoms left her a walking bundle of stress and discomfort, just when she needed to be at her most attentive. Most difficult of all, she was experiencing waves of exhaustion and heat like never before. She wasn’t sure who to discuss the issues with or how the school could or should accommodate her needs, so she waded on through, knowing it would settle down eventually.
I know everyone would join me in sympathy for this 14 year old girl going through puberty. As school leaders and teachers we can point her in the direction of pastoral care or a counsellor, we can understand if she needs to rush out of class to find a bathroom. We can reassure her. We can find her a skirt out of lost property or we can ring home if it all becomes too overwhelming. After all, it is a perfectly normal part of growing up.
But what if I tell you the ‘she’ is actually me? What if tell you that, as I hit the menopause, I am beginning to experience these symptoms and I sometimes find them overwhelming, stressful and terrifying.
Do you understand when I need to rush away to find a bathroom? Do you happily sit in a cooler atmosphere because I am a walking furnace today? Do you grasp why I’m snappy because I have other stuff going on in my life and, right now, it isn’t all about you?
Are you, as my line manager, aware of, and sympathetic to my needs? Are you proactive in helping me cope? Do you, as a school, have a protocol in place to support and reassure me if I have to drop everything at very short notice – even a class full of pupils? And, if I talk about what is going on, can you promise you won’t think me unprofessional, lacking in capability or ready to be retired?
There are guidance papers online on ‘Working through the Menopause’ that everyone should read and, most importantly, use to promote an open culture for discussion and understanding. No one is asking for special treatment, unreasonable amounts of time out or even much in the way of attention, but with three quarters of the teaching population in the UK being female, (and a considerably higher ratio of support staff) it is an issue that is going to impact us all one way or another at some point in our career.
After all, it is just a perfectly normal part of growing up.