World Menopause Day: teaching and the menopause
For so long, there has been silence on menopause, which affects women typically in their 40s or 50s. Yet now, helped by events such as World Menopause Day, which takes place in October each year, there are more conversations about it, and women are able to speak up and speak out about their experiences of menopause while working. This shift can only be a positive thing, especially when it comes to women getting the support they need at this time in their lives in the workplace.
For up to a decade before menopause, women experience perimenopause, which can present challenging symptoms that they may not even recognise as being part of the run up to menopause. Menopause has officially been reached when it has been a year since a woman’s last period.
Shockingly, up to a third of women will experience menopausal symptoms that impact on their quality of life. Many others will experience symptoms that can be incredibly difficult to manage especially if they hinder your ability to work. Knowledge and understanding are essential.
What to look out for
The symptoms that perimenopause and menopausal women may be dealing with at school include a loss of confidence in their own abilities, low mood, poor concentration, tiredness and fatigue, depression, and a newly unreliable memory. These symptoms can be worrying and debilitating.
Menopause may affect transgender, non-binary and intersex staff, too. In addition, some staff may be facing medical and surgical menopause and the associated loss of fertility which can hit hard. What we have to acknowledge is that there is no single experience of menopause. A one size fits all approach cannot ever be effective.
Helen Clare, who helps schools and teachers handle perimenopause and menopause so that they can focus on learners, and runs www.menopauseinschools.co.uk, has extensive experience of working with schools to get their response to the issues raised by menopause right. She explained, “There are big differences in awareness of menopause and how it might affect teachers. The biggest concerns that teachers tell me about are brain fog, fatigue, unpredictable and heavy menstrual bleeding, bladder issues, and fluctuating mood.”
While each one of the symptoms may lead to more flexible working in another profession, teachers rarely have that option. Clare said, “Flexible working doesn’t work in schools in the same way as it does in other jobs. There is no flexibility over when classes need teaching. So many women who are facing peri-menopause and menopause end up going part-time in order to better manage their symptoms, or leaving the profession altogether. And these are the experienced teachers in a predominantly female profession. These are the teachers who can support the early career teachers and who have decades of professional experience behind them. “
How can we help?
As women navigate their new realities when perimenopause and menopause hit, adjustments may need to be made in working hours, or perhaps additional breaks may be required. Counselling may be indicated and it is essential that women know where to get the information they require. Clare is keen that schools take a proactive role in this. She explained, “The first thing schools should do is make it a subject that can be talked about. Having a menopause policy that is stuck in a file and not discussed and adapted is worth nothing! Schools need to establish a culture in which menopause can be talked about in a sensitive and practical way (having a menopause champion that staff can chat to can help). We have to be comfortable with talking about it and teachers must know that if they need to talk about it, their school’s staff will be able to have an informed discussion.”
Whole staff INSET can be very useful in raising awareness and building knowledge about menopause. And the bottom line is that if we do not learn more about the needs of women at this stage of their careers they will disappear from the profession and we simply cannot afford that.
“Menopause policies have to be visible and practical and it is essential that staff are a part of the writing process,” Clare said. “The policy should contain basic information about menopause so that it is an educational tool, as well as detailing what the school is prepared to offer. Teachers also need to know who the first point of contact is for anyone dealing with peri-menopause and menopause. There is a huge responsibility to be knowledgeable and sensitive around the subject. Schools cannot diagnose, but they can open up the space in which discussion about menopause can take place.”
A key message for teachers in this position is not to struggle alone. Know what is happening and where you can get help if you need it. For Clare, this is crucial for anyone trying to make sense of the changes happening to them. “Make an appointment with yourself,” she said, “so that you can check in and find out what is going on for you right now. We need to educate women in their 30s as to what they might expect.”
One significant concern that some women at this stage of their lives have is that when they start losing words, which is a symptom of menopause, it will go against them in the classroom, or in meetings or interviews. Clare has some reassurance: “Forgetting the names of things is such a common feature of menopause. This is not a sign of dementia!”
There is a tricky balance to be had in the discussion of menopause and support for women at this stage of their lives. As Clare explained, “Menopause is challenging but we do not want it to be terrifying. With early diagnosis and appropriate action, it is usually manageable. And don’t forget that post-menopause can be an incredible creative, energetic and inspiring time for women. There can be great advantages at this stage of life.”
In such a female dominated profession, we have to get the support for perimenopausal and menopausal women right. Women need to be able to feel that they can request reasonable adjustments and they need to know that those requests will not be dismissed. If we get this right, the competence, calmness and experience that older women offer the profession may not be lost, and that has to be a goal worth reaching for.
Find out more…
- If you want to be proactive about menopause in your work place email Helen Clare via: Menopause In Schools – Helen Clare – Menopause Education and Support
About the author
After graduating with a degree in Politics and International Relations from the University of Reading, Elizabeth Holmes completed her PGCE at the Institute of Education, University of London. She then taught humanities and social sciences in schools in London, Oxfordshire and West Sussex, where she ran the history department in a challenging comprehensive. Elizabeth specialises in education but also writes on many other issues and themes. As well as her regular blogs for Eteach and FEjobs, her books have been published by a variety of publishers and translated around the world. Elizabeth has also taught on education courses in HE and presented at national and international conferences.