Teachers battling debilitating menopause symptoms in the classroom have revealed how brain fog, mood swings and joint pain are affecting their ability to do their jobs as record numbers leave the profession.
One senior teacher told i how she found herself regularly lost in corridors on the brink of tears and feared being viewed as “useless” or “unsuited for the job” by her colleagues, while another described how working in a male dominated science department meant she felt she had no one to talk to.
Women have shared their stories with i as new research reveals how a lack of menopause support could be costing England’s state schools up to £280m over the course of the careers of its current female teachers.
With 46.9 per cent of England’s total teacher workforce being women over 40, menopause campaigners say they are a vital demographic in the battle to keep teachers teaching.
Despite the Government citing a record number of teachers in England’s schools, teacher vacancies are at an all time high. With the rate of growth in student numbers outpacing that of teachers, retention of existing staff is increasingly important to avoid spiralling class sizes and a decline in the quality of education provided to pupils.
Sharon*, a 53-year-old teacher who works in the physics department of a state school in North England, said she attempted to ignore her menopause symptoms when they first began but she quickly deteriorated.
“I couldn’t keep up with even the basics of my job – I was constantly weak, exhausted and in pain,” she said. “Putting together lesson plans or being able to concentrate long enough to mark work started to feel totally impossible.
“The joint pain in particular became so significant that I was taking painkillers on a daily basis. I knew it was bad for me, but I just couldn’t bring myself to go to the doctor and burden the NHS with what I felt was something I should just be getting on with myself.”
She soon found herself struggling to commit to extra-curricular activities and support she regularly provided girls outside of her lessons.
“I had a Girls in STEM club that I ultimately had to cancel, because just trying to manage my symptoms had left me with barely enough time to do the bare minimum to meet my targets,” she said.
“I felt like I was letting them down and the shame and depression about that was completely debilitating. I’d always been the person students came to and I couldn’t be anymore because I wasn’t even myself.
“Being around men, I felt like I had no one to talk to. I knew some of my colleagues in other departments were experiencing similar symptoms, but my decreased performance and the anxiety and brain fog I was experiencing meant I didn’t have the confidence to raise it with them, let alone my line manager. Even though I respect him, I didn’t feel like I could talk about my symptoms with a man I knew wouldn’t understand.”
Her symptoms impacted her ability to perform at work to the extent that she found herself passed over for promotion to assistant head.
She is now on HRT, but said: “I can’t get over the knowledge that I’ve lost years of my life and lost out on something that could have been so significant in my career.”
Julia*, an English teacher of more than 25 years working across a variety of state schools, said the onset of her menopausal symptoms coincided with starting a new job as a head of department.
Before this, she had prided herself on her level-headedness and ability to strike a rapport with students deemed difficult and disruptive. “When I started in my current position, I found myself debilitated by brain fog, unable to maintain my train of thought during departmental meetings and struggling to memorise my timetable and the school layout,” she said.
“I found myself regularly lost in the corridors on the brink of tears – not exactly the kind of person you’d think capable of heading up a large department.
“So on top of the physical and emotional symptoms I was having, I was also incredibly anxious about being seen as ‘useless’ or unsuited for the job by the teachers in my department.”
As the menopause made her irritable and emotionally volatile, unpleasant comments from students caused her to lash out when they would previously have been “water off a duck’s back” to her.
“I wish I had recognised these symptoms as being caused by the menopause sooner,” she said. “It was humiliating and scary to feel like my mind was betraying me when my students deserved me at my best as their teacher.”
Charlotte*, 46, a French teacher at a secondary school in Hampshire, had never suffered with her mental health until two years ago when she suddenly began suffering from anxiety about running team meetings or presenting in assemblies.
“I never in a million years thought it was menopause related,” she said. “I had just turned 44, my children were still relatively young. I assumed menopause was something women in their fifties went through.”
It was only when Charlotte’s mother suggested it could be hormone related that she went to see her GP. She was initially prescribed antidepressants, but said these made her feel “detached and foggy”.
“Teaching is all about keeping your students engaged – something I was badly failing at. I could barely engage with my own life, let alone try and get 14 year olds excited about irregular verbs! Not to mention all the hours of admin, marking, lesson planning, pastoral care and dealing with parents that comes with teaching.”
Eventually, after taking advice from friends, Charlotte persuaded her GP to put her on HRT. “It has now been eight months since I’ve been on HRT and without it, I may have ended up leaving a job I love because I didn’t know where to turn,” she said.
According to the Fawcett Society, one in 10 women who worked during the menopause left a job due to their symptoms, with 26 per cent taking time off work as a result of it.
The menopause support app, balance – using data from the Fawcett Society and the Office for National Statistics – analysed the individual cost of replacing a staff member, looking at hire costs, training and loss of productivity.
It calculated the true cost of failing to support teaching staff who are perimenopausal or menopausal could be up to £280m over the course of the careers of current female teachers over 40.
Meanwhile, figures show a record 39,930 teachers left the sector last year – 8.8 per cent of the total workforce.
Dr Louise Newson, menopause specialist and founder of the balance app, said the findings lay bare the impact of the menopause on the teaching profession, urging education leaders to “sit up and take notice”.
“Long hours both in the classroom and at home, assessments, targets and short staffing can take their toll at the best of times, yet many teachers will also be coping with menopause symptoms,” she said.
“Teachers who I see in my clinic have told me of dealing with brain fog and losing their train of thought mid-lesson or meeting, battling fatigue with another long evening of lesson planning ahead of them, not to mention the physical effects of hot flushes in already sweltering classroom environments.
“We need to give menopausal teachers the tools to thrive in the workplace. This includes better menopause education, robust workplace support and access to healthcare support and treatment.
“Otherwise we risk losing their skills and experience at a time when the education sector can ill afford it.”
*Names changed to protect identities