What makes schools a challenging environment for menopause and how we can change this, a discussion with Helen Clare.

Schools are a unique working environment. There are unusual constraints and demands on us as teachers. The transition through perimenopause and menopause can be very challenging and a large proportion of women teachers will go through this while they are working. Put those things together and there is the capacity for things to go very wrong. That does not mean that they will or that the challenges that arise cannot be dealt with. But it does mean that we need to get ahead of this thing!

What is the difference between perimenopause and menopause?

Menopause is the point at which we stop ovulating. It is counted as a year after our last period or two years if we are under forty-five. It usually happens in our late forties or early fifties, but it can be much earlier. It can happen naturally or due to medical or surgical treatment (for example, for cancers or endometriosis).

Perimenopause is the period leading up to full menopause when our oestrogen and progesterone levels are fluctuating – sometimes wildly. It is often the time when symptoms are most challenging. However, they do not necessarily settle down right away when we reach menopause – and we will need to care for a postmenopausal body and brain for the rest of our lives.

The most common symptoms are hot flushes and menstrual changes, but they are not always the first we experience, which means that perimenopause is often easily missed.

The symptoms teachers talk to me about the most are the ones that affect the brain – brain fog, fatigue, difficulty making decisions, mood swings, anger, anxiety, tearfulness and memory lapses. None of these are ‘in our minds’; they are a direct result of changing levels of oestrogen on the brain. Other symptoms might include bladder and bowel problems, minor infections, new allergies, inflammation
and changes in our weight and shape. It is important to remember that we are all different – not everyone experiences all these symptoms and not everyone finds menopause and perimenopause a struggle.

You can find lists of perimenopause symptoms online and I’d recommend Women’s Health Concern as a reliable source of information.

What does this mean for schools?

I am certainly not going to claim that we are the only people that use our brains at work, but we do have a lot to remember – whether it is our subject matter, or children’s names or all the additional tasks that can so easily pile up. We are also managing children and young people who are often not yet fully able to manage their own emotions – and this can be hard when our own emotions are playing up.

We are also ‘on show’ most of the day, with an audience that is not necessarily sympathetic. We do not want to allow our rage, anxiety or tearfulness to be triggered – and we do not want learners to figure out how to trigger those things!

Schools can be incredibly stressful environments and we know that stress makes menopausal symptoms worse. We can also find it harder to manage stress as we go through perimenopause.

We can rarely control the temperature of our working environment (or step out for fresh air). Then there is the embarrassment factor. That problem when we run out of words, or very visibly flush, or we bleed unexpectedly. Menstrual flooding happens a lot in perimenopause; it is because our progesterone levels are fluctuating. There may also be bladder and bowel problems. And of course, we cannot just leave our classrooms the moment we need to – a difficulty compounded by the fact that school buildings, particularly old ones, do not always have enough conveniently located toilets.

What helps in the classroom?

  • Make your own comfort pack, e.g., changes of clothes, sanitary supplies, aromatherapy rollers, water in a spray bottle, drinking water, painkillers – whatever works for you. Find a safe place to keep it. The school may be able to provide you with a convenient locker or cupboard.
  • Having a fan or access to cold water in the classroom can really help. The school may prefer to provide its own electric fan for health and safety reasons.
  • Try wearing natural fabrics in layers to beat hot flushes. It also helps if the school can provide you with clothes pegs to put them on, so they do not end up being sat or stood on.
  • Talk to the school about some sort of system so you can call for someone to look after your class while you go to the loo – a lot of schools use a variation of their behaviour management email system for this.
  • Meditation and mindfulness can be extremely useful in managing brain symptoms – there’s even evidence that they can change the shape of the parts of the brain affected by menopause. There are lots of quick mindfulness exercise that can help us with a reset. Sometimes, it is as simple as breathing deeply with our bellies.
  • If you are struggling with memory loss, particularly word memory, it is worth remembering that stress makes this
    worse and it can help to laugh about it. Try not to draw people’s attention to it – they notice it much less than you do. And it is OK to deflect with a question, or to tell learners or colleagues that you will come back to something later.
  • Therapy putty is fun to squeeze to let off a bit of steam – and more discreet than a punchbag! Many of us also find that exercise plays a part in managing rage – or you could take up the drums!
  • Some schools will allow you to be off-site during noncontact time. This may allow you time to reset your brain to cope with brain fog or stress.
  • Please do not put off seeing your doctor. Appointments may well be like ‘hens’ teeth,’ and you might be reluctant to take time off work. But delaying it means that it takes longer to find the right treatment for symptoms, particularly as there is often a process of trial and error to find what works for you.
  • If you are not coping with working full-time hours, then you may want to talk to your school about compressing your timetable to give you some time off – or you may want to change to part-time hours. Many schools will allow you to do this without losing your additional responsibilities. You might want to talk to Flexible Teacher Talent about this.
  • Most importantly, find support. See if your school offers a support group or buddy system, or if you can set up your own. Is there someone who has the role of supporting staff struggling with menopause? It is likely to be the wellbeing lead if there is not a specific menopause lead.

How do we support our colleagues in perimenopause and menopause?

Firstly, we should make no assumptions. Everyone is different. Some people will want to talk about it and others will not. And if people do want to talk about it, we need to ask open questions and listen non-judgmentally. If asked, we might be able to help in practical ways, for example by switching classrooms or duties, or buddying up to provide toilet cover.

On a whole-school level, we can help by having a meaningful menopause policy, so affected staff know who to talk to and are reassured that they will be treated with understanding and sensitivity and that practical solutions can be found.

All of us have a role in creating an open culture around menopause so that it is easier for people to talk about. Part of this might involve sharing information so that people can recognise when they are perimenopausal, as it often sneaks up on us!

May I suggest that you start supporting your colleagues by sharing this article or casually leaving it where others might find it.

Author

  • Helen Clare

    Helen helps schools and teachers deal with perimenopause and menopause so that they can focus on the learners they care about. She wants to see all teachers in the classroom working to the best of their ability without a cost to their own wellbeing.
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