Handling Tricky Conversations about Menopause in Schools

We’re going to have to talk about this right? Whether you’re a school leader or a menopausal teacher reading this, you’re probably going to have to talk about it.

Actually if you’re the menopausal teacher you can chose not to talk about it. It’s absolutely your prerogative to keep this quiet, to make this journey a personal one and a private one — and to quietly make the adjustments and mitigations that work for you.

And you might be lucky. You might not need much time off. You might not feel blood trickling down your legs in the classroom. You might not hurt so much you can barely stand. Your memory may not fail you. You might not feel as if you are about to drop through fatigue. You might not start to struggle to manage your rage with ‘that’ class.

But if you’re unlucky you may have to have a conversation you’d prefer to avoid. And if you’re a senior leader you are going to either have to nominate a member of your team to have those conversations or buckle up and have them yourself.

And it can be embarrassing. The thing to remember about embarrassment is that it’s a social disease. It’s catching. I learned this pretty early on in my teaching career when the Head of Science organised all the modules (that’s how we did it then!) so that I taught all the sex education to year 8 and 10– because no-one else wanted to.

If you are embarrassed the other person will be. If you expect them to be embarrassed then you will feel embarrassed. If you go into that conversation expecting sensitivity and sympathy then that’s what you will get. And you know, you can always tell the other person that’s what you’re hoping for from them. Give them a chance to set their own mind for the conversation coming.

I’m still a biology teacher at heart. I believe in calling things by their proper name. If you have to discuss something embarrassing and you’re searching round for the right casual term for urine, or menstruation or bowel or vagina, you’ll end up with something that’s far more uncomfortable. These words are often babyish, or comical or crude — and some of them are pretty vivid when you stop to think about it! That may say something about the English language and the people that use it.

Or you’ll end up being misunderstood and having to explain yourself and that would be uncomfortable for everyone. Idioms may not be as universal as you think — particularly from people raised in different areas or from different cultures. Give yourself permission to use the technical terms. It’s far less embarrassing, far less personal.

And if you’re a senior leader who is likely to find yourself having these conversations then learn what those words mean in advance. You can also take your cue from the person you’re talking to — unless they’re uncomfortable finding the right language.

Make sure you’ve got the right place for the conversation. It doesn’t have to be formal, but it does have to be private. Make sure you’re not going to be interrupted and that you have time to talk and listen fully.

There’s really only one thing in the Do Not list and that’s don’t make assumptions. Menopause is a profoundly personal experience. Every women experiences it differently. No matter how many women I speak to, each one comes to me with a different story, a different problem.

So if you’re the school leader here, make it clear you’re there to listen with compassion and without judgement and then shut up and listen. Ask open questions. What’s going on? What do you need? What would help?

Allow space in the conversation for emotions to exist. You don’t need to be a shoulder to cry on, if that’s not your thing. The emotions are just there. It’s ok that they’re there. Give them space. Give the problem permission to exist and then go about figuring out how to solve it.

And if you’re the teacher needing support, answer those questions honestly even if you’re not asked them. Tell the other person what you need from the conversation. And be prepared with everything you need to let them know or ask them.

There are two things you need to know to start to solve the problem. The first is what the teacher needs. The second is what the school is able to offer.

If you’ve created your menopause policy thoughtfully you’ll have already thought through the sort of adjustments that you are able to offer and their implications.

So when you’re both ready you can move the conversation forward and start to look for solutions and a way forward for you both.