The final stage of your teacher training is in sight. You’ve had a really good teaching practice and you’re applying for jobs here, there and everywhere. You’re so keen, you’ll teach in Timbuktu if you have to.
Then you see a question on an application form that may prove a little tricky…
What was your last job and why did you leave it?
You were a retail assistant at a clothes store. You got the sack. The week’s takings at the shop were down and you and another assistant had been questioned about why. Nothing was proved and you vehemently denied any implication of theft, but you and the other assistant were dismissed.
You know you shouldn’t lie, but you could just say you were unemployed during that period or you were travelling abroad…? How would they know otherwise…? Would you believe someone who said: “Yes, I was sacked for theft but honestly I didn’t do it!”? As a teacher you’re supposed to be a role model, but who’s going to employ an alleged thief to teach their kids?
What will you do…?
You told the truth, got an interview and they were very understanding. The interview was tough but you answered questions really well and now they’ve offered you the job! It’s a nice school, with a good head and you’ve even met the staff and the class you’ll have next year. You can’t wait for September to come!
Then you are sent a medical questionnaire to complete … there’s a couple of questions you are not sure how to answer…
Do you suffer any long-term or chronic medical conditions for which you need regular treatment?
You’ve been prescribed medication for bouts of depression suffered during your degree course and for a period at the beginning of your teacher training, but you’ve been fine now for months. Do you tell them?
Yes. Of course you do. Lots of people suffer depression and anyway, in your case, it’s not a chronic condition. You come clean about it.
Then there’s another question…
Do you consider yourself to have a disability?
You are dyslexic. You’ve managed to get through a whole university degree plus a PGCE without it crippling your chances of becoming a teacher… the university knew about it… and your tutors were very supportive, they even made some allowances for your essay submissions and exams. Surely it shouldn’t matter now?
Maybe you could just say “No” as you have never considered your dyslexia as a disability?
But what if you make regular spelling mistakes in your planning folder and the Headteacher asks you to explain yourself? What if you make errors in your marking and the students comment on it? What if you make errors in writing progress reports or letters home and it leads to complaints from parents? You won’t be able to make the excuse that you have a ‘disability’ then…
What should you say with this and all those other ‘awkward’ questions..?
Well… the answer is obvious and if I need to tell what it is, you are already in the wrong business. However, here is some re-assurance.
As for declaring the reasons you have left your previous job… there are about twenty-five thousand new teachers qualifying every year and you might be surprised to learn that a lot of them – plus hoary old ones like me – left previous jobs for all kinds of spurious reasons and lived to tell the tale of a successful teaching career.
If you have an ongoing medical condition that you may need support with but are not sure whether it counts as “long term or chronic” – you ask a union or the CAB for advice or consult your GP about what you have a right to keep discreet and what you might be expected that you divulge. Once again, it will be too late to say you need support for something you didn’t make your employer aware of when they offered you the job.
If you have a disability then you’ll already know that the Equality Act 2010 protects you from employment discrimination and this covers areas such as application forms and job offers. An employer can only make limited enquiries about your health or disability on an application form or at interview. If you need advice about whether the question is one that is allowed to be asked at that stage of recruitment, a union can help.
Once again, the answer is and always will be – as if you needed to be reminded – tell the truth.
If you don’t, you have given your employer a good reason to dismiss you with immediate effect if and when they find out.
The government provide guidance here: https://www.gov.uk/rights-disabled-person/employment
Teacher unions provide advice about health and disability discrimination. Here’s one example: http://www.teachers.org.uk/node/9279
Government advice to employers on safer recruitment is at: http://www.education.gov.uk/aboutdfe/statutory/g00213145/safeguarding-children-safer-recruitment
Alan Newland worked as a teacher, teacher-trainer and headteacher in London for over 20 years and then for a decade with the DfE and the GTC. He now lectures on teaching and runs the award-winning social media network newteacherstalk. You can follow him on Twitter at @newteacherstalk. His new book “Working in Teaching” (Crimson Publishing) is published in March 2014. You can book him to deliver funny and inspirational talks on professional values.