Maternity coaching helps teacher-parents rejoin the race

Focused support can mean schools retain talented teachers who might otherwise quit or change direction after having a baby, Emma Sheppard says. So, follow these tips to ensure staff hit the ground running
20th December 2019, 12:04am
How Maternity Coaching Helps Returning Rejoin The Race
Emma Sheppard


Maternity coaching helps teacher-parents rejoin the race

We all know that the education system is replete with ambitious, talented and experienced women who fill their classrooms with boundless energy and enthusiasm every day. But despite these same teachers making demands for increased gender equality in their domestic and professional lives, we are still losing many of them to the "motherhood penalty" - potentially 6,000 every year (Simons, 2016).

How many of your staff have gone on maternity leave and not returned? How many have come back but eventually left or changed their ambitions? The answer is too many. We need to do better.

One of the solutions is better support for employees embarking on parenthood - and key to that support has to be coaching.

In the private sector, large firms have turned to established coaching practices such as Talking Talent and WOMBA, which offer one-to-one or group coaching sessions for employees before and towards the end of maternity leave, as well as in the first 12 months after the return to work.

The benefits of such programmes are self-evident: a report from Ernst and Young indicated that rolling out maternity coaching for its expectant and returning employees had increased their retention rate by 5 per cent between 2011 and 2013.

While this initiative is still in its early stages, the firm seems optimistic about the steps it is taking to overcome the "motherhood penalty" in its industry.

The good news is that lessons from the private sector are readily applicable to teaching. There is nothing that makes maternity coaching specific to one sector or another: expectant and working parents often articulate similar ambitions and apprehensions, regardless of their industry.

But what does effective coaching look like? Successful coaching models allow expectant and new parents to work at their own pace, and to feel supported without feeling pressured. Some teachers choose to pursue CPD opportunities during their maternity leave, whereas some benefit from valuable headspace for reflection and action planning as they return to the classroom or leadership positions. The magic of coaching is that it helps teachers come to these decisions and ensures that the support is there for them to follow through: it helps teachers to align their values at a time of transition.

School leaders interested in offering maternity coaching as standard to their staff can follow a few simple guidelines to challenge the status quo and demonstrate an ethical and strategic investment in their staff.

1. Get expert assistance

Partner with an external coaching provider. The coach should be separate to the school context in order to provide teachers with absolute confidentiality during their maternity leave. This is especially important to avoid any issues regarding pregnancy or maternity discrimination, and to ensure that schools adhere to employment law around maternity and shared parental leave.

2. Decide on the 'when'

Work out which styles of coaching - maternity, return to work or more general transition coaching - will provide the most impact for your school and staff. If a variety of coaching arrangements can be offered, this opportunity should be embraced.

3. Ensure parity with other development interventions

Offer maternity coaching at the same time and in the same way as any other CPD or HR programmes to avoid creating an expectation or implying that teachers approaching or on maternity leave should be undertaking coaching. The emphasis should always be on individual choice and empowerment.

4. Pitch the training correctly

Explore effective training for HR staff, and middle and senior leaders, to ensure that those interacting with expectant staff and new parents on a daily basis are confident about best practice surrounding the pregnancy and maternity period.

5. Be straightforward

Challenge how the term "coaching" is used: if it is delivered as part of an agenda-driven programme, or as a performance management or monitoring strategy, then this is not coaching. Equally, if it is delivered by someone without a formal certification, it is not coaching, regardless of their good intentions and how much experience they may have.

6. Make it visible

Promote and celebrate those who have undertaken maternity coaching and their achievements (with their permission) to raise the profile of working parents, and to explicitly communicate your school's commitment to staff development and wellbeing.

This really can work. Helen Mars, an English teacher in Ripon, North Yorkshire, who benefited from coaching during her second maternity leave, explains: "The sessions have allowed me to think about the practicalities of my development. But, mostly, they have made me reflect on my own bias, motivation, strengths and weaknesses. My coach has been phenomenal - she asks such succinct and precise questions that, at times, it has felt more like therapy than career coaching."

Meanwhile, Michelle Robinson, a sociology teacher in Preston, Lancashire, whose coaching was funded by the Department for Education's equality and diversity team, secured a promotion while on her second maternity leave.

"Within three coaching sessions, I had the confidence to start running a whole-school project and apply for a promotion at senior level," she says. "I came to the realisation that it is possible to have a family and a promotion. The coaching helped me to understand and articulate my skill set and to remember my professional passions."

We need to do more to support parents in schools so that we can retain teachers like Helen and Michelle. Maternity coaching is one fantastic way to do this.

Emma Sheppard is an English teacher, lead practitioner in charge of initial teacher education and founder of the #MTPTproject

This article originally appeared in the 20 December 2019 issue under the headline "Use maternity coaching to help returners rejoin the race"

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