Turn teacher absence into opportunity

When staff have to take time off for maternity leave or illness, it can seem disruptive. But it’s actually a chance to make a positive change, says Emma Sheppard
13th September 2019, 12:04am
Turn Teacher Absence Into Opportunity


Turn teacher absence into opportunity


In a profession dominated by women, where just under half of teachers are parents to dependent children, it is highly likely that any school leader will need to factor maternity or shared parental leave into their staffing strategy. Couple that with time off for long-term illness, stress, compassionate leave and potential sabbatical opportunities, and there are all sorts of reasons why leadership teams may be faced with gaps in staffing.

Such gaps may initially seem like an inconvenience, but a little creative thinking can transform them into professional development opportunities that benefit students, staff and the stability of the school.

Recruiting via a temporary role

In the majority of cases, teachers taking periods of maternity leave are covered by a temporary maternity cover teacher. Providing an opportunity for the incoming and exiting teachers to work together for half a term can create a smooth transition period for classes, and ensure that the maternity cover teacher can thrive while the permanent member of staff is away.

Considering the mutual investment made by the cover teacher and the school, it can sometimes seem a shame to wave goodbye to temporary staff at the end of their contract so, in some circumstances, school leaders have used maternity cover as a low-risk way of recruiting new members of staff.

“I worked side by side with my maternity cover for six weeks,” says Jenna, a secondary English teacher and second in department.

“I was due to begin maternity leave in October, so my school employed my maternity cover from the September. She was fabulous. We team taught and we watched each other teach, which was so useful. She’s still with us now because we needed a new teacher due to internal promotions.”

Retention through opportunity

In any school, there will be members of staff who are keen for increased responsibility but are not yet ready to step up to a promoted position. The National Foundation for Educational Research has identified that the frustration associated with boredom and stagnation can be a push factor for teachers who turn to more engaging opportunities in other schools or outside the sector altogether.

Retaining these teachers can be difficult. Where middle and senior leadership teams are fairly stable or budgets are tight, opportunities aren’t always available for motivated staff. However, medium-term absences that can be anticipated, such as maternity leave or sabbaticals, provide the perfect opportunity to re-engage and retain these less experienced but ambitious members of staff by providing them with motivating leadership experiences.

When Fozia, who was in charge of initial teacher training (ITT), announced her second pregnancy to her line manager, she did so with a possible option in mind. She knew that Ella, a colleague with great potential in the maths department, had been applying for jobs with large continuing professional development providers because she felt she was stagnating in her teaching role. Ella was hankering for increased responsibility and a bit of a change, but the school didn’t have an opening.

“I suggested we use the six months leading up to my maternity leave as a shadowing opportunity for Ella,” Fozia said.

“We completed joint observations of trainees, went through documentation and deadlines, and Ella delivered some of the fortnightly ITT sessions. Our meetings gave Ella the opportunity to talk through her priorities and ambitions in her career, and get a clearer idea of her pathway at a time of indecision. Because I had experienced a maternity leave at my school before, I knew that everyone would be supportive of sensible continuity planning, and of using KIT (keeping in touch) days to update each other and hand over when I returned to work.”

When Fozia did go back to work, Ella successfully applied for a research lead position, secured a place to train as a lead practitioner and was appointed head of maths in the school she had considered leaving three years previously. The school retained two valuable teachers and both feel personally and professionally fulfilled with their careers.

“On a personal level, it’s a huge relief to me,” Fozia added. “Stepping in and out of the classroom over the past three years has highlighted the importance of having colleagues that you know and trust. Losing Ella would have been a huge blow to the school community and a knock to my confidence. Seeing a familiar and supportive face is so important after maternity leave.”

Flexible progression

Developing a bank of leadership potential isn’t just beneficial for medium- to long-term absences. It can also prove useful when staff make flexible working requests.

Tara, an experienced head of geography, reduced her hours following her return to work after the birth of her second child. But when her youngest child reached school age, Tara found herself ready to consider her next steps.

Simultaneously, Anoara, an assistant headteacher and special educational needs and disability (SEND) coordinator requested to reduce her hours to four days a week.

With a huge role that encompassed literacy, intervention, SEND and aspects of inclusion, it was easy to see the potential for shadowing opportunities and division of the SEND coordinator role.

“I had been in geography for a number of years and I knew I wanted to work in SEND,” said Tara. “I knew Anoara would be an excellent mentor and our working relationship is excellent. I never feel afraid to admit that I don’t know anything - something I’ve had to do a lot in this new role!

“If my part-time hours had been turned down, I would have had to leave. Seeing my son run out of school to greet me on a Friday afternoon is the highlight of my week but, simultaneously, it has been so exciting to study again while learning about SEND, and I feel so motivated by the way this has benefited my own teaching.”

This flexible progression opportunity hasn’t just been advantageous for middle and senior leaders: as a result of Tara’s move into SEND, a less experienced geography teacher, Oliver, has had the opportunity to step in as geography lead.

“Oliver is a great teacher and in the beginnings of being a great leader. I now work as his second in department, providing mentoring and expertise as he gains more confidence in this role.

“Because I’m not there all the time, it allows him to be more autonomous and take ownership over his decision making, which couldn’t happen when I was working exclusively as a head of department.”

Preparing for goodbyes

The arrival of a new baby is a significant transition for new parents and some teachers make the decision not to return to work even before they have started their parental leave. Teachers in this position, however, can still leave a lasting legacy for their students by effectively mentoring the colleague who has the potential to succeed them.

Jess, a former head of English and communications, knew that her commute would become unsustainable once she had childcare logistics and the fatigue of small children to consider. She decided that she would take a break from teaching but, as her swan song, committed all her energy into training up her replacement before she left.

“As soon as I got pregnant, I started taking my meetings with my second in department really seriously,” Jess says. “I passed on all of my CPD from Teaching Leaders and mentored her in the head of department role. I was available to her during my maternity leave and she was the first person I told about my decision to resign.

“The transition was pretty seamless and, even though it was hard to do, I was proud that she was able to step into the role because of our nine months of preparation together.

“You have to be prepared to put your ego aside and do what’s best for the team, kids and school. That transition is one of my proudest achievements.”

Emma Sheppard is founder of the MaternityTeacher/PaternityTeacher (MTPT) Project and a lead practitioner for English

This article originally appeared in the 13 SEPTEMBER 2019 issue under the headline “Turn absence into opportunity”

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