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We need to make combining parenting and teaching easier

Teacher-parents have two very important jobs – schools must be flexible to keep them in the profession, says Ann Mroz

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For a female-dominated profession, a large proportion of whose members are of child-bearing age, teaching has an oddly retrograde relationship with pregnancy and child-rearing.

Thankfully, it’s not quite as backwards as comedian Russell Brand’s. He is not much into the practicalities of caring for his two daughters, saying: “I’m very, very focused on the mystical connotations of Mabel’s beauty and grace. Not so good on the nappies and making sure that they eat food.”

But the education sector’s approach to the idea of flexible working for mothers still has an air of Brand about it. Having a day’s grace here and there for sports days and nativities is far from what would make a real, practical difference: a contract allowing part-time work or job-sharing. For many women (and men), it starts as trying to fit parenting into the job and ends up trying to fit the job into parenting.

It’s a way of thinking that we really need to change. Teaching is important – vitally so – which is why we need to make extra effort to keep as many experienced teachers as we can in the classroom in whatever way we can.

But being a parent is also very important, so we have to find a way to make it easier to combine the two both practically and financially. Instead of trying to achieve a work-life balance, we should be aiming for a life-work balance, as psychologist Dr Tim O’Brien has suggested.

It’s an issue that needs confronting head-on in these times of teacher shortages. Talk of tackling workload, as Damian Hinds has done this week, is great, but let’s go a step further and make the conversation about lifeload.

Better support for parent-teachers

How can we better support parents at work? We could start by talking much more openly and honestly about the way having children impacts one’s job. Because it’s not just the day-to-day stuff that’s hard, it’s the psychological effects and the anxiety, too.

And it can be even harder in a leadership position, so all credit to assistant headteacher Nikki Cunningham-Smith for her honesty in laying it all out, trimester by trimester. Few talk about the effects such momentous physical changes can have. For anyone who has previously done their job competently and confidently, it can be a shock. And the temptation to overcompensate is always looming.

But, as Cunningham-Smith says wisely, “Remember, you got your leadership role on your own merit, prior to the addition of a second heartbeat to your body. So crack on, but don’t overdo it.”

Even fewer talk about the terrible loss of confidence that can plague even the most assertive of women after having a child. But if going back to a job at the end of maternity leave is difficult, imagine how hard it is for those who have to go for an interview at this time. Interviewers are legally not allowed to ask about children, and most women would not offer up the information voluntarily. But perhaps if all women – and, even more crucially, all men – felt they could, the world would be a better place.

They could take a leaf out of Michelle Obama’s book, literally. In Becoming, she writes about going for a job interview and being out and proud as a mother by taking her three-month-old daughter with her. “Here is me, I was saying. And here also is my baby,” she writes. It’s a bold move, but an important one. What she is doing is laying it on the line: I am still me, the brilliant person I have always been, but here is someone both you and I have to consider, too.

And, of course, workwise, we tend to think of parenthood in negatives, but what about all the positives? What about how it makes you ruthlessly efficient? How it makes you amazing at time management? How you can juggle 10 things at the same time? How you can conduct two conversations at once?

Becoming a parent transforms a person and changes their life. Home life adapts to this. Now we have ensure that work life does, too.


* This article originally appeared in the 25 January 2019 issue under the headline “Truly flexible working? That’d be a turn-up for the booky-wooks