Do you want to know the secret to stopping a perfectly planned functional skills lesson dead in its tracks? Even one expertly delivered by a charismatic (and devilishly handsome) teacher to a group of mature, hard-working and attentive health and social care students?
Baby scan photos.
Who knew, right? Yet the appearance of those grainy prints put an end to anything remotely resembling learning in my lesson a few weeks back. The entire group spent 20 minutes cooing over a picture of a seemingly random series of grey smears, as the prospective mother pointed out the head (grey smear) and hands (smaller grey smears) of her soon-to-be-born son. As soon as the images appeared, I was done for.
Of course, this is not unusual. If you work in further education, there's a good chance that you will teach a pregnant student at some point. This presents some unique challenges, as sensitivity to the student's condition has to be coupled with the practicalities of teaching: your behaviour management strategies still have to apply.
You should not ignore the issue. Far from it. A quick conversation with the mother-to-be about anything you can do to make her more comfortable in the classroom is often greatly appreciated. This should take place discreetly, if necessary: some prospective mothers don't want to be singled out for special treatment (although many love to have a chat about what's occurring and are in no way self-conscious).
If you can do this without students or another staff member having to prompt you, all the better. It lets the student know that you're taking the time to think about her needs and it can be helpful in building relationships. Something that suits everybody can usually be worked out. But this is not always the case.
At one extreme, I have encountered students who regard impending motherhood as a get-out-of-anything-I-don't-really-want-to-do-at-any-given-time card.
I've had pregnancy offered up as an excuse for not being able to do any writing (apparently, being with child means that you lose the use of your limbs) or reading (loss of vision, another common problem).
When I challenge these students, I am met with withering disdain and accusations of being heartless, uncaring and insensitive to the needs of a woman with child (because being unable to stop yourself from hollering across the class when people are working quietly is another one of those symptoms of pregnancy of which I was unaware).
Thankfully, in my experience, this attitude is rare and usually held by students who would behave the same whether they were pregnant or not. Their condition is just another weapon in their arsenal when trying to get one over you, so you need to be clear and firm in your response. Stick to your rules.
Listen and learn
Sometimes, however, you will encounter the opposite problem - students who are genuinely struggling, despite your best efforts to accommodate them. Some women find pregnancy extremely hard. It can isolate them from former friends, heighten a sense of being judged (which may be real or imagined) and that's before we start with the physical symptoms - morning sickness (which doesn't just happen in the morning), backache, loss of mobility, lack of sleep and many other maladies I get to swerve on account of my gender. It can add up to a miserable nine months.
In these cases, sympathy and understanding are paramount. It might be an idea to guide the student towards pastoral support, as there may be organisations that can help. Students often just want a sympathetic ear about what they are experiencing; if you've got that type of relationship there's no reason not to offer one. A little time out of your day to listen is nothing. You might even learn something - three of my students have told me that their hair became fuller during pregnancy. Who knew?
The key is to not panic: students who are pregnant are still just students. They should be treated as such. Don't let them offer their pregnancy as an excuse for things that you wouldn't accept otherwise, but be sensitive to the problems they face and you won't go far wrong. And never, ever let them get their baby scan photos out. Ever.
Tom Starkey teaches in an FE college in the north of England. He tweets @tstarkey1212