I recently returned to English teaching – my profession of 12 years – after my second period of maternity leave. I am the mother of two tiny people: a girl, aged one, and a boy, aged three.
Parenthood is a job that requires us to give up almost all of our time and energy for the well-being of another. Teachers too are, by nature, givers. The desire to help others – to give something of ourselves up for their inspiration, their betterment – is at the heart of belonging in the classroom. So we find ourselves giving. And giving. And giving.
When I was a young and idealistic teacher, the pressures of the job were a price I was willing to pay for the unrivalled satisfaction of knowing I was truly helping a young person. I would mark into the night, spend hours perfecting a lesson or making resources, run clubs and go on trips and… There was no line between my job and who I was. I was a teacher.
Now I am a mother. And I keep giving.
I have held my pale and whimpering baby as she struggles for breath in a stark hospital room, while emailing cover one-handed from my phone. I have sent my wailing toddler to nursery with a fever of 40 because the anxiety and workload of having a day off is too much to bear, and there is nobody else to watch him. I have stayed late to finish some marking or talk to a student even though the hours until bedtime are ticking away, and those precious moments with my children are painfully fleeting. I have marked with my daughter crying at my feet, because there are deadlines that have to be met. I have cried too, stroking her hair with my free hand, desperately seeking to comfort her distress.
I have felt the hot spike of shame and regret when my absence – my failing – pushes a stressed colleague closer to breaking point and I have despaired that there is nothing – nothing- I can do about it. I have taught a five-period day followed by a parents’ evening on two hours’ sleep and felt sick with exhaustion, and overwhelmed with heartache that I didn’t get to kiss my children goodnight.
I have felt like a bad mother. I have felt like a bad teacher. I have felt like there is no way to give enough time, enough effort, enough of me, to both. I feel like I am not enough. Because both roles are all-consuming. At times, it has nearly broken me.
In the short years since I started my family, not long after the coalition government came to power, I have seen the monitoring and paperwork that my colleagues and I have to endure increase in volume and perceived importance. I have seen us all struggle to keep up with three specification changes and an end to re-sits. I have seen the number of times I am observed increase from three times a year to nearer three times a term. I have seen testing increase and the content we are asked to teach become more prescriptive.
In the wake of all this extra pressure, I have seen my pay, which barely covers my childcare costs, become performance-based, meaning that prioritising my students over my own children becomes even more difficult to avoid, even when there is only so much I can do to ensure the exam success of my pupils.
I have seen my planning time taken away, my contact time increase, my pension reduced, and my school’s budget cut. But I keep giving. We all keep giving, in the face of our time, our resources, our rights, even our sanity being taken away. I have been treated for stress and anxiety and witnessed colleagues suffer similarly.
More than this, my profession is taking something far, far more precious from me: the brief years when my children really need me.
A friend recently spoke to me about the possibly of changing careers, now that she is a mother. Teaching really appeals she says – because of the long holidays with the children and school hours. “Teaching is so family-friendly.”
I stare at her, open-mouthed, for a moment or two.
Teaching is not family-friendly at all, I say, sadly. Maybe it was, once. For me, teaching is constantly in conflict with my family life. There’s just no way to be a mother and a teacher and to feel successful at both. Every single day, I feel like I am letting someone down. I am stretched thin, like butter scraped over too much bread. I honestly don’t know how long I can sustain it. I still love my subject, enjoy sharing that love with students and watching them grow and achieve – but, ultimately, I love my own children more and letting them down makes me hate myself.
So why am I still in the profession, I hear you ask? It’s simple: I am a teacher. I don’t know how to be anything else. I am also a mother and I can’t be anything else. Unless we can make teaching family-friendly again, I am doomed to be in conflict with myself indefinitely, or to leave the profession. Whether I can manage the huge weight of my conflicting responsibilities and pressures remains to be seen.
Today, I left my little girl wracked with coughs and sobs, tears streaming down her face, and I went to work – though every fibre of my being begged me to stay, to comfort, to be a mother.
Today, I hate myself.
Today, I feel like my teaching days are numbered.
This article first appeared on the blog Someone's Mum.