No sleep and guilt: what fatherhood means for teachers

The effects of motherhood on teachers are well-documented, says Emma Kell. But what about the fathers?

Emma Kell

A father, spoonfeeding a baby

Every doctoral study has to make a unique contribution to a body of knowledge. Mine, as it evolved, was something of a surprise: it was about fathers and the profound impact that parenthood has on them as teachers

The effects of motherhood on teachers are well-documented. To be absolutely clear, the glass ceiling is still very much intact, and the “motherhood penalty and fatherhood bonus” described in Tes in 2015 are still a brutal reality. 

More from Emma Kell: 'You can be a great parent and a great teacher'

Experience: 'Returning to teaching after maternity leave is terrifying'

Aspiring leaders: There is a 'motherhood penalty' and a 'fatherhood bonus'

Relatively little has been said and written about fathers and the impact of parenthood on their values and sense of identity as teachers, and what revealed itself in my research was actually very interesting.

Joy, vulnerability and humanity

Hearing a teacher speak at a recent conference with a mixture of unbridled joy, vulnerability, humanity and sheer surprise about how much being a father has changed his priorities inspired me to go back to the issue and have another look. 

First, let's turn to the “fatherhood bonus” cited by Chhatwal: “Many felt parenthood made them better leaders, raising their expectations based on what would be good enough for their own children, and bringing greater empathy to their approach.”

One teacher told me: “As a father, I want to create a climate where my children can learn, grow and change, confident in who they are, unafraid to take risks. And in my classroom…well, I want exactly the same thing.” 

Rod, a head of year, notes that: “I’ve had a couple of occasions over the years where a kid has inadvertently called me ‘dad’.”

In terms of the impact of being a father on their performance, men were more likely to report a dramatic impact than women. 

What was particularly interesting was the extent of the impact described by men compared with women. Thirty per cent of men in the questionnaire reported a significant improvement in their performance, but 40 per cent reported a deterioration in performance. 

The women’s response was more measured than for their male counterparts, with 39 per cent reporting a “slight improvement” and 35 per cent a “slight deterioration” in performance. 

Intensity of emotion

Some of the most moving stories about the intensity of emotion arising from balancing parenthood and teaching came from men. One of the main patterns in these stories is the outpouring of emotion that came after a period of keeping it all under wraps. 

Keith, a head of faculty, describes the way his feeling of being completely overwhelmed caught up with him: “I just remember feeling very stressed, and probably thinking, you know, I've got work and that's very busy, and suddenly I've got this child that I love to bits, but I'm suddenly very responsible for this child.” 

Headteacher John Tomsett writes extremely movingly in his blog about the regret that engulfed him when he came to the realisation that his son had “morphed from a two-year-old toddler into a young man; metaphorically, I had slept through the whole process.”

Tomsett recalls an event in the classroom, in which he and his students watched the film, Death of a Salesman, which deals with a father-son relationship: “I had to leave the room, weeping uncontrollably. The students were bemused while my colleague Jane provided me tissues in wordless confusion as I fled to an office across the corridor.”

The 3am wake-up call

If I ever had to torture someone, I’d lend them our daughter, who refused to sleep for nearly two years. I remember my husband going to work and (while fiercely envious of his opportunity to be with grown-ups) thinking: I have never seen another adult look so exhausted.

“It’s very rare that I do get a full night’s sleep’, says Peter, father to two children under 3. 

In his blog (which is no longer available online), MrSeniorLeader recalls the 3am wake-up call with his first child, and identifies this as a key experience in building the qualities needed to be an effective teacher and senior leader: “The physical exhaustion of bottles at 3am and knowing the alarm would be buzzing three hours later still haunts me to this day, but the character that this built has stayed with me until this day.” 

Almost every conversation with a fellow mother comes back to the overwhelming nature of domestic duties, and the divisions of labour at home. 

But Sue Cowley acknowledges that it can be just as hard for men to break out of traditional gender roles: “I feel like a party-pooper for saying it, but I don’t think it’s possible for women or men to have it all… 

“It is typically harder for women to mix work and home life, because we still tend to do the majority of the childcare and the housework. But, at the same time, I think it is hard for men to break away from expected gender roles as well. It’s just that they have to do it in the opposite direction.”

The guilt and sense of role conflict so frequently discussed between mothers is something that male teachers also feel. MrSeniorLeader explores this issue with an honesty and reflectiveness that reveals fathers who are teachers can experience the conflicts and dilemmas of teacher-parenthood as intensely as their female colleagues. 

“As my children develop and grow, the challenge for me is to try to walk the tightrope between my responsibilities as a father and as a senior leader. I constantly question whether I am giving my children enough of myself, and does school get more than its pound of flesh?”

Dr Emma Kell is a secondary teacher in north-east London and author of How to Survive in Teaching. She tweets at @thosethatcan

Register to continue reading for free

It only takes a moment and you'll get access to more news, plus courses, jobs and teaching resources tailored to you

Latest stories

Ministers seem to think schools are wasting money - in fact, schools are experts in cutting costs, says James Bowen

Why international teachers should receive financial CPD

There's a lot to learn working in another country - not least the financial situation and how to use your money wisely, which is why perhaps a CPD session or two would be a worthwhile investment
David Keating 30 Jul 2021