Last term, I had three weeks out of school after my first pregnancy ended unhappily. It was early, but late enough for me to have felt that I was about to be a parent. My vision of the future no longer just revolved around me, and I had altered my life view to incorporate someone even more important.
Coming back to school after an absence is strange. Three weeks is not long in the general scheme of things, but in school a lot can happen. More importantly, I was not the person I was three weeks before. The pregnancy magazines disappeared from my desk, the guilt-free chocolate binges in the staffroom at break were replaced by my habitual carrot and apple, and diets were back on the conversation topic list, rather than shared experiences of local maternity wards. Walking along the corridors, I felt dislocated; I'd done it a thousand times before, yet it all seemed new.
People couldn't have been more supportive, and concern from my colleagues made it easier to acknowledge that, even though I was going about my daily business as if nothing had changed, everything had. I'd always steered clear of colleagues who'd taken a leave of absence from school. Partly through embarrassment, partly because I was just too busy, and partly, and I suppose I ought to admit this, because of a general scepticism about people's reasons for taking time off work. Was it really so bad? Most of the teachers I know, myself included, tend to subordinate their own needs to the demands of their jobs. I've seen colleagues come into school and teach a full timetable with raging fever, with mild concussion, with open wounds. We tend to be copers and strugglers. Just a few periods, we reason to ourselves, and then we can go home.
My experience has shown me how naive this was. The world outside school can only be sidelined for so long. One of my first lessons of almost-parenthood has been that however important school issues may seem, your home life always takes priority. I'm not quite so unsympathetic now when a colleague has to rush off to collect a child from nursery and I have to do her cover.
Going easy on yourself makes you go easier on other people.
Funny that we spend a lot of time trying to improve our practice as teachers, yet comparatively little time goes into the study of what makes a good colleague. I'm going to be a world class expert at welcoming back now.
I'll say how good it is to see that person in school. I'll be brave and mention what it was that kept them off. I'll offer to take their register while they're still getting their heads together in those first few days, and I won't expect them to be able to provide me with time-tables, teacher assessments, reports or anything else within seconds of them re-entering the building. I'll treat them to a coffee at break, and I'll save a chocolate biscuit from a staff meeting and put it on their desk.
Thank you to all the colleagues who did those things for me. When your life changes, your experience of school changes as well, but it always welcomes you back in.
Gemma Warren is head of inclusion at a London secondary school. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org