Part-timer with a very special skill

Gerald Haigh

When Pat Bearder, a Warwickshire primary teacher, took time off to have her child, she fully intended to return to her career. In the event, however, things were much more difficult than she could ever have imagined.

Pat started teaching in 1978, after doing exceptionally well at college. She had the kind of multiple talent sought-after in primary schools - PE was her main subject, but she was a gifted maths teacher and an able musician. In her second year of teaching she was promoted to a maths post, and a few years later she moved to a senior position responsible for maths and upper school co-ordinator. She was clearly moving towards headship.

John was born in the summer of 1987. The school kept her post available well beyond the normal limits so she could be sure that her son was able to cope with her absence. But as time went on it became clear that all was not well. John was slow to walk and talk and a paediatrician later confirmed that there were underdeveloped areas in his brain that meant he would need special care and attention for a long time.

It was a daunting moment. "This wasn't something that was going to get better on its own, and I knew I was unable to go back to work. So I had to close my career avenue at the job which was being kept open for me." Pat stayed at home until John was given a nursery place in a school for children with severe learning difficulty. "At that point I was able to do some supply. But it was very patchy, I was limited to where I could go and how many hours I could do." Now, John has a regular place at the special school, and Pat works on a temporary day to day contract at the school where she started her career. Because she wants to be with John when he is at home, however, her contribution to school life is more limited than she would like. "I keep my hours so that I can take John to school and start at 9.30. I want to be available for him. "

The position is complicated by the fact that John picks up illnesses very easily, and when it happens Pat has no option but to stay at home with him. At the moment she is filled with conflicting feelings. "I'm tying myself in knots. What's taken some coming to terms with is that it isn't going to go away. " She confesses to finding it difficult to observe other mothers who can look forward to going back to full-time work when the children are old enough. Having a child minder, she feels, is not an option for her. "I'd have to be quite hard to hand him over to a child minder until five or six most evenings. The time when he comes home on the minibus is important and I think it would be to his detriment if I weren't there."

At the same time, she has moments of frustration when she looks back to when she had considerable responsibility, and believes that she could be offering so much more. "There's the feeling that I'm not doing this job very well - that if only I could have a couple of hours I'd get this or that sorted. But you can't do five hours work in two."

Life with John is filled with challenges. Being a teacher helps but she feels the constant small hurts shared by all parents of special children - thoughtless remarks by strangers, or younger children overtaking him. There are rewards:"We've had some wonderful times, celebrating when he's finally achieved things. John's extremely happy. It's a pleasure to do any kind of activity with him. He thinks of everything as an adventure - when we go to the library, or on the bus, or the train. He was very excited about his school trip to the art gallery and loved looking at the pictures."

There is another side to the coin, too. "As a teacher I'm far more patient with slow learners now, and better at breaking things down into small steps. "

Despite the frustrations, Pat values enormously the fact that she can continue to teach, and is appreciative of those who have made it possible. "I must emphasise how much I depend on the understanding and support of colleagues at my school."

What Pat may not always realise, though, is the degree of respect and admiration teachers in her area have for her. Her head believes that "it's so necessary for schools to realise that people like Pat have an awful lot to offer. It may be that they work part time, but while they are there, they give their all. We've negotiated with Pat about her arrivals and departures, but in turn the school has benefited. I'm just glad that to some degree it's kept her career happening, if not moving forward in the way she once hoped".

Turning Points is a regular column focusing on key moments of career developmenmt. If you want to share an important influence or decision in your professional life, write to Bob Doe, The TES,Admiral House, 66-68 East Smithfield, London E1 9XY.

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