'Returning to teaching after maternity leave is terrifying'

Schools must get post-maternity support for teachers right – how mums are welcomed back by the SLT can change everything, says one teacher

Helen Mars

Maternity leave teachers

If becoming a parent isn’t terrifying enough, returning to teaching after becoming a parent can be even more challenging. On personal, practical and even philosophical grounds, life as a teacher-parent is complex and demanding, and guarantees to change how you view and carry out your role and your days.

Practical strategies are the most straightforward aspect of returning to work: finding good childcare, learning to organise your brood and calendar with military precision and – my own top tip – making a month of packed-lunch sandwiches and freezing them is easy enough (although finding the requisite time may not be).

Harder is finding effective ways to manage your workload that help you retain your positivity and enthusiasm even when you know evenings will be filled with the demands of your children, whatever their age. Scheduling time in your week to make positive phone calls to parents, investing in a year planner poster to anticipate pinch points or getting a head start on your report writing, for example, can avert some of the predictable stress and strain of the teaching year.

Keeping a complete change of work attire in the car in case of baby-related wardrobe malfunction is optional, but highly recommended. As a veteran of toothpaste- and breast-milk-covered T-shirts, a significant chunk of my work wardrobe lives at school in case of emergencies.

More complex is how you might perceive yourself and your priorities on your return to work: a bit more empathy towards younger children and a reticence to set homework have been common reactions among my peers, newly conscious of the busyness of family life. Rethinking your attitude to aspects of the profession is natural and can be useful both personally and professionally.

Such rethinking begins even before you're back in your post. Returning full or part-time; keeping, relinquishing or applying for responsibilities and TLRs; and whether to look at new posts or remain in your current school are all more complicated decisions when the impact on your family is considered.

That said, women should not apologise for or be limited by their personal life and children.

It’s too easy to fall into the trap of describing yourself as "only part time", for example, or overusing "just" and "sorry" in everyday speech. Women in their thirties leave the teaching profession more than any other demographic: we’re a group who have a lot to offer, and only teaching on some days of the week doesn’t mean you don’t give it your all when you are there.

Working hard when at work is a given, but we all, parents or not, part or full time, need to remember that days we are not working are days for us and our family: sticking firmly but politely to a few stock phrases like, “I’m not at school that day” rather than referring to a day off, or “That won’t work for me”, can help define boundaries without implying weakness or a lack of dedication to the job.

Imagine this scenario: you are meant to meet a colleague returning from maternity leave to hand over some notes, but something comes up, and you reschedule via email with a few days' notice.

This kind of thing seems so minor, and so totally forgivable in the hectic whirl of a school week, that it’s worth examining from the other side. As a returning parent, you have probably had to book and pay for childcare some weeks in advance, with all the stress and heartache of leaving your baby, possibly for the first time, pack their complex bag of clothes, nappies, toys and innumerable accessories and express milk for a few days so they have enough. And then you have to reschedule.

When you become a head of department or member of senior leadership, please remember this phase of your life. How to support returning teachers isn’t anything we shouldn’t already be doing for our colleagues, but it’s worth remembering this as one progresses to management.

Simple steps – such as offering KIT days to be taken from home, making it clear that baby is welcome at Inset, putting a line in job adverts that teachers on maternity leave are welcome to apply and making interview days flexible to fit around babies – will encourage more applicants and make it clear that you are a family-friendly employer.

The transition from maternity leave may only last as little as a few weeks, but how line managers handle it and enable the returning mum can shape her view of her role. The approach taken transmits a wider message about commitments to staff morale and wellbeing, workload, being family-friendly and staff retention, and the ripples of good feeling from staff who are well supported at this time cannot be underestimated.

In the thick of adjusting to life as a working mum, you may only be able to see the positives in terms of a hot cup of tea and being able to wee without an audience, but pushing for better support for returning staff is something worth highlighting and working for as you continue on your journey as teaching parent.

Helen Mars is an English teacher in Yorkshire

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