“I’ve asked you down here, because I want to be sure that the Alison that has come back is the Alison who left us.”
That was the opener for a line-management meeting, about two weeks after I had returned from my first maternity leave.
I had known the vice-principal who made this statement for years professionally. He had supported me, pushed me and called on me countless times.
I think he was genuine in his concern for my career. I was doing my job, as I always had, but I seemed different…
The only person he knew was Alison the teacher, the head of English: the professional.
Cuddles between interview tasks
He had been in my office just 11 months earlier, when I had been just about to go on maternity leave, to ask me if I would apply for the assistant principal role that was coming up. It hadn’t dawned on him that I might not know the answer.
This was the version of Alison that he knew: I’d had a baby, but everything would still work, because I would make sure it did. I don’t think it had dawned on him that the conversation he was starting might make me question my position in the college.
And it hadn’t dawned on me that I would return to work and be torn between what I was really thinking and what I felt I ought to think.
Shift in priorities
I was an experienced teacher and leader, but completely naïve to the shift in priorities that would hit me when I returned to work.
Before my first child was born, I enjoyed my commute. It was an hour on either end of my day when I could reflect, digest and plan – I could clear my head before I got home.
After maternity leave, the drive home turned into the longest hour of my day. It wasn’t productive time any more; it was wasted time. It was time when I could have been with my baby.
She was one of the first babies to arrive at nursery in the morning, and the last to leave in the evening. She was perfectly happy, but I was beginning to question whether a commute was a good idea.
Early on, it was just the drive that bothered me. During working hours, I was fine.
I think there can be a level of conditioning that sets in at some point in a teaching career. I’ve known several experienced teachers for whom the very act of turning up to work every day has been enough to see them through trauma in their personal lives.
A job you live and breathe
It is a job that you can live and breathe, because young people make you live in the moment, if you let them. But with that can come a loss of perspective.
The young people at work come with paperwork and accountability measures. Additional work that you might not question, even if it takes up much of your own time. You maybe thought that teaching and the young people you teach were your life. But then a little person of your own, who actually is your lifeblood, rocks everything you thought you knew about yourself.
Having a baby brings a new perspective, and it might not be one that you are prepared for. In fact, I don’t know how you can prepare for it.
I tried. When my daughter was just five-weeks-old, I realised that I didn’t want to be away from her for five days a week.
So I set about rewriting the head of English roles and responsibilities so that I could propose an effective job share. I knew who could do it with me. I had been meticulous in my succession planning prior to going on leave. Intellectually, I knew that my priorities might change. I’d planned for it, but not really prepared for it.
The guilt set in
For me, the really clear change in priorities was apparent when I wasn’t at work. I had shortened my working day, and so had to take more work home. My husband took our baby out on Sunday afternoons so that I could get on.
I had always done work at home, and at first, I convinced myself that I was indeed having it all. But then the guilt set in. Guilt that I made them go out every Sunday afternoon, and guilt if I couldn’t get everything done for the young people at work.
When I resigned from my role as head of English – a job that I adored – and took up a position as a part-time classroom teacher in the town where I lived (goodbye, commute), the principal of the college asked me why. He had, during the year that I was back, and when I was pregnant with my second child, made my part-time head of English contract permanent.
My answer was honest: “Because I’m flying by the seat of my pants here and at home, and it won’t be fair on anyone if something cracks.”
He also asked me what I thought the change would mean for my career.
On this, I was also clear. I had been a successful head of English for nearly 10 years. That experience wouldn’t go away. I would go back to it when I was ready. But, at this particular point in time, my priorities have shifted.
Alison Rounce is a secondary English teacher in the North East, and a trainer for Thinking Reading