Is teacher training compatible with parenthood?

Many career-changers move to teaching hoping to find a job that’s more compatible with family life, says Emma Sheppard

Emma Sheppard

‘Teaching’s just a job – so prioritise family time’

“The mother is the first teacher of the child,” said Malcolm X. “The message she gives that child, that child gives to the world.”

With a slight adaptation for the 21st century – let's say “parent”, rather than “mother” – this phrase rings true for many who know the joy of teaching their children the very first lessons of life.

Parenting and teaching, therefore, appear to be the most natural partners. But what is the reality of training to teach while also raising a family?   

Life-changing events

Luke Shaw was initially attracted to teaching after working as an IT technician in a primary school. He enjoyed interacting with young people, and had a passion for technology that he wanted to share.

His emotions going into his year of training as a secondary computer science teacher were heightened, however, by another life-changing event: when he began his PGCE in September, his wife was five months pregnant with their first child.

“In all honesty, in the months leading up to Oscar’s birth, I thought to myself, ‘How hard can it be?’” he says. “I was so focused on preparing for the start of my PGCE that I didn’t give too much thought to how his arrival would affect me.”

Juggling act

Those who trained to teach when they were already parents share stories with common themes: the military operation of juggling university assignments, teaching placements and domestic commitments compounded by sleep deprivation and the ever-present feeling that time with their young families was slipping away.

Kat Howard completed her PGCE as a single mother when her son was three years old, after she had worked in the financial sector and educational unions. Her previous jobs had given her time at home with her son, which only cemented her desire to teach.

“But I felt an incredible amount of guilt,” she says. “I had spent two days a week at home with Noah before and now someone else was teaching him words and painting or learning with him, while I was being shouted at by other people’s children. I was away from my child, pretty isolated from friends due to working hours and energy levels, and I felt like a failure.”

Support systems

Emotional and practical support systems are key to any trainee’s success and wellbeing in their PGCE and NQT year, but this is especially important for those who have caring responsibilities.

The importance of partners, families and leadership teams who not only champion a parent’s decision to train as a teacher but understand the nuances of logistical details, such as leaving early for school pickups or honouring paternity leave allowances, can enable a new teacher to thrive.

“My son was born as I was due to start my second placement,” Shaw recalls. “Fortunately, the school and department was fantastic in supporting me at this time. 

“My placement start was delayed by two weeks, which gave me much-needed time at home with Oscar and my wife, helping us to settle into life as new parents.”

Questions to consider

So what intricacies do parents need to consider if they decide to train as teachers with their own children at home? 

The first is finances. Routes like Teach First, salaried School Direct, or subject bursaries mean that there are paid alternatives to a standard PGCE, but a trainee-teacher wage can represent a significant reduction in salary for career-changers.

For those without any funding available for their course, training to teach can mean taking out a further student loan to cover rent, mortgages, childcare costs and household bills.

John Millington trained as a secondary PE teacher when his children were 3 and 7, continuing his previous role as a sports coach and children’s entertainer at the weekend during his training year.

The grant funding available at many universities for those with dependants enabled him to complete his PGCE in a subject that does not qualify for a bursary.

“We relied a lot on family for financial support throughout that year,” Millington says. “Grandparents paid for things like swimming lessons, and my wife took on two part-time jobs to make ends meet by the summer.” 

Work-life balance

Although many experienced parent-teachers find they can mostly manage their workload around their families, the demand of working in the evenings and weekends is a familiar part of the profession. 

Often, established teachers have sufficient experience to know how to work more flexibly around their children’s schedules. For new teachers, however, finding this routine can take time and experimentation.  

But the limitations of time and energy that many parent-trainees experience because of personal commitments can have its perks: arguably, these new trainees learn to use their time more efficiently because there is only so much they can do before the school pickup, or having to complete the humdrum domestic tasks needed to sustain a family.

Eva Barber, a primary teacher who trained through the Graduate Teacher Programme aged 43, when her children were aged 7 and 10, remembers how a good level of self-discipline and conscientiousness allowed her to succeed as well as non-parent colleagues, even on fewer hours. 

“I noticed how many young trainee teachers spent hours on details that I would consider less substantial: stationery, displays, all manner of colour-coded resources. I had less time to do that as I needed to be with my family,” she says.

This life experience can equip career-changing teachers with a degree of experience and empathy that’s extremely useful for leadership.

Older trainees who have battled through toddler and teen tantrums, or lead teams in different industries, often have lived experience of compromise, sacrifice and managing conflicting demands from large groups of people.

They understand that decisions can’t always please everyone, a perspective that can help them forge good relationships with school leaders.

“My mentor was also the deputy head,” Barber continues. “So I was able to hear about some of the processes and rationales normally just dished out to trainees from above.

“A certain maturity and experience afforded me more a voice, perhaps, with SLT. I felt I could be more outspoken than some of my younger colleagues, and leadership would listen to my point of view.”

The parent-teacher tightrope

Job security and a fulfilling and meaningful career are common themes in trainee teachers’ justifications, as is the realisation of the enrichment that teaching expertise offers to parenting, and vice versa.

But if such a military operation is required both to train and sustain life as a parent-teacher, is the time, hard work and exhaustion really worth it? 

Seven years and two babies later, Howard says yes. She says the emotive highs and lows of teaching, and the lessons she has learned about using her time and conserving her energy has enriched her life as a parent. 

“My son is very proud of me when I tell him some of the things I have set out to achieve,” she says. 

“And once you work on getting the balance right, term time becomes exactly that – time dedicated to workload in school, so that the holiday is the downtime you need to spend time with family and friends, which is the ultimate perk of a brilliant profession.”

Emma Sheppard is founder of The MaternityTeacher/ PaternityTeacher (MTPT) Project and a lead practitioner for English

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