A mum's game?

7th May 2004 at 01:00
Being a newly qualified teacher and a parent is a tough call, writes Alison Shepherd

We all know the stereotype: the mum who wants a job but wants to be at home when her children get in from school and when they're off during the holidays. It used to apply particularly to primary teachers, but in an age of targets, Sats and stress, does teaching really combine well with family life?

Theresa Auguste is a new teacher as well as a mum to six-year-old Lily. But keeping these two aspects of her life in balance is proving to be tough.

"It's very hard work," she says. "I end up feeling guilty a lot of the time because I don't spend enough time with Lily.

"My mum takes her to school in the morning, and she goes to after-school club until 6.30pm. So by the time I get to see her it's bedtime. There's so little time left to play with her or just talk to her. I hate it when she complains that I'm always working."

The noise teachers make about their stress levels and workloads does not appear to have stopped the students who are planning to follow them into the classroom, according to Chris Saleh, Ms Auguste's tutor at London University's Institute of Education.

"The notion that teaching is an ideal profession for parents is still widely held and sometimes not based on the reality of the heavy workload and necessary commitment to other people's children, sometimes at the expense of your own," she says.

Although interviews for PGCE places and teaching jobs concentrate on the applicant's capability in teaching and learning, not their parenting skills, such experience can come in useful when considering the teacher's pastoral role.

"It would be advantageous to use the knowledge and understanding of young children's needs and behaviour generated from being a parent to answer questions in a wider context," says Ms Saleh.

Ms Auguste is completing her induction as a Year 3 teacher at Gwyn Jones primary in Waltham Forest, north-east London, and believes her choice of school has helped make her often conflicting responsibilities more manageable.

"Everything is so well organised," she says. "Lesson plans are kept from year to year, so my planning time is much less than it might be. I don't have to reinvent the wheel each time. Without the support of everyone here, it would be a much harder struggle. I can't imagine how other parent-NQTs manage without this level of support."

Her network of friends, which includes some she met on her PGCE course, has proven to be invaluable to her.

"Talking to friends in the same situation can keep you sane," she says. "I have one friend who has been a teacher and parent for about 10 years. When I look at her, I know it can be done.

"Part of it is having the confidence to put your child first and ask for time off for, say, school concerts. I wouldn't dream of that now, but I'm sure I will once I feel more secure."

Despite the primary teacher stereotypes, taking time off is often easier in secondary schools, where teachers are more able to cover for one another.

But beware of taking such support for granted.

As Ms Saleh says: "You would also need to be as generous towards other members of staff who support your absence as they are to you."

When she was interviewed for the post, Therese Auguste made a decision to reveal that she was a single mother, reasoning that she owed it to her employers to tell them she had wider responsibilities. If a head proved unsympathetic, she thought, she would be better off elsewhere anyway.

She also believes that bringing up a child by herself is an experience that gives her the edge over other potential teachers, especially so as her daughter is a similar age to those she teaches. But this was not a view she was encouraged to take while at the Institute.

"There was an unspoken rule that school and your own children were kept separate," she says. "I think most heads now recognise that they have to be amenable to parents' needs, just as other employers are."

This is especially true in today's recruitment and retention climate. Many schools now will do all they can to enable parents to see their children as often as they see others, recognising that in an over-stretched and stressed parent a little leeway can go a very long way.

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