Keeping mum

11th May 2007 at 01:00
What happens when your daughter is also your head of department? Nick Morrison reports

Generations of teachers have followed their parents into the classroom, fired by their enthusiasm, inspired by their sense of fulfilment and happy in the knowledge there will always be something to do in the evenings.

But many would think twice about working in the same school as their mum or dad. And having your daughter as your boss? Well, that's just asking for trouble.

Maureen Dharadhar and Sara Sullivan, her daughter, don't see it that way, though. For the past 14 years, they have taught in the modern languages department at Woodlands School in Basildon, Essex. And since September, Sara has been head of department.

She had an early introduction to teaching when, as a teenager, she drew flash cards for her mum to use in the classroom - flash cards which Maureen still uses 25 years later. But neither thought then that Sara would follow in her mum's footsteps. Indeed, Maureen had altogether different ambitions for her daughter.

"I wanted her to be a TV presenter. She is outgoing and loves fronting things and it would have been a good job for her," Maureen says.

"She didn't express any interest in teaching until the end of her degree and at one stage said she would never do it, so I was quite surprised when she opted for education."

Sara went to work in Oxfordshire after qualifying but when she decided to move back to Essex at the age of 23, she made her mum's school her first port of call.

"I didn't want to move to a school I didn't know anything about and my mum had worked here a few years so I knew it was a well-supported secondary,"

Sara says. "I knew I would have somebody there if I needed help settling in, but I didn't think about it too much because I didn't intend staying that long."

Although they both work in the same department, Maureen teaches French with a little German and Sara German with a little French. They have slightly different takes on how this came about.

"I fought against French at school because Mum was a French teacher. I didn't want anything to do with it so I pursued German," Sara says. "I was the one who encouraged her to do German," recalls Maureen "and every year made sure she went on the German exchange."

Sara says she treats her mum the same as other staff in the department, although acknowledges other teachers may be wary of what they say to her about her mum. Both say they rarely disagree over work but Sara admits to sometimes speaking a little harshly to her mother at staff meetings.

"I have said, 'Shut up, Mum', on a couple of occasions, which I shouldn't have done because it was in public. She doesn't react but the others think I shouldn't speak to her like that and I have to say sorry. She has her own opinions on things and she will share them, sometimes at the wrong time."

The lack of physical resemblance means few pupils are aware of the connection and many who do hear about it assume it is a joke. This can leave them somewhat bemused when Sara pops into her mum's classroom and, without asking, takes Sellotape, umbrellas or money.

"Some look at me in real horror, especially when I take money out of her purse, but I say, 'It's all right, Mrs Dharadhar doesn't mind'. I have even taken a pen out of her hand because I needed it for something. There's no need to say anything, I don't need to ask her.

"When she was teaching clothes, I brought in a sack of my baby's things and she told the class they belonged to her granddaughter and you could see them trying to work it out. I called her 'Mum' once in front of them and they looked at us as if we were slightly crazy. These things are interesting for children but they soon move on to something else," Sara says.

Maureen, 65, officially retired four years ago, although she still teaches two days a week. She says she was never ambitious and her priority was for her children to get on in life. She gave up work when they were young and passed up the chance to go for the head of department's job earlier in her career. "I was quite happy for Sara to be promoted and she doesn't boss me about," Maureen says.

"She would like me to go on and be a headteacher," Sara says. "She wasn't ambitious and I am and she wants me to fulfil my potential. I think my mum is a lot cleverer than me and she had the potential to go a lot further than me."

Sara, 38, is an Advanced Skills Teacher and a lead practitioner for the Specialist Schools and Academies Trust. She gives regular presentations to colleagues and her principal cheerleader is usually to be found in the back of the audience.

"I go along to give her moral support, not that she needs it," says Maureen. "She is very like her dad, she loves being the centre of attention."

"She comes to everything, even on her days off," adds Sara. "She's always the first to clap and rings me up in the evenings and says that is the best she has ever seen. I say, 'You said that last time, Mum'."

Despite working in the same department, mother and daughter don't feel they're living in each other's pockets. "We don't see each other very much, except at break times, although I see more of her than if she was at another school," Maureen says.

"She has always done her own thing and I have always given her plenty of freedom. It's never caused any problems and the only downside is that at home we talk shop all the time and her husband and her dad, my husband, get bored because we invariably talk about the children."

Sara acknowledges she has sometimes taken her mum for granted and says she has lost track of the number of times she has asked her mum to cover a class when she had to take an urgent phone call, get her lunch when she's forgotten it or lend her money for petrol to get home. And all without having to say please or thanks.

"Most colleagues say they could never contemplate working with their parents but if I went to a new school, part of me would miss not having the security of my mum there," Sara says. "I know she wants the best for her children and the best for me."

Maureen says while she wouldn't want to work with her husband and be with him 24 hours a day, working with Sara means she gets to see her daughter more often. "I like to see my children doing well," she says. "I'm happy that she enjoys what she's doing and I'm very proud of her."

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