Lessons in love

13th July 2007 at 01:00
You share a bathroom, but can you share a staffroom? Stephen Manning talks to husband and wife teams who live and work together

Many married couples teach in the same school, but is it a good idea? It may be easier to rant about the problems you face during your working day. But if hubby is the problem with your working day, well that, as they say, opens up a whole new set of challenges.

Relationships in the workplace can be tricky, delicate and fraught but, in some cases, inevitable, especially if your life is your work or you are working in a remote region. It's not unusual for teachers to have another teacher as their partner and many meet at school. What do you do? Should one of you leave?

In 2004, Caterina Garcea's husband Emyr Williams decided to apply for a job as an art teacher in her school, Sweyne Park School, a comprehensive in Rayleigh, Essex. They had started dating at another school but, as their personal lives entwined, their professional paths diverged and they went to different schools. Then the vacancy at Sweyne Park appeared, and it seemed too good to pass up.

"Emyr said to me when he applied: 'I will be on your territory, will that bother you?'" says Caterina. But she'd already had a similar experience of family in the workplace: when she joined Sweyne Park as head of modern foreign languages in 1998, her sister was a newly qualified teacher there and Caterina effectively became her boss. Any worries proved groundless and so she had no qualms about Emyr's arrival.

Caterina, 37, and Emyr, 42, have three children under five and are now both part-time he teaches four days a week, while she has stepped down from department head and works for two days.

Sweyne Park, a large school with 1,200 pupils and more than 70 staff, has at least two other couples. Emyr believes that being "neither over-formal nor over-familiar" has made it easy for other staff.

"The pupils find it momentarily intriguing before they move on to something more interesting, like last night's TV," he says. "They might say 'your wife gives me more As than you do, Sir'. But it is always respectful."

Teaching can be so all-consuming that it can seem like there is no life outside of it; more so for couples in the same school. But art is Emyr's passion and he has been a professional abstract artist for the past 20 years, something that provides the couple with a safety valve.

"We don't talk shop that much and, if we do, we can get to the point quickly because we both know the context," says Caterina. "We are able to talk about education in the abstract as well as the concrete, as we are both quite interested in the philosophy of education. We both believe, for example, that you should teach a subject as purely as possible, without gimmicks.

"I do enjoy debating issues with him, even in school meetings," she says. "It is great to get an honest opinion."

Working with a spouse has turned out well for the couple. "We like being able to see each other at work and to share that aspect of our lives," says Caterina. "After all, we live in a world where time is so precious."

It sounds ideal: many schools are like micro-societies, and married couples become a welcome part of the fabric. But the potential hazards are legion. Being in the same department, for example, might be a particularly tough test, especially if one of you is the senior. Couples might split but remain in the same school, or work issues may force one out.

One teacher in northern England, who asked not to be named, recalls how work related problems nearly drove her and her husband apart. They met at school and, though in different departments, they were very much part of the life of the school, involved together in after and out-of-school activities. But when she ran into difficulties with her head of department, whom she felt was a bully, it put a strain on the relationship. She went off sick with depression and left soon after. Her husband stayed and had to fend off inquiries from pupils and teachers about when she might return.

"He saw the confident person he fell in love with reduced to a gibbering wreck," she says. "Had I been at a different school, he might have been more able to offer emotional support. But as it was, he found it difficult to cope with the divided loyalties between me and the school where he still had to work. When I left, he felt like he had lost his right arm, and he kind of shut down emotionally."

Though they now work in different schools, it has not been easy to overcome some issues. "He feels he can't come home and talk openly about his school now, because of what we went through," she says.

Certainly it can be a minefield, but for some teachers it's an opportunity to hone their professionalism. Amanda McAree admits that she and her husband Christopher, both heads of department at Trinity School in Carlisle, Cumbria, are ambitious and focused primarily on work. "We are both very career-minded and it's nicely competitive between us. We do a lot of planning together, and we coach each other. If he has a good idea, I think, damn, I should have thought of that." Happily, they are well organised and slot in time for their three-year-old daughter. "Every evening, until about 7.15, is family time devoted to her," says Amanda.

"Then from, say, 7.30pm to 10pm we will be working, marking or planning, or just talking through ideas. It's good to have a sounding board."

They met five years ago when, very briefly, they both taught at the same school in Coventry. They married and moved to Cumbria where Amanda, 36, joined Trinity as head of religious studies, personal development and citizenship while Christopher, 33, taught at two other schools before landing the head of maths post.

Trinity, the largest school in Cumbria, is a comprehensive with about 1,850 pupils and 120 staff, including four married couples. In such a big school, teachers in different departments, such as Amanda and Christopher, can avoid seeing each other for long stretches. Perhaps that is the ideal arrangement

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