When mum becomes Miss

28th November 2003 at 00:00
Most teenage children cringe at some aspect of their parents'

behaviour. But, Janet Murray writes, the situation can become even more acute when your mum or dad teaches at your school

For many children, school is a welcome refuge from parental embarrassment.

A place where no one has to know about your dad's Bon Jovi tour T-shirts, your mum's fixation with Cliff Richard, or their shared passion for Morris dancing. But for an unlucky few whose parents teach at their school, the nightmare of seeing your dad strutting his stuff at the Christmas disco could turn into reality.

Ali Doddington teaches English at Gravesend grammar school for boys in Milton, Kent, where she has two sons in Years 8 and 12. She joined the school as a graduate trainee last September. "I'd spent much of the last 20 years bringing up my four children," she explains. "With my youngest starting secondary school, I was ready for a career of my own."

But unfortunately for young James and David, as soon as she'd decided on teaching, a fantastic training opportunity arose - at their school. It wasn't an easy decision to make. James was just about to start in Year 7, and Mrs Doddington was concerned that having mum around could prove stifling. Before accepting the position she asked her sons how they would feel if she taught at the school, highlighting some of her worries.

Thankfully, they had few concerns.

"They said they didn't mind, as long as I wouldn't be teaching them," she recalls. "But I felt more comfortable having discussed it with them first."

According to Anne Page, policy and education manager at the National Family and Parenting Institute, Mrs Doddington was wise to include her sons in the decision-making process. "It's important to remember that every child will react differently to having a parent working at their school," she said. "Talking about it can help prevent problems and misunderstandings."

But for some families, financial and geographical issues mean that choice isn't an issue. In such cases, Ms Page believes it is even more important for parents to talk to their children about the issues involved and set clear boundaries. "You will need to make it clear to children that there are differences in the way they behave towards you at school and in the home," she says. "They will need to remember that at work you are first and foremost a professional person - not their mum or dad."

Confidentiality is a key issue. Since she started teaching at her sons'

school, Mrs Doddington has had to become more conscious about what she leaves lying around the house. "I take a lot of work home, but I have to try not to leave marking, reports or grades where the children can see them, and if colleagues phone me at home, I usually take the call in another room," she says.

Children love to indulge in gossip about school life, which can also prove tricky. "On the one hand, I want to encourage my sons to talk about what's happening at school," says Mrs Doddington. "But I have to draw the line if the conversation is unnecessarily disparaging about colleagues or other students. I'm very firm about that."

But for children, there will be times when the criticism is aimed at their mother or father.

"It's inevitable that from time to time there are going to be students who feel you've treated them unfairly," says Mrs Doddington. "They can take it out on your children, calling you names or criticising you, which can be hard" Dee Gilmour, a food technology teacher and assistant head of sixth form at South Bromsgrove high school in Worcester, agrees. "Both my sons attend my school," she says. "They'll come home and say 'I heard you were in a bad mood today', or 'you really had a go at so-and-so'. That can be annoying as you feel as if you have to justify your actions."

For most children, this can be irritating or upsetting, but doesn't lead to great distress. But parents who teach at their children's school should be vigilant, as in some cases it can lead to bullying.

"If a child is particularly vulnerable, or already subject to bullying, having a parent at the school can make them an easy target," says Ms Page.

"It's not usually the sole cause of bullying, but it can exacerbate existing problems, so it is definitely something to be wary of."

She also point out that teachers' children can be teased about mum or dad's "so-called" favouritism. In reality, teachers are often so conscious of this that their children can lose out on responsibilities and rewards, something Dee Gilmour can identify with.

Her school is organised around a house system, so when she was made head of her sons' house, she was determined not to be accused of favouritism. "I actually overcompensated," she says. "When opportunities arose for rewards or responsibilities, I never put him forward, even when he really deserved it," she says. "In the sixth form he was voted in as house captain, but I almost felt as if I had to apologise for it."

On the plus side, Ms Gilmour believes that teaching at your children's school enables you to keep a closer eye on their academic and emotional development. "I feel I have a much better understanding of what they're doing," she explains. "I'm much more aware of the stressful or busy periods in the school year and I can offer informed help and advice. One of my sons has just gone through the university application process and because of my experience working with the sixth form, I was able to help him with it."

She also values the opportunity to discuss her sons' progress with their teachers regularly.

But, as Mrs Doddington has found, working with your children's teachers does have its drawbacks. "Occasionally, something happens with your child that you think a colleague could have handled differently," she says. "It's very awkward to deal with."

She has found that colleagues can be reluctant to raise concerns or difficulties regarding her sons as they are worried about causing offence or damaging professional relationships. Despite this, Mrs Doddington has no regrets about teaching at her sons' school. "It's a large school, so it works. I get an insight into their school life and they can still be independent. I keep a low profile at school events, especially discos. They haven't died of embarrassment - yet."

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