'When my colleagues get together, work is the last thing we talk about. But teachers are a boring lot at parties';Mind and body

17th September 1999 at 01:00
Can you be married to a teacher without being married to their job? Nicki Household weighs the pros and cons with some loyal spouses.

If ever there was a time when teachers' lives were relatively calm and stress-free, it has long gone. With Ofsted inspections, national tests, attainment targets and league tables all taking their toll, it could be argued that a teacher's job is now as demanding and stressful as that of a high-flying executive.

All this is challenging enough for teachers themselves, but what effect does it have on their partners? And how does it feel to share your life with someone who lives by the school bell and remains firmly in teacher mode, even at home? For some spouses, it is the unreasonable demands made on their partners outside of work hours that causes angst, for others it is the fact that there is a tendency to treat everyone as a pupil.

David Jenkins is a facilities manager for a big telecommunications company. His 33-year-old partner Fran (not their real names) has been an infant teacher in Nottinghamshire for 10 years. He feels that unreasonable demands are made on her time and says the difference between their jobs is that when he gets home he can leave his work behind. "Fran can't mark or prepare work at school, so her home is also her office," he says. "She does two hours every night, and weekends are dominated by everything she's got to do before Monday morning."

He considers it absurd that she has to get in at 7am to copy worksheets on an old-fashioned Gestetner and write reports by hand because the headteacher does not like them to be word-processed. "These petty things create unnecessary stress which inevitably affects the quality of our life," he admits. "But you can't deliver ultimatums. The non-teacher in a partnership just has to be very supportive."

However, there are limits even to his support when the dedication extends to social occasions. "When my colleagues get together, work is the last thing we talk about. But teachers are a boring lot at parties because they either talk about school or get all heated about the politics of education. You just have to shut them up!" The inability to stay off the subject of education seems to be endemic. "Several of our friends are teachers married to teachers, and they do talk endlessly about school and teaching," says Diana Roberts, a social services manager whose husband Martin is head of Cherwell school, a large comprehensive in north Oxford.

Though thankful she's not a teacher herself, she enjoys the fact that their jobs are complementary. "It's helpful to each of us that we both deal with people, although when I was a front-line social worker I was less sympathetic to his problems. Now I'm a manager, I understand that they sometimes have to do nasty things."

Roberts says she couldn't deal with the stress of running a school. "A headteacher is very openly accountable, and there are so many demands on his or her time - at least two evening meetings a week, plus every concert and play. But what I really couldn't cope with is the lack of flexibility. I can decide not to go in until 10 and work late if I want to, whereas he has to be in by 8am every day."

The hardest period was when their own children (now 26 and 28) were at the school. "We had a ground rule that they could say anything they liked about school, and Martin learned to take it with a pinch of salt. But of course he had to be very careful what he said in front of them - and he hated taking assembly when they were there."

As they live in the catchment area, the couple are always bumping into pupils and parents when he's off duty. "After 18 years in the job, Martin is well-known locally and parents will try and bend his ear in the street or the pub. He has developed quite a good technique for not getting involved but we had to go ex-directory some years ago, because they also thought they could ring up any time of the day or night."

And how much of the headmaster is he at home? "Well, he's very used to speaking in public and organising people," she laughs. "It's a bit of a family joke that he marshals everyone at family gatherings."

Christa Laird, who combines being a full-time social services training manager with writing award-winning novels for young adults, thinks that the routine imposed by her husband Nigel's job - he's head of modern languages at Magdalen College school, Oxford - actually helped her on her way to becoming a writer.

"Nigel's life is framed by the school bell," she says. "So we have a very disciplined routine. But doing things at the same time each day has come to suit me. For example, we have an early supper so that Nigel can do two hours work afterwards, and that's when I do my writing. But we both enjoy the greater flexibility of the holidays."

When their two sons, now in their 20s, were small, she used to envy her husband the time he had with them in the holidays. "He'd wave me off in the mornings with a tea-towel over his arm and I felt I was missing out. It has always seemed unfair that he gets longer holidays than me. I try to eke mine out so we can do more things together."

Laird enjoys attending occasional social events at the school, though it's not expected of her. Many years ago, however, she attended an interview with him at a well-known public school, where it was made clear that she would be expected to arrange flowers in the chapel. "I pointed out that I had a career of my own and we always suspected that was why he didn't get the job."

Like Diana Roberts, she has a humorous attitude to her husband's "teacherly" side. "Nigel has no discipline problems," she says. "Like all good teachers, he has the air of someone who expects to be listened to. To an extent, that has influenced family life, but he's fun to live with and I would imagine, fun to be taught by. We both enjoy the fact his former pupils come back and visit us."

As the mother of children aged three-and-a-half and 16 months, Debbie Goodchild thinks the great advantage of being married to a teacher is the help you get in the school holidays. She also appreciates the fact that her husband Ralph, a Year 6 teacher in a Middlesex primary, gets home early enough for her to work as a Tesco's customer adviser in the evenings.

"It's ideal for family life, but until I met Ralph, I didn't realise how much teachers do. The job is mentally and physically tiring and it's taken for granted that he runs the football after school and on Saturdays. But he does enjoy teaching and, even though the increased paperwork has made him ratty, he's actually better at switching off and relaxing than Iam. There's the occasional teacherly reprimand, but telling people off is a way of life for teachers, they can't help it!" Vivienne Lafferty and Phil O'Loughlin say the fact that they are both teachers makes life wonderfully harmonious. They met 15 years ago when she was a supply teacher at his school in Enfield, and they now teach at different primary schools in the borough.

"Teaching dominates your life anyway," says Lafferty, "but at least we have a com-plete understanding of what the other person is enjoying, achieving or finding hard. We've each had Ofsted inspections in the past 12 months - first we got him through his in November, then we got me through mine in January."

Best of all are the synchronised holidays, which enable them to go mountain climbing in Africa and the Himalayas. Phil has been ill recently but as soon as he's better, they're going to Ecuador to climb six volcanoes. "Yes, friends say we talk about teaching too much, but when it comes to choosing schools for their children, we're the people they come to for advice."

It was being married to a teacher that actually persuaded Peter Gemmell, now a special needs supply teacher in the Midlands, to become one himself. At the time, he was an executive with Pirelli and his wife Jean (now deputy general secretary of the Professional Association of Teachers) was head of Fernwood Comprehensive in Nottinghamshire. But when Pirelli said it was posting him to Turkey, Gemmell decided to do a PGCE instead. "I had a pretty clear picture of school life because Jean is a very chatty person. I felt it was a civilised world."

Seventeen years on, he's still sure he made the right decision. "I'm not earning as much, but I am healthier and less stressed. Teachers tend to think the grass is greener on the industrial side of the hill, but it's not because you constantly have to watch your back. Staffrooms are much more agreeable places than boardrooms."

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