Working to the end of term

26th October 2007 at 01:00
Just how does pregnancy combine with the active and exhausting job of teaching? Madeleine Brettingham finds out.Nicola Bate can't teach trampolining or volleyball anymore. She's six months pregnant and is prone to sudden bouts of nausea halfway through lessons. "You have to say, 'have a drink of water, I'll be back in five'," laughs the 26-year-old PE teacher at Longley Park Sixth Form College in Sheffield.

"But the pupils have been very nice about it. They're full of questions. They want to know if it's a boy or a girl, and whether they can feel it kick."

Teaching PE with a baby bump isn't easy. But Nicola is one of a growing number of female teachers who are teaching almost until their waters break. A combination of financial pressure, a desire to return to work after the birth, and a passion for their job, mean many women are reluctant to take more time off than they need. But how does pregnancy combine with the active and exhausting job of teaching?

Like a lot of women in her position, Nicola was anxious about breaking the news to her boss. "There was one teacher who said, 'Oh God, I've got to arrange cover', before he said congratulations," she recalls. "But that's just how he is so I didn't take it personally."

A risk assessment concluded she should not teach volleyball or trampolining, and she has to ask pupils to demonstrate moves instead of her. "But in a way it's made me more creative," she says. "And if I feel sick, I know one of the staff will come and cover for me."

There are no figures to show how many teachers work while pregnant, but during the last school year there were 1,083 secondary maternity cover posts advertised in England and Wales, out of a total of more than 200,000 full-time equivalent secondary teachers.

Being in the classroom poses its own risks and challenges. Rebecca, a 26-year-old chemistry teacher from Lancashire, who asked for her surname to be withheld, can't stand the smell of chemicals now that she's four months pregnant.

"The room can stink after a practical and you never know if the chemicals might be harmful to an unborn baby. I had to call off an experiment with borax at the last minute because I found out the night before it wasn't good for the foetus." She also finds presiding over a gigantic chemistry laboratory tiring. "I'm on my feet all day, and get anxious about being knocked over in crowded corridors. It's difficult and I admit sometimes I wish I could give it up tomorrow."

She says colleagues realised she was pregnant when they noticed she was "being more grumpy than usual", but are very supportive, although she still feels guilty about taking time off. "I've already taken a lot of time off for antenatal appointments, which I feel quite bad about. And two members of my department are already off on maternity leave, so our Year 11s and sixth formers will have supply teachers, and I do feel awful about that," she says.

But pregnancy can be an asset in the classroom, as Abi Doughty, 32, a lead teacher of maths at Skerton Community High School in Lancaster, has discovered.

Pupils taking health and social care are using her baby bump as a case study. "They're going to come and inspect me every few weeks and check my scan photos," she says.

Staff have been marvellous. "Everyone was dropping in at my office to say congratulations, and within five minutes I was even offered a cot."

But the pregnancy has made her exhausted. "The nausea kicks in during the last lesson of the day and I find myself giving them activities so I can just lounge around.

"I plan to do work when I get home but I invariably don't. I come in at eight and realise there are two lessons I still haven't planned yet. Everything's last minute," she says. "It's weird teaching with the hormones raging. If a class does something horrible but fairly normal for kids, I'll go into my office after the lesson and burst into tears."

Despite this, Abi is working until a month before the birth and will probably be applying for jobs in the eighth month of pregnancy. "Our school is a small one and the council is considering closing it down. The head has advised everyone to look for jobs so I will probably be flicking through the jobs pages and going to interviews just before the birth."

Like many female teachers, Abi is the highest-earning member of her family, and plans to return to work after nine months' maternity leave, while her husband stays at home with the child. Working while pregnant is a financial necessity for some. But it can put an extra strain on the pregnancy.

One teacher who spoke to The TES Magazine, and asked not to be named, says: "I have worked through both my pregnancies and suffered high blood pressure throughout, which I think was partly due to work.

"The school I work for sent me what I considered was a lot of work while I was off on maternity leave. I am in a management role, but I was recovering from quite a serious birth. I thought this experience was not acceptable, and have discovered a colleague who is currently on maternity leave is experiencing the same.

"On a positive note, some of the rougher kids were very protective over me and would threaten to 'sort out' anyone who upset me. I obviously had to stop that, but did so with an inner smile."

While employers are allowed to make "reasonable contact" with teachers while on maternity leave, for example to discuss returning to work, any further contact should be fully discussed with their employee.

But there are schools that don't make appropriate alterations to teachers' workloads. Caroline, a 25-year-old private school teacher based in Lancashire, who asked for her real name to be withheld, started bleeding during pregnancy after her school failed to reduce a workload that involved her working, on some occasions, 15-hour days without a break.

"The head promised to examine my workload but nothing has been done," she says. "They gave me a health and safety assessment but none of it has been implemented. I feel like the school just does not care about me."

After the bleeding incident, during which Caroline feared she had lost the baby, her doctor concluded stress had been a contributing factor and signed her off extra duties for a limited period of time.

She also has to cope with maternity pay which, at her school, is lower than in the state sector. "My department has been brilliant but I can't say the same for senior management. Despite the risk assessment, I still have to climb on my desk to activate some of the light switches in my room," she says.

Employers are legally obliged to carry out and implement a risk assessment when they have been informed in writing of a pregnancy, but Caroline was one of a minority of pregnant teachers The TES Magazine spoke to who did not believe her school had taken the required steps.

Thankfully many were receiving great support from their colleagues, and for Donna Thomas, a 32-year-old Year 6 teacher at North Mundham Primary School in Chichester, West Sussex, breaking it to the pupils was the hardest part of all.

"It's been a bit of a rollercoaster because I've only just started this job. But I'll probably be teaching right up until the waters break," she says.

"The news went out in the school letter this morning. I had a few children in tears because I was leaving, I have to say."

Feeling swell

Barbara Kott, an antenatal teacher for the National Childbirth Trust, says women should be realistic about how much work they can take on.

"There is a tendency for us to work later and later during pregnancy," she says. "But nausea can be intense during the early stages and exhaustion takes over later on.

"Fluid retention can also become an issue in the later stages, where fingers and ankles swell up, and the only cure for this is rest."

She advises teachers to sit down regularly during lessons, make sure their vaccinations are up-to-date before pregnancy if the baby is planned, and to bring in anti-nausea remedies such as dry toast, or indigestion tablets for sickness.

If they have any unusual symptoms, such as bleeding, they should consult their doctor and consider a change to their workload.

"With small adjustments you should be able to carry on as normal," she says.

First steps

Telling your school

You must inform them of your pregnancy and give notice of your intention to take maternity leave and pay by the 15th week before the baby is due, but telling them earlier means you can claim other benefits.

Antenatal visits

You have the right to paid time off for antenatal appointments, but your employer may ask for proof.

Health and safety

As soon as your employer has been informed in writing of your pregnancy, they have a duty to carry out and implement a health and safety assessment. Tasks that include heavy lifting, exposure to chemicals or to potentially violent situations are best avoided, according to the Health and Safety Executive.

Maternity leave

You are entitled to 52 weeks' maternity leave, including 39 weeks of statutory maternity pay if you have been in your job for more than 26 weeks. This will usually start at full pay or 90 per cent of full pay, decreasing to pound;112.75 per week in the final weeks.

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