Parenting and teaching have a lot in common. Both require energy, organisation and a commitment to late nights and early starts. Both are high-reward, but high-maintenance. The question is: given how much it takes to teach and to parent, how on earth can one be good at both concurrently?
I find that being a secondary school English teacher and the mother of a two-year-old is often very challenging. I feel guilty if I miss school to look after my daughter when she is ill or when my childcare falls through at the last minute. And I feel guilty if I miss seeing my daughter when I have to stay late for parents’ evenings or school trips, or just when the marking has overwhelmed me and I am reading The Gruffalo on autopilot while actually thinking (worrying) about the stack of exercise books waiting for me.
The solution, of course, lies with department heads and school leaders, who have the power to assist working parents to manage the never-ending juggling act between teaching and parenting. But what strategies should schools be using to provide support?
Here are four simple things that can make a big difference:
1. Ensure a slow start
It was really important to build up my workload slowly after returning to work from my maternity leave. One of the most helpful things that schools can do is to not expect new parents to be working at full speed – as they were before they were parents – by the end of day one.
Offering “keeping in touch” (KIT) days while a member of staff is still away on parental leave will give them the chance to get organised before diving in at the deep end. And once the member of staff returns, let them build up slowly to taking on any extracurricular activities or duties outside of the classroom.
2. Implement a sharing system
Leaders should ensure that resource development is being shared across departments to lighten the planning load – something that will support all members of staff, not just those who are parents.
3. Give more time
School leaders will also have to accept that things will take a bit longer for returning parents. I now leave school straight away at the end of the day (when possible) so that I can get a few quality hours in with my young daughter before she goes to bed. I eat dinner and only then switch back into teaching mode at around 9pm. I still get everything done, but it is definitely not as fast a turnaround as it used to be.
4. Don’t underestimate ambition
It is equally important that schools don’t undervalue teacher-parents either. Leaders need to remember that just because someone might not be visible in school, that doesn’t mean that they are not working and not wanting to progress.
So don’t shy away from giving them opportunities to develop and to take on new responsibilities once they have had a chance to readjust. This year, for example, I have mentored two PGCE students. Being given this responsibility was a real boost to my confidence, and made me still feel valued, despite the change in my personal circumstances.
When offering teacher-parents opportunities to develop, bear in mind that the school might need to allow some flexibility with hours, to help them meet the challenges of childcare.
My school has been incredibly supportive and non-judgemental when I have been late or needed cover at the very last minute because of factors out of my control. This, again, makes me feel supported and valued and, as a result, even more committed to my job.
Sometimes something as simple as your head of department asking, “What can school do to help you?”, even if the answer is “nothing”, can make all the difference.
Overall, what I have found is that the more flexible school is with me, the more that I give back. I go out of my way to be the best I can because I know that when I am in need of support, the school will give that to me without question or judgement.
Retaining good staff is always going to be the most successful economic model for schools and, in the current climate, this is more important than ever. With just a tiny bit of extra support, schools can help teacher-parents to be brilliant in both of their roles – and hold on to their best teachers in the process.
Katie White is a teacher at Kingsbridge Community College in Devon