What to expect as a pregnant school leader

25th January 2019 at 00:00
It’s easy to feel sidelined in leadership when you are expecting a baby, but being honest with colleagues is the best way to get through what may be a challenging nine months, writes Nikki Cunningham-Smith

Having worked in schools since I left university, I thought that I had a good idea of what it means to be pregnant as a teacher. I’ve watched many a colleague negotiate their way through classrooms arranged in formations not conducive to bump manoeuvring or perch on Borrower-sized chairs as they help children with their work.

And yet, despite all this second-hand experience, there was plenty that took me by surprise when, as an assistant headteacher, I became pregnant for the first time.

What did my pregnancy mean for my leadership? And what did I take from those nine months? Of course, the experience is different for everyone. Nevertheless, here is what I learned about being pregnant in school leadership, trimester by trimester.


First trimester

Those 12 weeks were probably the hardest for me. At the time, the thing that caused me the most anxiety was having to tell my headteacher that I’d had “the cheek” (as I saw it) to go and get myself pregnant.

In reality, of course, there was nothing cheeky about it. But I’d always taken pride in how hard I’d worked to get to where I was in my career and, to make matters worse, I had only been in my role for six months when I found out I was expecting a baby.

I quickly came to realise, though, that the timing is probably never going to be “right” for pregnancy. There will always be an Ofsted inspection looming, or an intervention that needs overhauling, or a staff member who needs support – this is the nature of a school. And when I did tell my headteacher, they were so supportive that I really needn’t have worried.

Besides, once I managed to get past this anxiety, it became clear that I had bigger problems: I developed an aversion to every smell, had horrendous all-day nausea and would occasionally need to be sick (but only, it would seem, in the middle of an important meeting).

Colleagues began to feel sorry for me because it was so abundantly clear that I was struggling. I’d start each morning sitting in my office with my head in my hands, repeating my daily mantra of “you can do it, don’t be sick”, on repeat.

In this situation, my advice would be to let your team know what’s going on sooner rather than later, if you feel able to. Some of them will have been through it themselves and all will want to support you.

Being honest with colleagues became even more important as the weeks ticked on. One aspect of senior leadership became an issue for me: attending SLT meetings.

Usually during these meetings, I would contribute, challenge and be constructive but, all of a sudden, I became a clock watcher. Working at all past 4pm began to feel impossible, let alone making some sort of constructive addition to a discussion about using flight paths.

On these occasions, I would send my apologies and make sure to read through the minutes so that I was back in the game for the next meeting. This was much better than “pretending” to pay attention and getting caught out.


Second trimester

If you’re lucky, the start of the second trimester will bring with it the “glow” that was sold to you.

As soon as I began to get my groove back, I decided I was superhuman and set about proving that the past three months had been an anomaly. In hindsight, this was totally unnecessary. Once you start to feel better, by all means, pick up where you left off, but there is no need to prove that you are Wonder Woman.

Remember, you got your leadership role on your own merit, prior to the addition of a second heartbeat to your body. So crack on, but don’t overdo it. Trying to take on too much can send you right back to the first trimester funk.

Plus, you now have another problem to contend with: pupils have eagle eyes and, if you are starting to show in any way, they will start to ask questions, some framed better than others.

It is really up to you how and when you decide to share your news with pupils, something that will depend, in part, on how much your leadership role puts you in direct contact with them.

In my case, I was working directly with pupils daily to manage behaviour, so I found it more useful to be up front. I was pleasantly surprised at how protective they became of me and I do not regret letting them into this area of my private life.


Third trimester

This stage hit me like a lead balloon. I was now being physically affected in a way that made it hard to do my job, considering how much of my role involved visiting pupils in their classrooms.

Again, I had to be honest about what I could and couldn’t do, for the safety of myself, my baby and my staff.

I found that having a robust risk assessment helped make the lines very clear around what could and couldn’t be expected of me.

Personally, I needed these clear guidelines, although they did make me question how I could be seen as a good leader if I was stuck at my desk all the time.

Going from being a very hands-on leader to an “absent presence” meant I had to find other ways of interacting with staff and pupils – arranging set times for them to visit me in my office helped.

However, as I approached my maternity leave, I faced the biggest challenge yet: my replacement started to work alongside me.

Suddenly, I felt that I knew less about what was going on and that I was being phased out. Of course, this was not really the case but it took time for me to realise that.

One thing that helped was sending an email around to my colleagues, asking that they still copy me in to any messages that would usually involve me.

This served as a reminder that no one was trying to cut me out and allowed me to see that there was no point in feeling resentment. I couldn’t expect my replacement to do things exactly as I did, and I needed to give them the space to establish themselves.

Ultimately, there is no need to feel guilty about being pregnant and in leadership. You have done nothing wrong by being ambitious while also being in possession of the anatomy required to start a family (although, if anyone finds a way to get through the process entirely guilt-free, please let me know about it).

Nikki Cunningham-Smith is assistant headteacher and centre lead of a pupil referral unit

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