We need to talk about teachers who are also carers

We should offer the same support and flexibility to teachers caring for elderly relatives as we do to those who are new parents, says Emma Turner

Holding hands: a young hand and an elderly hand

In every staffroom in every school, there will be a member of staff who is doing two full-time jobs

These second jobs are often not spoken about or recognised – or even alluded to. They are sometimes carried out in secret, but more often in plain sight of the wider staff and school leaders

These second jobs often leave our colleagues exhausted, stressed, lost, isolated and overwhelmed. But rarely is the weight of this second job acknowledged. 

These double shifters are those who are not only caring for the welfare and education of the students in their classes, but are caring for others at home. 

The precarious weight of worry

In recent years, it has been truly wonderful to see so much developing support, understanding and long-overdue flexibility when it comes to caring for new arrivals in a family. But there is still so much work to be done in supporting colleagues who are caring for those family members at the other end of the age spectrum. 

Many colleagues are carrying the precarious weight of worry whenever the phone rings: is it another fall, another confused conversation, or another care assistant informing them of a refusal to cooperate with eating or bathing? 

Alongside this, they are frequently struggling to cut the miles of red tape and navigate the unfamiliar hoops through which they must jump to access the right support, care or accommodation for their family member. 

Tear-fuelled decisions about what to do for the best, in terms of where or how to care for an elderly relative, are often compounded by disagreements within the family.

And so diplomacy and tact and exhaustion fill weekends and evenings, after a long day or a longer week in the classroom. 

Violence and unpredictability

The weight of responsibility is ever-present: these colleagues care for students during the week, but then at home, they must make heartbreaking decisions, or spend hours travelling to and from a relative’s house to cook, clean, shop, feed and care again. 

Unlike the joy-filled arrival of a new baby, there are no exciting developmental milestones: no first smile, first roll or first steps to look forward to.

When you return to a baby or a toddler, there is often a beaming smile, and outstretched squidgy hands, reaching for cuddles. 

When you care for older people, the hands that grip you can be delighted and joyful, but they can also be frail or trembling. And, occasionally, they can be violent and unpredictable. 

Having worked as a care assistant for a number of years prior to teaching, I have direct experience of caring for elderly people with a wide range of needs.

Many times, I would have a patient who would veer from bereft sobbing to complete lucidity to violence in a matter of minutes. At least I was trained and supported in their care by a team of other staff. 

The swinging pendulum of grief

Caring for an elderly relative is not an anticipatory ascent, but an often gruelling and harrowing decline. The swinging pendulum of grief and guilt pulls at frayed nerves with relentless, wrenching monotony. 

These staff members are often not at the forefront of wellbeing initiatives or conversations about work-life balance. Often, they are the experienced colleagues who are also meant to be mentoring other team members, or who have additional responsibilities or leadership roles. 

Caring for an elderly relative often coincides with key moments in carers' own children’s lives. For female staff, these additional responsibilities might also collide with the onset of perimenopause or menopause. 

The timing of these life milestones may have a cumulative additional weighing effect.

It is a potentially desperate cocktail of out-of-work pulls on time, energy, physical and emotional reserves. But often these additional pressures are not discussed or changes made to allow new or existing carers to adjust. 

Physically and emotionally draining

Caring for the elderly was a true joy, a privilege and a passion of mine. But it was also physically and emotionally draining – and this was when I was caring for people to whom I was not directly related.

Adding in the grief and pain of seeing someone you love lose their independence and become reliant on you has the potential to test even the most altruistic or stoic among us. 

My care of my patients was also informed by specialist training, and was not in addition to another full-time job. I was not expected to perform intimate care or to encourage a reluctant patient to eat, at the end of a long day of teaching. 

Some of these colleagues live a great distance from their loved ones.

Weekends and holidays – which for others may be a chance to recharge and enjoy a change of pace – see them travelling miles up and down motorways to spend time with their loved ones and support other family members who are caring during the working week. 

A lamp in the darkness

As leaders of schools, we need to be vigilant about the needs of those who have caring commitments. We should not underestimate the additional pull on these colleagues’ physical and emotional reserves. 

Many are grieving, as well as caring and teaching. A friend of mine, who is an experienced and dedicated secondary teacher, recently revealed to me that, when her parents died – after she had been heavily involved in their care for many years – her senior team at school didn’t even acknowledge it. 

She has generously taken the stance that this may well have been because they didn’t know what to say. But this, in itself, is indicative of the work needing to be done. 

We need to recognise that, just because these carers have a seemingly endless well of goodwill and are doing additional hours without adjustment or recognition, it does not mean that this goodwill is good practice. 

We should ideally extend the same care, support and flexibility to carers as we do to those who are navigating the challenging dual worlds of parenting and work. 

We need to recognise that making teaching more family-friendly and life-friendly means that it should encompass all stages of a family’s life.

Work-life balance is just as important for those who are caring for relatives in the latter parts of their lives as it is to those embarking on parenthood. 

Navigating care for a relative can be a daunting and emotionally exhausting stage of life. We, as leaders, should therefore be on the lookout for those staff members who might need us to be there with a lamp in the darkness.

Emma Turner is the research and CPD lead for Discovery Schools Trust, Leicestershire. She tweets @Emma_Turner75 

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