In my 11 years as a teacher and subject lead, I have watched countless women work their way up through the ranks, through sheer blood, sweat and tears, dedicating their life to the children of the school, only to be flatly denied any kind of flexibility following the birth of their children.
Our profession is incredibly challenging and taxing. It is ever-changing, and to be successful, it seems we must tick all boxes, at all times. We must deliver five engaging lessons a day. We must mark all of the books from each of these lessons. We must produce immaculate, thorough planning, open to scrutiny at any moment, of any day. We must respond to and appease parents. We must appear as eager, enthusiastic and lively as the shiny NQTs talking pedagogy in a corner of the staffroom. We must avidly respond to the copious emails sent out every single day.
This list is not exhaustive and certainly only reflects what is required of teachers, not the additional duties carried out by those with leadership responsibilities.
A teacher can – just about – keep all of these plates spinning, albeit precariously, but spinning all the same.
But what if this teacher then has a child? A purple, slimy, screaming baby, who flips her life upside down, and leaves her feeling vulnerable, emotional, elated, challenged, loved and so much more.
She nurtures her baby for nine precious yet challenging months, giving him or her every ounce of love and attention she has. After nine months, she realises that she must once again pick up her stick of spinning teacher plates, the ones she just managed to stay aloft BC – before child, and must now balance this with all the demands and ties of motherhood.
I do not know of one colleague in a teaching and leadership role who balances it well with motherhood: not one.
That is why one in four teachers who quit the classroom in recent years were women aged between 30 and 39.
That is why we desperately need to introduce flexible working hours for women returning to work, if they choose to take them.
Lack of support
I am one of these women. I gave my life to the teaching profession, progressed quickly, received acclaim, became an SLE and now manage a team of nine teachers. I love what I do, most days. Like many other teachers, I know that I am good at what I do.
So can someone please explain to me why my school refuses to support me in my wishes to go part-time?
Why should I have to give up my leadership role, and return to being just a teacher if I want to secure part-time hours?
Why should I have to take a huge cut in pay to watch less-experienced colleagues receive promotions for positions that I had excelled in, just because I want to be a great mother and professional?
Why do some schools tell women returning from maternity that they either return to the job they left, or they do not return at all?
Why are so many heads and governors allowed to dictate work terms without being regulated or challenged themselves?
It’s just not affecting teachers. I know of midwives and nurses who have been discriminated against in a similar fashion, being told in no uncertain terms that they would have to demote themselves if they wished to receive part-time hours.
I firmly believe that if we are to make a success of education in the United Kingdom, we must find a way to support women when they return from having children.
We must champion and protect them when they are feeling raw, emotional and fragile, returning to an environment where vomit, nursery rhymes and tears are suddenly not the norm any more. (Well, in some schools anyway.)
The balancing act
It’s the fifth day of my maternity leave, and I will be honest. I do not feel the deep relief of not having to enter the classroom for nine months, nor do I feel excited about the prospect of giving birth to this wriggling mass in my stomach.
In fact, I feel anxious and overwhelmed. My life, once again, is going to be churned up, flipped upside down and whizzed around once again.
Even though I have put my ‘teacher plates’ down for the near future, I will soon have to pick them up again and balance them with the many challenges being a mother of two children will generate.
I know that my request for part-time work will be refused. I know that both of my children will be looked after by strangers for the majority of their early years. I know that I will pick them up from their nursery stressed, anxious and panicked by the night of planning, marking and resource making that will face me each evening. But I also know that I need an income. How will we pay the mortgage, pay all of the bills, run two cars and eat, on one wage, how?
Two years ago, when I left my son in nursery on the morning I returned to work, I was a complete mess. He could not even sit up properly; he was placed in a ring cushion to keep him propped up. I had not spent more than an hour away from him since his birth, and now I was leaving him with complete strangers, paying them half a day’s wages to do a job that I wanted to do more than anything in the world. It was agony.
When I reached the door, tears stinging my face, I turned and saw his lip quiver, his bewildered eyes suddenly realising that I was leaving him. He stretched out his chubby little hands towards me, pleading with me to return and scoop him up.
I walked out of the door and returned to the classroom.
As I drove towards school, I remember having to suppress the urge to vomit. It was as though my insides had been ripped out.
I left him because we needed the money, but in retrospect, I suppose I also left him that day because I knew that I wished to regain some semblance of my previous life. I want my child to grow up knowing that mummy is a professional, who has worked hard to achieve success: a strong role model. But I also desperately want to be that mummy who could, for one or two days during the working week, be there for him.
If only I had returned to open and supportive arms, if only my request to work part-time had been taken seriously, then perhaps I would be feeling differently right now. But I do not.
Laying down the law
We need a law. A law which all head teachers must adhere to that allows teachers, men or women, to work flexibly if they choose to. If senior leadership teams within schools assessed the timetable rigorously, with the rigour we are meant to display, daily, then any staffing or timetable issues could easily be addressed and amended to suit the needs of all. The added options to job-share and of staggered start and finish times could strengthen this law even further.
Let us not forget, happy parents are happier in their work. Happier teachers nurture happier students. It is the students and schools who will ultimately benefit.
It is a myth that you cannot be an effective teacher or leader if you work part-time. It is possible, and I for one want to prove it.
The writer is a teacher and subject lead from Staffordshire