Sue O’Brien’s article "Teacher or parent: don’t make us choose" has stayed with me since I read it last week.
It’s important that I start by making it absolutely clear that I both sympathise and empathise with the writer of this piece. I have experienced the darkest of months in which my job sapped both my physical and emotional energy and left me an irritable husk during my rare periods of time off.
However, I feel very strongly that we need to shout from the rooftops that it is perfectly possible to be both a "good enough" parent and a "good enough" teacher. You need the right conditions, and you must say goodbye to perfectionism.
This is a subject about which I know a lot: I started my doctoral thesis on balancing teaching and parenthood in 2012, when my youngest daughter was two-years-old, and graduated last year. She’s now 8, and my other daughter is 10. Last Thursday, they came into school with me as their own school had an Inset (the following day, they went to work with my husband). This is permitted on exceptional occasions at my school.
Thanks to such occasions, my children know my classroom and my team. They know many of my students by name now and ask after them frequently. This has been a pretty regular feature of their childhood. I was on maternity leave during the ash cloud incident in 2010 that left many teachers stranded in various corners of the globe, and went in to help out, teaching with my six-month-old baby strapped to my front in a sling. The head memorably changed my daughter’s nappy while I taught a lesson and my eldest has accompanied me on school trips to Paris and Berlin. The only school they knew little of, which stole Mummy for days at a time (I frequently didn’t see them awake for whole chunks of the week), is the one of the darker periods of my career.
I concluded my doctoral research with the words: "I’m a better parent for being a teacher and a better teacher for being a parent." Is this to suggest that non-parents aren’t also great teachers? Of course not. Just that being a mother, to me, has provided a richness to how I perceive my profession. "I sometimes imagine that the parents of my students are lined up against the wall,’ said one respondent in my research. "If it’s not good enough for my child, it’s not good enough at all," said another.
'Of course, it's not easy'
It makes me so angry to hear about schools that lead parents to believe in the impossibility of balancing the two roles. If I’d read last week’s piece 20 years ago with a plan to have children, I probably wouldn’t have bothered training to teach. My message here is that it is possible and that parents who are teachers must not imagine it is not.
Is it easy? Of course, it’s not. My house frequently resembles a post-nuclear disaster zone and I’m notorious with my daughters’ school office for forgetting deadlines. I have the best network of friends and family to help make my job possible and I count my blessings for this, in the knowledge that others are not so lucky.
I’d also like to point out that the notion of "choice" is simply not an option for many teachers. Both mothers and fathers in teaching frequently bring in around half of the household salary (I’m in this category) or, indeed, are the main breadwinners. I think it’s really important to emphasise that "making us choose" is simply not an option for many families on a financial level.
Which makes it all the more important for schools to get it right. Does this mean saying yes to every assembly and sports day? Not necessarily, but a clear agreement around unpaid leave (let’s be realistic in the current financial climate) that is permitted over the course of an academic year will be valued. Consideration given to part-time hours is also likely to help schools to retain their best as they become parents.
Finally, there are hundreds of trained teachers out there who have walked away because of the message that teaching and parenthood are incompatible. I’m here to tell you it is possible to be a brilliant parent alongside being a brilliant teacher.
Emma Kell is a secondary teacher in north-east London and author of How to Survive in Teaching