Teaching and parenting: are they compatible?

Keziah Featherstone, co-founder and national leader for #WomenEd, discusses the difficulties of combining teaching and parenting in the current climate of ever increasing pressures on the profession. 

A painful irony is that a profession completely dedicated to children and their development can often be totally at odds with family life. When based solely in the classroom I was a workaholic and a pedagogy geek; most of my free time was taken up with designing engaging and effective lessons – and I was good at it.

Perhaps I was lucky that I did not become a mum until I was a senior leader, and in a school that knew me well. This was ten years ago and they supported me through being a new mum and especially with my post-partum depression. With a child to raise I simply could not work on classroom practice the way I had done. As an Assistant Headteacher my workload was just as heavy, but different and I found it more flexible. Indeed, the most flexible it has ever been was when I was a headteacher and my daughter attended my own school – perhaps that is a solution of sorts; but not for everyone!

Indeed I think it is getting worse. Teachers, and all those in education, have always worked really hard. Its not the sort of job you can do unless it is important to you.

So I don’t necessarily think it is about workload, because we have always had that particular issue.

Rather, the accountability has increased and with that an unbearable pressure on schools to claw their way to the top of the league tables in a way there’s never been before. That this is happening at a time of unprecedented curriculum and assessment change combines to create a pressure cooker of unrealistic expectations and demands.

The pressure on headteachers to be the best in terms of SATs or GCSEs or A Levels cannot be underestimated. When your job is on the line (and it is) people will behave in ways that are not always ethical. Eventually everyone in a school can share in that same defcon level of stress, having to do a million new things with no space to make mistakes. That journey is frequently and increasingly unsociable, unkind, stressful and definitely family unfriendly.

Now work intensity is more of an issue, many schools perceive anything other than full-time dedication as inconvenience or evidence that your commitment is not total. And, even the potential that one day in the future you might choose to have children, can be seen as something to steer clear of.

More than one potential headteacher has been asked at interview about her family plans or – shocking – contraceptive arrangements. Despite being illegal, its still being asked and it is influencing recruitment. Weekly, WomenEd is contacted by middle and senior leaders being told they cannot retain their TLR or leadership post if they want to go part-time.

When Alice joined a large multi-academy trust as assistant headteacher, she was assured that they were a family friendly employer. “I’d just had my twins. At my interview they looked excited at the prospect of my joining them. But in reality I was being called into school for 7:00am meetings, kept until 9:00pm and also asked to work at the weekend. This happened every week. On top of this I had lessons to plan and mark and all my frees at school were taken up with meetings and duties.” Alice’s partner stayed at home to look after the twins; but the pressure was too much and Alice resigned after less than a term.

Conversely, after having her son, Debbie was worried about asking to go part-time in her role of deputy headteacher. “I was warned that I’d be asking for trouble even if I just raised it. I was also warned that the other deputy would hate me asking as she had asked ten years ago for part-time and it had been refused by the previous head. I was delighted when the new head said yes. I probably would have left if he’d said no.”

The largest demographic leaving the classroom for good is women in their thirties; this may be because of families or it could be for other reasons. Certainly it has to be a factor and there needs to be wholescale policy change to incentivise flexible working practices. There has to be a cultural shift within schools to be actively family-friendly in deeds and not just words.

All of this is achievable – but perhaps not in your own school at the moment. So don’t stay. One benefit of the recruitment and retention crisis is that more and more schools are struggling to appoint staff of your calibre – make them fight for you, don’t be taken for granted and negotiate the job you want.

Keziah is co-founder and national leader for #WomenEd. She is a member of the Headteachers Roundtable and an experienced school leader. She tweets at @keziah70

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