Moving On

Heaven preserve me from littleness and pleasantness and smoothness. Give me great glaring vices, and great glaring virtues, but preserve me from the neat little neutral ambiguities. Be wicked, be brave, be drunk, be reckless, be dissolute, be despotic, be a suffragette, be anything you like, but for pity’s sake be it to the top of your bent. Live fully, live passionately, live disastrously. Let’s live, you and I, as none have ever lived before.

(Violet Trefusis, in a letter to Vita Sackville-West, October 25, 1918)

This quote ended my speech to my Year 13 tutor group at their farewell on 23 May. Of course, aged 40, I thoroughly value a bit of littleness and pleasantness, but one of my closest friends had this on her wall at just their age. It strikes a chord for me too. I think that to be so thoroughly passionate about working with teenagers, we have to keep our inner teenager alive. Our quick-to-anger, fiercely passionate, mercilessly loyal side. The one which has Year 9 lamenting your absence at a day’s INSET after months of giving you hell. That one.

In that group of Year 13 students, there were numerous memories. An unforgettable trip to Berlin (with my then 18-month-old in tow), phone calls parents to explain that they Year 10 boy had taken to mooing and baaing in mid-German-lesson for attention. The absolute hilarity of the words ‘fatigué’ and ‘bâtiment’ to the Year 8s of 5 years ago (to my relief, the Head of French saw the funny side), the genuine expression of faith and pride this group of resilient, rounded, fiercely optimistic individuals heading out in the world a great tonic after a week of UKIP…

That Friday was a day of goodbyes. It also marked my last day at my school of eight years. The school which saw the birth of both my children and my move – from metropolitan sophistication, and gradual satisfied conversion to green-belt living. With ‘middle age’ (the inner teenager protests!) came middle management, and a growing ‘maternal’ persona which saw a gradual shedding of an instinct to be liked and a desire to nurture and defend. A year in senior management saw huge new challenges, and with each new challenge, a recognition of how much there is to learn. The black-and-whites of my previous days gradually merged into a greater understanding of the complexity of the ‘rights’ and ‘wrongs’ of school management – student well-being, funding, grades, government targets, changing goalposts, staff moral – all held in a precarious and oh-so-vital balance by school leaders.

The goodbye period maintained a sense of unreality to the end. From the initial, decisive, sometimes-indignant decision to leave to the near-miss of a Free School (what was I thinking?!) to the triumph of securing a (non-acting!) SLT post by being unashamedly ‘me’ throughout interview, to the dawning reality and the racing final weeks. The students’ indignation – at worst, a genuine sense of abandonment – was by far the most bitter pill. The huge number of tasks to be completed, the thank yous and handovers all kept me busy enough to keep at bay the reality of a final ‘goodbye’. But the last day dawned with a real sense of nauseous dread. I knew everyone. I was part of the furniture. At least four students that week had said, ‘but you don’t actually have to go do you, Miss?’ and a little part of me wanted to run back and change my mind.

The day was everything I could have hoped for and more. Now isn’t the time to indulge in the details – that is for the quiet moments, days, months and years down the line. Suffice to say that colleagues did everything they could think of – and more – to make me feel loved and valued. Teaching, of course, is never predictable, and the highlight of that day will remain two utterly unexpected bunches of flowers. The first, a quiet girl in year nine, promptly burst into tears. The second, a boy in Year 12, insisted everyone he found tried to phone to locate me so when I saw the twelve missed calls, I assumed nothing short of major emergency. It’s such a truism, one which comes mainly from people outside the profession, that sometimes we touch people’s lives without realising it. On Friday 23 May, I felt to my core that it had been worth every sleepless night and work-filled weekend. Every last day of it.

Of course, there were those less expansive about my departure. Those who remind me that, yes, ‘you make the weather’, but for goodness sake, it can’t be sunny all of the time. Those who find my ‘enthusiasm’, and my tendency to see the best in people and situations plain irritating. I hear them too. But, to end with two more truisms, you really can’t please all of the people all of the time – and you could die trying – but there are rather more interesting things to spend your life on. And no, it’s not all sunshine and rainbows. But it’s certainly never, ever boring.

Let the next journey begin!

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Balancing Teaching and Parenthood: What Works and What Doesn’t?

 

Teachers who are also parents talk about what they’ve learned

Originally published as a blog for the Teacher Support Network: http://teachersupport.info/blog/11370 

Also cited by The Guardian:

http://www.theguardian.com/teacher-network/teacher-blog/2014/may/09/internet-addiction-young-people-exams-happiness

Currently studying in third year of a Doctorate in Education at Middlesex University. Thesis entitled: ‘Shifting Identities: A Mixed-Methods study of the experiences of teachers who are also parent in the UK.’ Currently member of the leadership team and linguist at a comprehensive in North London. About to move to new challenges as an assistant principal at an academy in Herts. Mother to two girls, aged 4 and 6. Married to an equally busy journalist!

 

If you’re reading this hoping for ‘top tips’ to make life as a parent and teacher easier, I’m afraid you’ll be disappointed. For me, the most refreshing thing about my doctoral research on teacher-parents and work-life balance has been the complete absence of the arrogant, hectoring, do-it-my-way-or-you’re-wrong voices which were all too present in the early days of parenthood. The teachers I spoke to in four focus groups in four different schools are full of contradictions, with themselves, with one another. They hesitate, review and think out loud. They make each other think, they’ve made me think. I hope it will make you think too. Here, I represent a some of the suggestions they made in response to the question, ‘If you could give one piece of advice to a teacher soon to become a parent, what would it be?’

 

Time and self

For parents who are also teachers, one of the biggest upheavals in the transition to parenthood is in our attitude to time. There is a new sense or ruthlessness which comes alongside having our priorities toppled. There are new and complex choices to be made, and new and vital issues demanding our attention. These choices are to be made in the context of severe sleep-deprivation, frequent financial pressures, and a greater need than ever to work as a team with those closest to us. Focus group contributors speak of drawing lines, keeping work in its box, developing an ‘off-switch’. Conversely, the majority speak of increased productivity, improved time-management skills, and increased effectiveness, in some cases highlighting the transition to parenthood as a key driver in an improvement in their teaching.

 

‘Ditch the guilt’

Guilt was a dominant theme in all discussions, as was the truism that childhood ‘passes so fast’. Several participants spoke of wishing they’d spent more quality time with their children when they were younger. But the mother of two boys now at university spoke of the necessity to let go of the guilt and compartmentalise your time:

 

‘If you say, right, now I’m doing time with the kids, it’s time with the kids. You turn everything off. You do not look at the computer, you do not look at the phone, you know, that’s it. But then when it’s time for work, don’t feel guilty! They’ve had their time. It’s time for work. The problem that happens is when you try to do both. When you’re playing with the kids or doing their homework and then your mobile goes and there’s an email – I’ve got to answer that email. No. Separate. And then you’re ok… -ish

 

 

‘Avoid taking work home’

 

For a father and middle manager with two young children, the key is to avoid, as far as possible, taking work home, even if this means staying at school later than he would have previously. This allows him to offer his family much-needed support.

 

I think, the important thing for me now, especially with them as very young children, is having a real, sort of distinguishing line between work and home, and when I’m at home, I’ve got to sort of give A. as much support as possible, because she’s been there all day with two very young children, and she’s right at the end of her tether by the time I walk in, and then by the time I’ve bathed them, helped feed them, and helped get them to bed, reading bed-time stories and what have you, cooked our dinner, then settled down, it’s actually incredibly late…

 

 

‘Take flexible working hours if you can’

                                                        

If your employer offers the opportunity, if it is financially viable, and if it’s what works best for you and your family, most participants advocate taking up part-time hours. These can come in different forms – for some, being able to leave early to pick up their children from work offers priceless family time, whilst for others, it is more effective to take a whole day a week – or more – to be with family. This is important for the mother of a young son, because: ‘They know that their parent is still there for them, and you structure the activities so that you feel like you have the – not just a role in their lives at the weekend, but throughout the week, and I think that it gives them a much better feeling of security, as well as myself – I like the feeling that I’m really shaping his growth, and not leaving it to somebody else’

 

Managing your time – squeezing the work in somewhere!

 

Around half of focus group participants who work part-time are frustrated with the struggle to ignore the demands of work during their unpaid time with family, especially in the light of the financial-hit they are acutely aware of having taken. One participant declared a conscious choice to be ruthless during the year when she had a day off a week for her son: ‘I would not work at all – or check my emails – until the evening, so the whole day was for him.’

 

However, for this mother, like for many other participants, the work has to find a way in somewhere, and frequently gets pushed late into the night. One group was amused by a participant’s sudden realisation that the people exchanging emails at 11.30 at night are all too frequently the parents.

 

Many participants expressed a recognition of the importance of ‘me-time’ for their well-being and ability to function effectively. A notable feature of the life of a teacher and parent is the fact that we are constantly surrounded by noise, and there was an acknowledgement of the value of ‘quiet time’ – a walk, a trip to the gym, the time to read a book – and common recognition of how difficult it is to secure it. For one participant, it’s all a question of choice: out of career, family and a social life, you can choose two and no more. Before becoming a parent, it’s important to prepare for this, ‘and then you’ll be pleasantly surprised!’

 

Practical issues formed a considerable part of the discussion. The importance of quality childcare, forward-planning, with a calendar at home – and one at work to avoid ‘waffly meetings’ were proposed. Financial considerations abound, and the question of the location of work in relation to home can play a huge role in your ability to effectively balance work and family.

 

Finally, some reflections of my own resulting from my research so far. Like so many issues in life and in work, I find it boils down to kindness. Kindness to others, kindness to yourself. I find myself returning to the wise words of other parents in the early and overwhelming days of parenthood: This too will pass. Give yourself a break. Do your best, feel your way, make mistakes, forgive yourself, listen to others, take the bits of advice that work for you, and ditch the rest. I’m in the very privileged position of being a mouthpiece for many wise and interesting teachers who are also parents, and we’re doing our best. Which is – and has to be – good enough.