Why has the perfect ‘work/ life balance’ become an undisputed, expected norm? A first blog by @martindalejenny

Let’s get it straight from the offset- for me, there is no such thing as balance. When your everyday life is chaotic and illogical, and unpredictability is the only thing you can predict, you don’t really find yourself measuring balance. Don’t worry this isn’t a sob story, a tale of woe by a long suffering full time working parent rather it’s just my honest account of day to day living.

Where did this concept of having the perfect work/life balance come from? In my opinion, it’s just another stick to bash us all with: like making time for yourself and remembering you’re not just a parent, but a person, too. Give me a break- I’m still trying to work out how to work smarter, not harder (Say what?!).

From my experience you find what works for you- on that month/ day/ hour/ minute/ second…The greatest challenge, for me, is fighting my love of routine. I have learnt to be flexible; it’s okay not to be the master of every moment. So, I forgot to photocopy that mega important worksheet and I had sticky jam hand prints on my shoulder on the day of a formal observation; the world didn’t end.

Close to a year ago now, I stood watching my youngest sleep in his cot with tears rolling down my face, feeling the anguish many parents feel at being separated from their little ones. But what I didn’t know then was that “Every adversity, every failure, every heartache carries with it the seed of an equal or greater benefit.” (Napolen Hill).

I had vowed to go back to work with a positive, can- do attitude. The decision made in our household had been made on sound financial sense. Just because my heart felt another way didn’t mean I didn’t have any other choices.

I had the choice to face an incredibly hard decision with a brave face and an optimistic vision.

In all honesty, at the beginning, I created a persona for myself. A role I put on in the morning of a working mum that her children would be proud of and hopefully inspire to have their own career goals in the future. What did this look like? Someone who said yes to opportunities more often than not and looked at problems as challenges. It’s true to say I was feeling like a million grains of sand had slipped through my fingers during the time that I was off. A race had started in my absence. Could I ever catch up?

As the weeks went by, something strange happened. I didn’t have to remember to put on the persona: more and more, it became me. I was delighted; the old passion and love for the job was back yet was matched with maturity, stamina and endurance (only sleep- deprived parents can have).

Whilst doing some academic research I came across an educationalist who had written about the concept of “self-actualisation’ where your motivation and determination come from within and are not influenced by external forces. It was a light bulb moment: a moment of clarity. I wanted to make all that I could of every part of my life- I had felt that for a long time that my family and teaching lives were intrinsically linked. If I separated the two, giving each a definite allocated time, I feared that I would lose from both areas.

At no point this academic year did I strive for balance. Occasionally, I’d joke about wanting another three hours in the day but I lived in the moment. I didn’t count the hours I hadn’t had with the children; my diet coke addiction is a running joke at school (to combat the sleep deprivation). I did things because I wanted to do them- reading a National Literacy Trust Survey on a Saturday evening because I was too interested not to put it down.

Parenthood is another pressure but I’d have it no other way. There is no other way. As every parent knows, having children teaches you the value of time. I am not going to worry or give myself a guilt trip because I didn’t get the balance right one way or the other. Instead I keep the biggest goal, the greatest achievement I could ever reach in my mind to be the best person I can be for my children.

Jenny Martindale, July 2015

Academic Research and ‘Giving Voice’ – An Inherent Contradiction?

@jillberry raised a really interesting point the other day. Academic is on one level so ‘right on’ in its pursuit of giving voice to the voiceless and its treatment of interviewees not as ‘subjects’ but as ‘participants’. And yet, for those of use who choose to join academia, it is, quite literally, necessary to learn another language in order to ‘belong’.

I’ve always hated ‘cliques’. I remember being aware of them from around my daughter’s age, and it saddens me to see her equally sensitive to any perception of being ‘left out’ at the age of eight. I hated them through school. I hated them at university; the green wellies and the loud chanting a declaration that you are not ‘one of them’ and I’m uncomfortable with them to this day, from the pilates group in the playground to the whisperings in the staffroom. When I teach teenagers, I ensure the quieter, more isolated ones feel just as special – because they are.

So, when I first started my research, it was something of a shock when my carefully honed topic (Level 8 criteria, Emma. Don’t try to change the world today, Emma. Your focus must be manageable enough for in-depth analysis, Emma) seemed to actually cause slight offence to some. ‘The influence of parenthood on teacher identity’. I was quite proud to hit on this topic, somewhere around Junction 17 of the M25 after a long, rainy November seminar. ‘Something you live, breathe and eat for breakfast’, advised my first supervisor. This was it – this could only be it.

‘What about teachers with dogs?’ responded my less-than-impressed line manager, who clearly saw my new new pet-project as flighty and a potential distraction. ‘What about carers?’, asked another friend, visibly upset that her own daily challenges weren’t being explored. (‘One day, if you’re lucky, you’ll be one of us’, said the course director, somewhat patronisingly.) Another child-free colleague probed a bit further. So, flexible working hours for parents? Time off when your child is ill or in a play. What about the rest of us? When do we get time off?

I still hate cliques. I’m not comfortable with perceptions of exclusivity that inevitably attach themselves to my research. I want to be clear that I’m writing about my own limited, flawed experience, and one which has parallels with many others. However, that doesn’t mean I don’t value and respect alternative perspectives, and wouldn’t write about it if I could. I am also highlighting these areas and more as possible research opportunities – anyone up for it?!

I just hope that any focus on work-life balance will benefit as many of ‘us’ as possible. Otherwise there’s no real point. And yes, I’m acutely aware of the contradictions and tensions this project brings, and will be writing a chapter to this effect, when I eventually stop distracting myself with blogs…

Crunching into Cruise Control

We’re finally here! The end of term that seemed a million miles away, that has been tick-ticking down, the time when we can relax and spend time with loved ones and rediscover lie-ins and luxury…

It’s taken me 20 years of teaching to properly identify that the transition from full-on term-time mania to holiday-mode is actually quite tough, and can take as long as two weeks. Actually, I’m kind of grateful I’ve got a week of summer school ahead to make it all a bit less abrupt.

I’ve never been great at swathes of ’empty’ time. For someone naturally not particularly organised, I must admit to a certain comfort in the tetris-style organisational complexities of the week; in having every moment of my time (and more) accounted for; to being actively ‘useful’. Periods of illness have driven me to distraction. I really struggled with the unstructured elements of my first maternity leave.

So these days are usually a bit of a flashpoint for family tension. It’s a different sort of tired… the type which has built up over weeks and months. And it’s not just me; it’s the kids too. They’re still in term-time pace, so require constant entertainment, are quick to bicker, and seem to have lost all independence (and courtesy). Mummy, can you open this? Mummy, get me a drink? Or, this morning, ‘Mummy, I need Daddy’s hair gel so I can push my hair back and make it stick to my neck!’

The house is in post-nuclear disaster state, and all the domestic duties that I’ve put off until the holiday, the broken chairs and overflowing wardrobes, the stuffed ‘random sock bag’, and piles and piles and piles of Stuff, are leering at me and making me feel quite inadequate. Not to mention all the friends I’ve neglected over recent months who I want to contact and arrange to see.

If there were ever a time for a bit of patience, and kindness – to ourselves and those around us – this is it.The housework can wait for a bit. I’m turning down yet another invitation for a night out, as there have been many this week, and, whilst they’ve been delightful, I have to admit to being a little goodbyed-out.

So, it will be a lovely holiday. One of the best earned in a long time, and with the kids at a truly delightful age, and with family time and time with excellent friends to indulge in. I will accustom myself to not having to feel that I’m ‘achieving’ something with every single action. The kids will be content with one piece of entertainment in a day, and will be happy to mooch and bug-hunt and play with the hose. There will be plenty of lying on sofas covered in small people. I just need a bit of healing time first.


An open letter to the two men who stole my car wheel


I must be frank. It was already about the most challenging week I’ve had in a long time. The last week in my job (and 1200 teenagers and 120 adults to say goodbye to), my journalist-husband is in Nepal doing a follow-up to the earthquake. Three late nights, a school play, an awards evening, a leaving do, and two children at home. I even joked on Monday that I felt I could JUST about get by, as long as nothing went wrong.

So waking up to this was less than impressive:


You know when you can’t quite place the reality of what you’re seeing? The kids were wrangling hairbrushes as we walked to the car. The tones of Peppa Pig were still coming out of my phone. Ever the naive optimist, I assumed (having been aware my parking hadn’t been great!) that something had gone wrong, and you’d had fixed it for me. Why ELSE would there be bricks under my car? It took a while to realise that, despite the clear evidence of children’s car seats, you’d STOLEN MY BLOODY WHEEL!

So, it’s 7.00 a.m, I have two kids who need to get to the childminder, a meeting, a briefing, thirteen speaking exams, two lessons, and a list a mile long to get through, and NO HUSBAND, and you’ve STOLEN MY WHEEL! AND sheared my bolts! [As it transpired, you did this just over an hour beforehand, in full daylight.]

I could go on for several thousand words with details of my pretty-tedious and frankly headache-inducing day. But in summary, I made it to work, the spare wheel made it on, I made it to the KS2 musical, and I’m sitting at my computer with a glass of wine, some fresh food, and a daughter who is now an aspiring sleuth (Mummy, me and Lucy will FIND the robbers SOMEHOW!).

A crappy day, frankly.  I’m at least £200 down, and have no confidence in it not happening again.

I also have fresh food (yes, worth mentioning twice), a new bond with my neighbours, my own forensic team (impeded only by rain), an offer of victim support, and the prospect of a good night’s sleep.

To be honest, despite the hassle, I would like to imagine you needed the wheel more than I did. Certainly more than the one on the posh 4×4 just next to it (!). And actually, the chance to laugh about it was a bit of a relief, and my students saw me in a different light. And actually, my car needed a full service anyway, so you’ve facilitated a positive relationship with the local garage. Also, I’ve come to appreciate family and friends more than I might have done before.

I gather I should also be mildly grateful that you left the bricks to prop the car up. Hmm. Thanks. And you didn’t take anything else. You even left a bottle of wine on the car seat.

Lucky, though, that it wasn’t the car of another parent from school whose son is undergoing his second bone-marrow transport, who travels to Great Ormond St every day. Lucky it wasn’t the car of my friend who had to drive to hospital after her son decided to ‘post’ his money-box coins down his throat. Or, indeed, the car of my Dad who took my Mum to hospital after she broke her arm. Or that of the carer I know whom someone is relying on for their first meal of the day. Or the Dad who gets to see his kids once a fortnight. Or the friend hoping to see her Dad once more before he died.

To the two men who stole my wheel: I suppose all three of us can consider ourselves quite lucky.

Look after my wheel, won’t you?


Reasons to say goodbye

This is not a provocative blog. I don’t have the energy or thinking-space for this. But it is a point of interest, in the light of the various #womensed blogs and chats I’ve followed of late, and in the light of the soul-searching I’ve barely started upon.

I’m saying goodbye to a cohort of colleagues and students this week. This is extremely hard. Much harder than I might have anticipated, and I’ve had to steel myself on numerous occasions. Colleagues who’ve inspired me, made me proud and supported me are very hard to say goodbye to.

And, whilst an early lesson was that, really, no one is indispensable – it’s the best job in the world, but it is, in the end, a job – saying goodbye to students has tested me close to my limits. These are young people whom I’ve seen truly grow, in every sense. I’ve been with them on the journey through rage, strops, resignation, defiance and triumph. I’ve been pelted by paper snowballs (someone on Twitter was responsible for that lesson idea – I wish I could remember who!), stood on chairs and yelled ‘les feculents’ in a creative attempt to help them remember the French word for ‘starches’ (if only it had come up in the exam), mopped up tears, dismissed tantrums, encouraged, cajoled, and briskly forced students beyond their self-imposed boundaries…

‘Why?’ is the question I hear the most. Why am I leaving? These are questions I will only answer with those closest to me, so I go for answers which, whilst not being untrue, are easy to understand.

The simplest of all, and the one which both colleagues and students are quickest to understand: to spend more time with my family.

The second: to return to my studies.

[By way of context, it is to go to a mixture of doctoral study, freelance work and part-time middle leadership.]

But it is with the first that I receive the most eager and understanding nods of the head. Of course. The pressures of a mother and a senior leader. Time goes so fast. Your children must come first. Your husband is so busy. Life is short. Yes, of course, we understand.

And in many ways, life really does come down to this. But in many others, I’m wondering whether, as a woman, a passionate teacher and – yes – a passionate and ambitious leader – it can only come to this.

In the words which drive my husband mad, only time will tell.

Let us never forget…

‘Let us never forget what a precious resource we have in our care.’

These were the lines of my second Headteacher, at the time a rather stern and distant-seeming character, but in retrospect, kind and wise. These were typically sparse and carefully chosen words. He actually used them the day after the Beslan massacre, but the years of Beslan, 9/11 and 7/7, through all of which I taught in London, have somehow conflated in my head.

The bus bomb went off less that three miles from my school in Camden. At first, there were mutterings about a power surge, as we will all remember.


Then the calls from my journalist  husband began. ‘Don’t let anyone leave the school,’ he advised. ‘It isn’t safe.’ The Head listened carefully to the stream of advice and the gradual piecing together of a picture that would take days and weeks to fully stop feeling like a warped, black fantasy story.

The bus bomb went off less that three miles from my school in Camden.

77 bus

Many of our students had parents working in the vicinity of the attack. The students crowded around us, asking us questions. We were – in each of these horrors – encouraged to be honest and open and calm with them, and we stepped up. But we couldn’t offer false assurances. It was D’s 14th birthday, and he still hadn’t heard from his mother, working in the heart of London.

In a lighter moment, you’ll remember that this was the day after we won the Olympic bid over Paris. ‘Was it the French who did it?’ asked EM…

Students were gradually collected by parents and older siblings, but it became apparent that it would be a long wait for everyone to be accounted for. Those with children were encouraged to get home to them. The rest of us were asked if we felt we could stay, and the answer was instinctive and obvious. I’m probably romanticising somewhat with hindsight, but it seems that at that moment, of knowing absolutely that we were prepared to stay until the last child was accounted for, that a sense of something far bigger become apparent. Something that has stayed with me since.

As public servants, above teaching and ensuring learning and progress in the classroom, we have a bigger responsibility; we’re in loco parentis. It is our job to keep safe, to listen, to be a calm, purposeful presence. To offer the reassurance we can and provide the haven we must.

We were the lucky ones. The children, although they lost acquaintances and family friends, all returned home safely – or as safely as ever – to parents and siblings. But we felt deeply the shaking of the city we saw as home.

This job is bigger than we are. It is a huge responsibility and a deep privilege. Let us never forget this.

Finally, a clip in praise of the city I love. Today, I came across this again. I kind of miss Red Ken.



Ken Livingstone’s speech on 7/7

‘… Nothing you do, however many of us you kill, will stop that flight to our city where freedom is strong and where people can live in harmony with one another. Whatever you do, however many you kill, you will fail’