I made a decision #notleavingteaching

I have been absolutely overwhelmed by the response to my article in yesterday’s GuardianTeach. Mainly by the support, but there’s something nagging.

See, I’m worried. I think that’s clear from the article. I’m also so saddened and frustrated to see so many talented people walking away from the profession I love. There are Bad Days, of course. There are frustrations, of course. Spoon-feeding Year 11s hours before deadlines eats my head and makes me wonder what we’ve taught them about resilience and independence. People don’t always behave impeccably. Not even big ones.

And I’ve vowed, through my book, that I will acknowledge this sense of injustice and rage and downright exhaustion felt by many teachers – and I won’t shy from this. But I will also be optimistic and pragmatic in my approach to these.

I love our profession (it IS a profession!). I love the corridor banter and the breakthroughs in the difficult and honest conversations with people big and small. I love the sense of buzz and purpose of a busy school day. I love the unexpected giggles with crazy Year 8s and the thank yous from the grateful Year 11s above. I love knowing that as I enter the car park, there is always at least one thing that I’m really looking forward to. I love hearing from students 15 years on and writing references (even if they are for the occasional court case). I love seeing new teachers face challenges and grow. I love the surprise Avon perfume birthday gift and marking a book to find a child has really Got It. I love feeling like Part of It All. I love the feeling of being at a place for a few years and knowing all the students and all the boltholes and open-door classrooms and staffroom hilarity.

When I started teaching, it was soon after Thatcher (one of Thatcher’s children, me) and people were wary. My parents encouraged me to re-think. Others questioned my ambition. I said, ‘you have to be in it to fight it’. And, after numerous debates with myself and with others, I still believe this.

See, with the writing and the research and everything else, I realised I have options. I’d love to train new teachers, mentor and coach existing teachers, work with universities, and these options MIGHT be possible. This is exciting and quite exhausting. ‘What are you planning to do in September?’ someone asked me today (my current lovely job was always temporary). ‘About fifty things,’ was the response. ‘But I can’t decide which ones’. I’d considered going at least partly freelance. I may still.

But there’s one thing for sure, I won’t walk away. I’d be a hypocrite to express my disappointment and sadness at those walking away and not to be in the thick of it myself. I’d be a hypocrite to empathise and listen if I didn’t know exactly how it felt. Also, young people keep me sane.

So, I don’t know quite what and I don’t know quite where I’ll be working – and I won’t work just anywhere. I firmly believe there has to be a match in ethos between teacher and employee – but I won’t be leaving teaching any time soon. Because you have to be in it to make a difference. And it would be entirely ludicrous to be writing a book called How to Survive and Thrive in Teaching if I weren’t walking the walk with the rest of you.

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The transition to parenthood… learning to struggle, learning to be ‘good enough’

This blog was originally written for the #Teacher5aday Handbook and Journal and a version of it will be appearing in the forthcoming book. Contact @naomi7444 for more details.

 

Given that I’ve been researching the balance of teaching and parenthood for the last five years, this seems like the kind of blog I would be writing regularly. So it strikes me as quite remarkable that this is the first of its kind. Plenty of arm’s length, research-based reflections on the balance, the triumphs, the struggles of balancing teaching and parenthood but, up to now, nothing personal which reflects on that early transition to parenthood and how it combined with my career.

 

When it comes to the issue of balancing teaching and parenthood, I balk at any requests for ‘advice’ or ‘wisdom’. What has become increasingly apparent through life and research is that every situation is unique. I wince at the whisper of ‘parenting gurus’ and laugh at myself for the parenting guides I read during my first pregnancy. One of my early fellow-mother friends memorably described herself as ‘a Gina Ford mother without a Gina Ford baby’. As the world’s most reluctant cook, I prepared assiduously for weaning with package after frozen package of colourful Annabel Karmel recipes, all of which dribbled out of the bin bags several months later after being laughingly rejected in favour of (if we were lucky) something out of a jar or a chip. Similarly, my birth plan was a work of laughable fiction. Both of my pregnancies were ridiculously complex. I was tactfully not invited to join the tour of the birthing centre with my fellow Mums-to-be and have still never seen a birthing pool in the flesh.  I am forever the biggest admirer of the team of midwives and consultants who turned what was a series of frightening health scares for me and both my children into the two screeching, giggling, cartwheeling, Harry-Potter-junkie girls on the trampoline as I look out of my window and telling me every thirty seconds how hungry they are.

 

So what you hear here is as unique and as flawed and as authentic as I am as a mother – and as a teacher. These are the key lessons that becoming a parent taught me that have also touched every other element of my life and my teaching.

 

If I ever had to torture someone, I would deprive them of sleep

My first daughter didn’t sleep for more than three hours at a stretch until the age of fifteen months. When she woke, she would stay away for two hours at a time, feeding intermittently but mainly demanding entertainment. I returned to work when she was ten months old and remember little of that blur of a year. The results weren’t great that year… I can’t imagine quite why. Snapshot of a scene in the corridor when I colleague asked me if I was ok. ‘I’ve been awake since 3 a.m’, I said. ‘Go home’, she said, firmly and kindly. I spent hours mooning around the nightwear section of M&S.

 

The upshot of this is that I continue to worship my sleep, stubbornly heading to bed at 10 p.m whilst on holiday with friends and compulsively calculating my absolute minimum of 7 hours per night.

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Sleep is for wimps

Becoming a parent is unpredictable

I loved being pregnant. I was enviably vomit-free and I bloomed happily, lapping up the attention my bump received and letting gallant and considerate students carry my books and beached-whaling it on the back table whilst my students wrote on the board for me. I thought I would swan equally well through maternity leave. My first birth, however, was a horror-film hell about which my husband can still not even joke. ‘Teachers are the worst’, said my midwife. I think she was talking about control and being willing to lose it. I wasn’t. Seeing the small creature for whose life we were entirely responsible lying in her car seat on our bed was the single most terrifying moment of my life. The health scare I had within hours of getting home, which involved being taken away from my baby in an ambulance was the second most terrifying. It’s hard to admit, but the first year of my first daughter’s life was a struggle for me. I was restless, self-critical, grew to resent the constant domestic chores, rivalled my husband in ‘who’s more tired?’ competitions and experienced stabs of resentment at his audacity and luck at being able to leave for work in the morning. I longed to be needed by society again and missed my department and my students and feeling useful. And the sleep-deprivation ate my head.

 

Nobody is indispensable

 

Keeping in Touch Days were therefore welcome. However, my biggest shock was learning that, after torturing myself with guilt for years at the shortest of absences, they had continued to function just fine without me. LIfe was going on! How could this possibly be? Not only that, but I was a million miles from it all. Someone asked me a question about A Level Spanish re-takes. I realised that I neither had an inkling of – nor cared – about the answer.

 

Through my second maternity leave, this knowledge was actually a comfort and I was able to reflect on the culture we help to create and how it can continue to grow in our absence.

 

Solidarity is invaluable

 

I don’t see as much of all of them as I should these days, but the group of fellow mothers with whom I went through the early transition to parenthood will always hold a unique and special status for me. They kept me sane. From cracking bits and blocked bits and bits that never ended up quite in the same place again, there was such huge comfort in not feeling alone. Sometimes we just sat and stared at one another in our fog of sleeplessness – and that was fine.

EDIT: I have just shared this blog with a fellow-sleep-deprived mother of the time. Her response brilliantly summarised our priorities at the time:

I remember A. and I trying to think how things could be worse – and trying to count our blessings that our kids weren’t disabled and the country wasn’t at war! I was employed by Christian Aid when I was on maternity leave and at the time there were massive floods in Pakistan and thousands lost their lives. I remember saying to my husband that I didn’t have it in me to even care and he was horrified, but the ONLY thing I cared about was sleep! 

At work, reassurance that, ‘you’re doing just great’ from a complete stranger a few months ahead of me in the journey (or light years, as it seemed at the time) led to a new and lasting friendship. There were colleagues with whom a mere shared look or shake of the head could remind me that someone else understood – and it’s been a privilege to give this back to others in subsequent years.

 

 

 

 

I remember with rather less warmth the child-free colleague who asked me, with a smirk, ‘how was your year off?’ on my first day back.

 

The value of schools which welcome children

 

In so many ways, working in London the early 2000s was a heyday that I don’t think we fully appreciated at the time. Things have changed in many schools now – and I fully understand why, as there are H&S and insurance implications that must be considered. However, with both my children, I was in a position to take them into school if I needed to. I have some very happy memories of this.

 

During my maternity leave with my second daughter, here was the ash cloud which left several teachers stranded all over the world. I stepped in and taught for two days with her strapped to my front in her sling. When conjunctivitis meant the childminder wasn’t an option, my first daughter spent many happy hours being wheeled and carried around the school by stroppy Year 9s and cooing at the naughtiest boys in the class. My Head at the time chucked her into the air and let me change her nappy in his office.

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Second daughter in Bumbo on table of MFL office, Hendon School

Before I get too starry-eyed, having your child in school is actually the most intensely exhausting thing every. Having your two biggest priorities in the world make demands on you consecutively is uniquely draining. These are nevertheless happy memories, and I will be eternally grateful to my Head at the time for making them possible.

 

The joke that never got tired. ‘Is that yours?’, dozens of students would ask as I carried the child in. ‘No, I found her at a bus stop.’

 

This leads to my two final lessons – the two that have most profoundly influenced the way I think and feel about balancing parenthood and teaching.

 

Do what works – as long as no one is harmed

 

Parenthood is a minefield of debate and opinion. I remember a friend who struggle for weeks to breastfeed through blood and tears and was eventually forced to give up. Living in Ealing, she was so mortified at bottle-feeding her child that she used to go home to do it rather than be seen in public. From the bum-on, side-on fierce nappy changing to co-sleeping to baby-led weaning, it can be worse than politics and religion at a dinner party with strangers.

 

Likewise, abandoning your child to go back to work. Not only was taking a few years off not financially feasible, but I wanted to go back to work! Yes. I love coming home to my children, but I continue to take great pride in – and ownership of – my decision to pursue my career – and my doctorate.

 

Do what’s right for you and your family. If it isn’t putting anyone in any danger, it’s FINE. End of debate.

 

Good enough

Like so many of my blogs, this one ends with a mantra that has (quite literally, at times) kept me sane. Amidst the birthing guides and the how-to-be-a-perfect-parent manuals, a friend introduced me to Winnicott’s concept of Good Enough. It was like a liberation. It didn’t happen overnight, but gradually, I stopped worrying about the housework so much. I stopped resenting my husband over the piles of washing up. I figured that a true friend was visiting to see me, not admire my cleaning skills.

 

At work, I learned to say ‘no’ to unreasonable demands. I learned that if I had to leave at 4.00 to pick up my kids, that was just the way it was. I gradually let go of what I observe to be the biggest scourge amongst many of the most talented teachers I know – perfectionism. I learned to laugh at the disasters (as long as no one was hurt) and conceal the wet patch on my top during the Year 8 lesson and not leave the baby on the bed again whilst I had a shower… And, as they’ve grown, I’ve learned that children don’t require perfection. Children have the emotional intelligence to understand that people have flaws and limitations and send them into school in a fairy outfit on the wrong day…

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Survival… and more

The unconditional devotion I have for my children and the stubbornly optimistic commitment I have for my career are – and have to be – good enough.

 

Reflections on a difficult week

I have welcomed this weekend with huge relief and have had a shamelessly lazy day today. Monday feels as if it were about three months ago. I know it’s a particularly intensive time for everyone, with Year 11 on their final countdown (I do worry about the effect of the ‘number of days/hours/seconds’ countdown on some of our more dedicated students). On top of this, there were a few issues in my department. For obvious reasons, I won’t go into detail, but mistakes were made and organisation wasn’t what it should have been, and, where we would usually have muddled through, this time, bigger issues around.

As with most difficult weeks, it wasn’t something obvious which tripped us up. There were no dramatic resignation or public rows and violent incidents. It was relatively small day-to-day stuff that didn’t go quite according to plan.

I’ve consistently strived to place wellbeing as far up the agenda as possible with my department, but this week, accountability had to take priority. As Head of Department, there was no option but to actively take ownership of that accountability and to confront the issues head-on. This necessitated leadership strategies I’m not naturally drawn to, and a more methodical and pace-setting approach, which was a challenge for both me and those at the receiving end.

Trust was a big issue. After months of building it up, it was seriously tested this week.  When things don’t go according to plan, this is inevitable. There was the potential for finger-pointing, anger and accusation. Assumption is the mother of all f**k-ups is one of my husband’s favourite phrases, and lo, this week, this was very true. People were already exhausted after intensive holiday sessions with their students, and there was defensiveness, tetchiness and tears.

Stress hasn’t been a huge issue for me this year, but I felt myself getting a bit reptilian at moments this week. Most issues gets resolved by the end of a working day, but this one built, day by day. After two decades, I’m pretty resilient, but I will admit to my nadir on Thursday at 5.00 when it became apparent that it was simply not morally or professionally possible for me to leave my dept to take the flack and was forced to cancel my presentation at the Bloomsbury TeachMeet, to which I had been so looking forward. I even wore my new pretty dress and still feel a pang of self-pity when I walk past it, still hanging up behind the bedroom door.

Very long hours were worked. Folders and data were checked and re-checked. Emails were formal and sometimes terse. As a department, we put in dozens of hours beyond our contracted hours.

And then, sometime around 5.00 on Thursday, we realised we had resolved the issues. The crisis had been averted. No student had been disadvantaged in any way. I even managed to get out for emergency chocolate for those involved. I wrote a final report to SLT confirming that ends had been tied up and we were back on track. There’s more stress to can, but we can draw a line under this particular set of circumstances.

My department and I are rather bruised and utterly knackered.  Trust will need to be carefully rebuilt. Egos will need to be smoothed. Credibility will need to be carefully restored. Serious lessons need to be learned. And I saw more of my colleagues than I did of my own children this week. We need to re-evaluate some of our priorities.

But, but, but…

At no point in the course of the week did I lose faith in my team or doubt that we would get to this point.

At no point did any of us shy from embracing – and solving – the issues.

Several people showed blinding strength, kindness and comic timing which helped us get through.

Moments of blind stress were interspersed with silly if slightly hysterical humour.

And we sorted it. And I suspect and hope we’re a stronger team for it. And the students are still getting a good deal. That’s what counts, yes?

Oh, and I’ll wear my dress to the next Bloomsbury event. Here it is, anyway.

 

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Guest blog from Ruth Hare: Twitter chat to shape new well-being research

 

Teacher well-being is my business. I’m a mother of a child about to start school, I’m an EdD student, and a practitioner psychologist too. I like people and am intrigued by the factors which move and motivate them and see far too often, the factors that don’t. I was drawn to Emma’s blog via twitter not only because of her interest in teacher well-being but also because she has just completed the EdD journey I’m currently negotiating.

 

My doctoral writing has taken a somewhat creative stance, in my first essay about epistemological positioning for example, I wrote:

 

It’s not easy being essentially liberal, agnostic and ambivalent; indeed, I am the sort of person who, despite its advertising trope (Hodson, 2010), quite likes Marmite. Though I can appear subversive with ideas, opinions and musings, I’m not fundamentalist about anything. I subscribe to questions and co-creation of possible meaning. I contest absolute answers for non-absolute situations. I perhaps represent art not science, or simply someone very awkward.

 

So you get the idea, I want to research an area that might say the unsayable. My interest in teacher well-being is grounded in my everyday clinical experience as a Counselling Psychologist. My working life has, more by accident than design, involved me working (and being directly full time employed for 3 years) in schools. The assumption is that I work to support young people’s mental health and contribute to improvements in pupil behaviour. This is true of course, but in many many of my consultations, I find myself supporting staff who simply don’t have the capacity to reflect on their interactions, who offload the impact of significant life events which seem to be expected to be left on the carpark, and who are demoralised, dejected and frustrated. In contrast, I also meet highly resilient teachers, who ooze growth mindset and sustain an energy akin to Tigger in the Hundred Acre Wood. I’m interested in these people too, what is it about them or their context that is different?

 

In a reflective essay about my first year on the doctorate programme, I wrote a piece called ‘ Aspiring to be Eddie’ and used the metaphor of learning to surf to illustrate my experience (of largely feeling out of my depth). Seeking the origin and emotional significance of my surfing analogy I recalled a secondary school deputy headteacher who once warmly referred to me as ‘Eddie Would Go’ after a particularly challenging child protection meeting. The Eddie he referred to was Eddie Aikau, deemed to be one of the most respected names in surfing. He was the first lifeguard at Waimea Bay on the island of Oahu, regarded as a big wave surfer and saved many lives. In 1968 he became the first lifeguard employed by the City and County of Honolulu to work on the North Shore. It is reported that not a single life was lost during his career and that Eddie would brave surf reaching 20 feet or more in order to rescue someone. The phrase ‘Eddie Would Go’ refers to his resolve to take on the waves that no other surfers would dare and his courage to rescue in otherwise impossible situations.

 

I wrote:

 

It would be narcissistically outlandish for me to picture myself as a brave and iconic rescuer, but I am interested in giving voice to those who are otherwise not heard – perhaps asking questions that others dare not to ask or reporting potentially contentious findings. Interestingly for me, this does not draw me to necessarily the most obviously sidelined or stereotypically assumed disempowered participants for research, but to those who are assumed and positioned not to be marginalised – like teachers and educational support staff, for example. I aspire to be like Eddie in that within the surfing arena he used his propensity for strength and skill to help others. I want to be like Eddie and want to be EdD.

 

For my thesis I am going to research teacher well-being. In a recent literature review assignment I concluded:

 

…my passion for the topic remains, that existing research indicates a need for further investigation and my epistemological position justifies this in that it recognises that changes in government, policy and trends can impact individuals and groups.

 

And this is where you, yes YOU, come in. I’m an insider-outsider researcher. I’m a non-teacher in and out of various schools and educational establishments, an occasional twitter discussion contributor and longstanding lurker to many twitter posts and chats. I have ideas, but I don’t want to research what I think is important – your voices are the ones that matter. Between us, we can determine and refine my research question:

 

To this end, I have ethical approval from the University of Wolverhampton to host a twitter chat on Wednesday 27th April from 8pm-9pm. I’ll be inviting discussion about your views of the concept of teacher well-being, what the most pertinent area for research is and generally how important this area feels for you. There will be information explaining the nature of the chat and how your tweet contributions will be used for thematic analysis posted via a web link in due course. I’m looking forward to it already and hope you and your colleagues will join me.

 

 

Ruth Hare

Chartered and Registered Counselling Psychologist

Director, Reach Psychology Ltd

EdD Student, University of Wolverhampton

@reachpsychology

mail@reachpsychology.co.uk

www.reachpsychology.co.uk

facebook.com/reachpsychology