Emma Kell blogs for the RSP on the challenges of being a teacher and a parent (part 1).



Being a teacher and being a parent – is it possible to balance the two effectively and know that you’re doing both as well as you possibly can? Are your pre-parenthood aspirations still valid? Does it make a difference whether you’re a mother or a father? Are those of us who are parents better teachers since the transition to parenthood? Or worse? Does it matter?

When I returned to school from my second maternity leave, I wrote the following lines to the faculty I was leading: ‘I feel sure that I will be a better mother for returning to work, and a better teacher and leader for being a mother’. Less than a year later, I decided to devote myself to a Doctorate examining the influence of parenthood on teacher identity, aspirations and well-being.  Which was possibly naïve, selfish, arrogant, or just plain nuts.  Was I taking ‘having it all’ to a new extreme?

Let’s get something straight. I am thoroughly blessed with support networks.  I have incredibly patient parents, generous-beyond-words with their time and childcare, a creative, intelligent, infinitely supportive husband, a flexible, can-do, enlightened school, a sterling child-minder, financial security, and – above all – robust and healthy children.  So, who am I to be a spokesperson for other UK teacher-parents? I make no claims to universal ‘generalisability’ and make no claims to firm truths or society-changing revelations. My research is – as yet – unpublished and unverified.

I can, however, strive to generate theory to provide a framework for policy and future research – in other words, make people think. And, as a teacher by vocation, this is what I do. Likewise, as a teacher, it’s my job to ‘give voice’ to others. I didn’t expect quite as many voices, but my research so far represents 40 focus group participants, 5 interviews, and 1603 online questionnaire respondents. This is what they said.


Gender, teaching and parenthood

There is a plethora of research out there from women on the impact of parenthood on their careers and identity. Much of it is fundamentally damning, revealing the ‘glass ceiling’ to be as impenetrable as ever. But I was determined, in my own research, to give both parents, mothers and fathers a chance to share their experiences. Much of what they told me did indeed confirm that the gender-gap is still alive and kicking.

I asked teachers to what extent their employers were prepared to adjust their hours to fit in with their family lives, and found that women are far more likely to work part-time than men, representing 33% of questionnaire respondents on part-time hours compared to just 9% of men.

When it comes to ambition, the gender difference is just as marked, with 80% of women questioned feeling their career aspirations had been negatively affected since becoming a parent, compared to 59% of men. This disparity was reflected in a later question, which indicated that 33% of participants believe that being a mother prevents women from applying to leadership positions, compared to 4%, who believe being a father prevents men from applying to leadership positions. I was struck that the vast majority of the mothers in focus groups talked about putting their career aspirations on-hold – or halting them completely – after becoming parents.

Many women assert, quite happily, their ‘choice’ to put their own children before their career, but a significant proportion describe a frustrating scenario in which their hands are tied. Many schools simply won’t contemplate part-time hours for teachers with any responsibility. A mother with three young children, also a talented and ambitious middle leader, writes of her sadness and frustration at steadily losing her responsibility and status in her school with each new child. Despite her passionate commitment to her career, the possibility of working the hours the school demands are ‘physically, emotionally, and most importantly, financially’ an impossibility. Whilst the day-to-day progress of the students must be a priority, how can it be right that the profession is looking at potentially losing some of its most gifted and promising practitioners?

It is possible, according to the results of my questionnaire, to assume that men are left – relatively speaking, and from a professional point of view – untouched by parenthood.   59% say parenthood had a negative impact on their aspirations – that’s still the majority. While women were more likely to report that their career aspirations had been‘slightly reduced’ by parenthood, almost half of the men who responded claimed a ‘significant’ reduction in their aspirations.In focus groups, men talked frankly about balancing financial pressure to ensure quality of life for their family and a desire to ‘make [my] family proud of me’, with a desire to do their share at home, have quality time with their children, and be seen as a ‘good father’.

When it comes to the question of whether parenthood has affected their perception of their performance in their job, 72% of men and 75% of women reported that this was the case, which also belies the possible assumption that men are capable of ‘carrying on regardless’.  Again, the impact of parenthood on fathers appears to be more acute; 30% of fathers said their performance had ‘significantly improved’, but, at the other extreme, 30% reported that it had ‘significantly deteriorated’. Mothers were more likely to report a ‘slight’ improvement (39%) or a ‘slight’ deterioration (35%). This opens up a whole new set of issues and questions, and it’s worth asking ourselves how school cultures, societal expectations, external support networks, and rights around parental leave (2 weeks compared to 2 years, to be shared between parents in Northern Europe) play a part.


More effective – but less ambitious?

If we ‘drill deeper’ into the data, there appears to be a contradiction. Regardless of gender, the majority of teachers report decreased aspirations and improved performance post parenthood; in other words, they see themselves as less ambitious, but more effective in the classroom. Assuming that their perceptions are correct (and, let’s face it, teachers are given regular and rigorous empirical judgments of their performance), are we, as a profession, missing a trick here? In focus groups, the majority of teachers – of both genders! – spoke of better time-management skills, an enhanced ability to prioritise, increased empathy with students and their parents, improved decision-making skills, and enhanced emotional intelligence after becoming parents . Are these not the qualities we look for in existing and aspiring school leaders? Do school leaders and policy-makers need to be asking questions about how best to capitalise upon this expertise?


The second part of Emma Kell’s blog, out tomorrow, will explore the link between teacher well-being and effectiveness.

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