The wonderful Emma Kell, friend of Relational Schools Project, reflects on a subject close to her heart, and at the centre of her doctoral studies: teaching and parenting…

Since sitting down to write this blog, I have received three ‘MUM!’s: one spontaneous cuddle from a smallish Spiderman, had one conversation about camera focus with my husband, and stopped to deal with the dishwasher. A pile of laundry in the corner remains ignored, as does the rest of the carnage. I should probably take myself off somewhere where I can concentrate more freely, but it simply isn’t an option – time spent in the house with my family is scarce and precious and I’ve learned to work around the interruptions – in fact, ‘writing up’ was completed in similar circumstances, albeit with closed doors and significantly more moments of irritation…

This will be the first blog I have written on my research about balancing teaching and parenthood since submitting my thesis to my examiners three weeks ago, and it’s surprisingly difficult to ‘capture’ my findings and do justice to the 1684 people (yes, I still boggle at the number) who shared their experiences. It’s a very strange period – the thesis not actually ‘finished’, but there’s nothing I can do for now… And anyway, how does one ever call a thesis ‘finished’? I remember starting university, and my Dad telling me that this is the stage in life where you realise, not how much you know and how clever you are, but how much you still have to learn. This has been true of every stage in my studies, and having handed over my thesis, far from feeling like an expert on teaching and parenting, I find myself with more questions than answers. But questions are good, yes? And so are conversations. And with this blog, I aim to open a new conversation on balancing teaching and parenthood in 2016 in the UK.

And with this blog, I aim to open a new conversation on balancing teaching and parenthood in 2016 in the UK.

It has been a genuinely huge privilege to represent the voices of my respondents, and throughout, I have been determined to do so faithfully and productively. My clear (stubborn) stance has always been that I love my profession and that I DO think it’s possible to balance teaching and parenting – simply, it HAS to be. This means acknowledging the challenges, confronting them, and exploring ways around them at individual, institutional and national level. Of course, it’s not simple. Of course, every individual and every context is different. But it HAS to be possible to make it work. Otherwise the last five years would have been a bit futile…

Below, I share some of my findings and invite you to join the conversation. Rather than allowing the topic to gather dust on a shelf, I think it’s vital we keep talking. Please share your wisdom and your experience – both bitter and positive. I’m going to pick up on three key themes from the research: the notion of ‘choice’, support, guilt… and I go there with gender. At the end of each section, I pose a series of questions, with which to begin the conversation.

The Concept of Choice

The concept of ‘choice’ (I usually end up with the inverted commas) has been one I’ve been uncomfortable with ever since the government starting talking of it in terms of schools and education. Because it can be a bit of an illusion. It’s so deeply linked to context: finances, family support (or lack thereof), opportunities, a supportive or unsupportive working environment.  A few minutes ago, I could have ‘chosen’ to ignore the dishwasher’. Or I could have ‘chosen’ to ‘debate’ with my husband over household chores (we’ve both got work to do – whose responsibility is it?). I could still ‘choose’ to pursue a path to headship. But choices have costs – emotional and financial – and most significantly, they involve others.

choices have costs – emotional and financial – and most significantly, they involve others.

My research participants spoke of ‘choice’ in a whole range of contexts. One spoke of choosing to ‘have it all’ – family and career. Sue Cowley apologises for appearing a ‘party pooper’ but says that nobody – male or female – is in a position to ‘have it all’. ‘but we do need to work out what it is that we truly want to have’.  It would appear, sadly, that the ‘glass ceiling is more or less intact’.  84% of female focus group participants made explicit reference to having suspended or abandoned their career aspirations and 80% of female questionnaire respondents said parenthood had had a negative impact on their aspirations. But the majority of my focus group participants spoke calmly and assertively of their ‘choice’ to put their families first. This wasn’t the enforcement of the will of a patriarch at home, but was something they had decided to do:

  1. Having children is (for most of us!) in itself a ‘choice’ – by making this, do we inevitably limit future choices? Is it different for men and women?
  2. Is it possible for BOTH members of a partnership to ‘choose’ to pursue their career to the limit? To what extent do you feel empowered to make ‘choices’ about your career?
  3. Have there been difficult choices, sacrifices? Can we ‘choose’ to have it all?

84% of female focus group participants made explicit reference to having suspended or abandoned their career aspirations and 80% of female questionnaire respondents said parenthood had had a negative impact on their aspirations. But the majority of my focus group participants spoke calmly and assertively of their ‘choice’ to put their families first.

One of my conclusions is: ‘capitalise on the support available’.

Capitalise on the Support Available

This comes from the fact that support from friends and family came out as the single biggest ‘enabler’ when it comes to balancing teaching and parenting. I make no bones of the fact that I’ve been thoroughly blessed these last years, and I literally wouldn’t have been able to do what I’ve done without my parents being on-hand to bathe my children and cut their fingernails and my friends being available for last-minute pick-ups and reminders about birthday parties and non-uniform days. But for a whole array of reasons, this isn’t always possible. Families may lived far-removed from extended families. Parents may simply no longer be around, or not in a position to offer the care because of failing health – or indeed, lives of their own! There may not have been the opportunity to forge network of friendships with fellow parents who could help. One has to question:

  1. Are there ways in which we could build support networks (e.g. within school, buddying parents newly returned from parental leave with others a bit further ahead in the journey)?
  2. Could we make use of online networks to build actual, social networks to offer such support?
  3. Could schools play more of a role in pursuing options around crèches or – in an emergency – bringing your child to school?

The ‘conclusion’ which rests most uneasily with me just now is, I quote: ‘dispense with guilt.’

Dispense with Guilt

Such an easy three words to type. Teachers are frequently prone to perfectionism. When they get stressed and anxious, in my experience, in 99% of cases, it’s because they feel there’s something stopping them from doing a good a job as they’d like to do.

The concept of ‘good enough’, which wise friends have shared in the context of both teaching and parenting, has been a powerful one for me. The day I stopped worrying about housework was a true liberation (if they really love me anyway, they won’t care. Or, in the words of one of my early thesis heroes, Lynne Bradbury, ‘if it’s in your way, move it’!)

But with mental health – finally, mercifully – creeping up the agenda and the suicide of a headteacher never far from my mind, it can be far more complex than simply ‘deciding’ to stop feeling guilty. One of my aims with my research was to represent the voices of fathers, as far as possible, equally with that of mothers. I didn’t quite know what I’d find, but it did seem to be a glaring omission in the field. Whilst I am a proud ambassador of the #WomenEd group and determined more than ever to battle the glass ceiling, the findings from men made me stop and think and occasionally gulp hard. John Tomsett’s blog, ‘This much I know about why putting family first matters’ remains one of the most moving things I have ever read. The irresistible and constant pull of work took him away from his son. I won’t attempt to do his words justice. Over to John:

I didn’t mean to be a misery, but I know I was. I would take Joe to football on a Sunday morning when he played for the Under 9s knowing I had a Technology College bid to write. I would be moody when the kick off was delayed. I would be mad with him when he didn’t try. I felt like he was wasting my time, time when I could have been working.

Headships are all consuming things; you’re a Headteacher every minute of every day. And my designation became Joe’s vehicle for abuse. “Stop being a Headteacher” he would mutter with no attempt to conceal his contempt for me.

Epiphanies and moments of realisation played a key role in the narratives of both mothers and fathers, and John writes with searing honesty of his conscious – and difficult – decision to change his approach and put his family first.

Similarly, if we were to imagine that fathers experience minimal impact on their career progression compared to mothers, the findings would suggest otherwise, with 47% of men saying their career aspirations had significantly decreased compared to 38% of women.

One thing I do know for sure is that there is nothing in my research that demonstrates that guilt has any useful function or purpose but can we simply ‘let go’ of guilt? Are there specific strategies which can be used to give ourselves permission not to feel guilty? Is the experience of guilt significantly different for men and women?

Finally, and I’ve said this before, but can’t say it often enough, I never set out to write a parenting-teaching manual or guide. There were never going to be easy answers. And there is DEFINITELY no one-size-fit-all I still curse myself for falling for the parenting guides of the gurus who knew it all in the early days – in the end, they simply made it harder and intensified the sense of inadequacy. As my now-closest-friend said at the time, if it isn’t hurting anyone and it works for you, do it.

Let the conversation continue.

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