The Jones Approach To: Having A Little Human AND Being A Teacher

When I return to work next Monday, it will bring to an end my six months of maternity leave. In all honesty, for the first 3 of these, I found being on leave with a baby incredibly daunting and very weird: being so used to rushing around work meant that sitting at home being governed by naps and feeds was a total change in my way of life, as I expect it is for most people.

However, once my daughter started to transition from being a bundle of human who used to stare blankly at me and do nothing, to an actual ‘someone’ with a personality who smiles, and gurgles and grabs at things and makes eye contact and recognises ‘Mummy’ and shows an interest in the world, everything changed. I really started to enjoy being around her as a person and I loved her, not just in the unconditional way that parents should, but in a ‘you-are-actually-an-awesome-little-chica’ kind of way. So the first thing to establish here is that I am really gutted to be going back to work because it means leaving a situation that is now, actually, way fun. I will miss spending the days with her where we just play and chill and nap and feed. I will miss being able to spend ages just staring at her – all of this will now have to wait until the weekends or holidays.

However (and it is a BIG however), I’m also really looking forward to returning to work. I don’t have that sinking feeling or a sense of impending doom. I’m excited about the new challenge ahead: how do you have a family and work full time in a job that is, quite frankly, exhausting and relentless?

During part of my maternity leave (maybe around the three month mark, when my daughter was two months old), I decided to ‘do a Google’ and have a look for some hints and tips on how to balance the kid, with the family, with the house, with the job. I genuinely thought I would be able to perhaps learn from women and men who had gone before me; parents who had spent some time off with their new baby and had then faced the same challenge of going back to a full time professional career.

It was during my first few minutes of searching that I started to get a feel for the lie of the land. It was seemingly implying that family life and teaching life were incompatible. Some articles and blog posts were more positive but overwhelmingly, the mood of Google was discernibly negative. The first result I actually clicked on was an entry on the blog “Someone’s Mum“. In the article, the author says:

“I have held my pale and whimpering baby as she struggles for breath in a stark hospital room, while emailing cover, one-handed from my phone. I have sent my wailing toddler to nursery with a fever of 40 because the anxiety and workload of having a day off is too much to bear, and there is nobody else to watch him. I have stayed late to finish some marking or talk to a student even though the hours until bedtime are ticking away, and those precious moments with my children are painfully fleeting. I have marked with my daughter crying at my feet because there are deadlines that have to be met. I have cried too, stroking her hair with my free hand, desperately seeking to comfort her distress.”

In short, I was horrified.

Is this the situation I will find myself in? Will I feel this struggle between my child and my work priorities? Will I reach these kinds of desperate times?

I have to thank the author of this blog post for writing this because almost as quickly as I had been shocked by just how terrible it all sounded, I became absolutely sure that my answers to the above questions was a very definite “No”. And from this point, my thinking about my return to work became all the more clear. I’ll take each of her scenarios in turn to explain my principles:

“I have held my pale and whimpering baby as she struggles for breath in a stark hospital room, while emailing cover, one-handed from my phone.” Any teacher is capable of setting work for a class of children. Granted, it may not be the same work that I would set and it may consist of tasks that are readily accessible to the teacher setting the cover rather than well-planned activities from a teacher knows that class, but to believe that you alone are the only person who can make adequate provision for your class is simply wrong. I feel very confident that if I phoned up any member of my department and said “I’m in hospital with my baby, I need someone/anyone to set cover work for my classes today and tomorrow”, they would, without hesitation, help me. I think this because I would do the same if I happened to be on the receiving end of that kind of phone call. If I am absent from school because my baby is in hospital, the world according to my classes keeps on spinning and the ‘Good Ship Biology’ will keep on sailing.

“I have sent my wailing toddler to nursery with a fever of 40 because the anxiety and workload of having a day off is too much to bear, and there is nobody else to watch him…” Firstly, I would never prioritise myself over my child. Quite frankly, if my child is ill and needs me to be at home with them, that’s the end of the dilemma right there. Of course there isn’t anybody else to watch them, that’s my job! The author is correct when she says that having a day off does create a massive workload because of the setting of cover, collecting bits of work from various locations around the school, marking stuff, filing stuff, referring to it in the next lesson, adjusting lessons after it etc. I will bear whatever ‘workload’ issues there are attached to having a day off and I will feel absolutely no anxiety about it at all. And if we’re going to get factually correct about this, a feverish child should not be sent into nursery, so say NHS Choices, and to do so simply to ease the burden you feel upon yourself is outrageous and downright bonkers. From the moment I read this blog post, I was clear about exactly how my priorities lie and about the fact that they are non-negotiable.

“I have stayed late to finish some marking or talk to a student even though the hours until bedtime are ticking away, and those precious moments with my children are painfully fleeting…” I appreciate that there will be some days where I will have to stay late after the school day has technically finished because there will be demands on my time. I think I’m ok with this because they will always remain the exception rather than the rule. I happen to view it as ‘on most days I am lucky enough to get out of work at 3:30pm if I really want to and go and spend time with my daughter’. And on the majority of days, this is exactly what I will do. I will always do everything I can to help any student who needs to talk to me after lesson, whether this is at break, lunch or after school. But even in this circumstance, if my own child needs me to be there, she is my priority. Regarding the other work, in 2017, a lot of the other work can be done at home via the internet. Responding to emails, working on classroom resources, checking homework online, updating spreadsheets…whatever. There is absolutely no reason why any of this has to be done in the classroom before I can leave school. A much better time to do this is later in the evening when my daughter is in bed. The same is actually true for marking; it is not demanded that I do this in school. There is nothing to stop me from loading my marking into my car to transport home to do during that same evening period. I am very clear that my quality time with my daughter is between the hours of 4-6:30pm in the evenings and at weekends and during the holidays. To fill these times with anything else would be foolish.

“I have marked with my daughter crying at my feet because there are deadlines that have to be met.” My Husband and I decided early doors that we would tend to our daughter if she was crying rather than leave her to ‘cry it out’. Our main reason for this was because we recognise that her crying is a way of communicating with us that something is wrong and, it logically follows, that we are the ones who can typically put it right. So that’s what we do. I don’t see a reason as to why this would change. I still intend to be as attentive to my daughter’s needs as I was before. I’m not even sure now that I could ignore it and leave her crying, as I’m happy with our way of reassuring her and comforting her and addressing her needs. The second part of the author’s point is probably the most ‘realistic’ problem I’ll face; managing those deadlines (and there are lots of them). It is this point though that formed the basis of a very important meeting I had with my Headteacher during maternity leave.

We had a lovely chat about workload in general, being as this is an issue for all teachers everywhere since forever, and is something the Headteacher is actively trying to address. I explained that my priorities had obviously changed since the birth of my daughter and that, whilst I don’t expect to do any less work, I know I will have to approach it differently in order to maintain the ‘work/life balance’ that I will work so hard to achieve. We agreed that there will be some obstacles and some tricky situations to face, especially at crunch points in the year – report writing, exam marking, parents evenings. We acknowledged that we may not actually know what some of those problems will be simply because we haven’t got there yet, and that we are not yet able to foresee all of the issues that I will face. But we also agreed that to conquer them is vital in counteracting the negativity that surrounds this issue and in allowing me to fulfil my wishes of being a Mummy and a professional…and it is perfectly doable. Approaching this positively means that I instantly avoid the perils of a negative self-fulfilling prophecy, “if I believe it won’t work, then it won’t”. Instead I’m going with “if I believe it will work, then it might”. It will also require (on both sides) some flexibility and some ‘thinking outside the box’ to come up with creative solutions when they are needed. But the result is that I get to have consistent, good quality time with daughter and maintain a career that I have worked hard for and I am proud of. This is a choice I have made and I’m happy to be doing it. It is not financially driven – I want to work full time and I want my daughter to see that Mummy and Daddy have jobs they like and work hard at. I hope that she enjoys nursery and that it provides a happy environment to be in and the opportunity for her to become socialised early on in her life. And its not to say that the opposite view is different; nobody is wrong for going back to work part-time or for staying at home to raise their children full time.

I recognise that ahead of me is a giant learning curve. I shall engage with it positively with the help of my school, and I know that not every teacher has a school as supportive as mine have been. There will be some bumps in the road I’m sure (and they’ll be documented on this blog) but it is a journey I am ready for and am looking forward to because, ultimately, I believe that in 2017 women shouldn’t have to choose between a career and a family…with the right outlook, the right mind-set and with their priorities and principles in the right order, it should be possible to have both.

The Jones Approach To: Loving Teaching

Straight off the bat, let me disclose that I actually love teaching. Always have done, always will do.

Don’t get me wrong – there have been some singularly bad days and some very hard times but I love that teaching is what I get to do day in, day out. It seems, maybe because of funding cuts or increased workload or higher accountability or a mixture of all of these things, that teachers are becoming more miserable. It seems that they are struggling to find the joy in their profession and the positives that exist in every day they spend in the classroom. Morale seems to be dipping, not only in individual schools but also within the profession.

So I thought I would summarise why I actually love teaching, to perhaps act as an explicit reminder (if only to myself) to look at during the tough days, or during a break in the (seemingly endless) marking or on the Sunday evening just before an awesome holiday ends:

Working with young people is awesome! I sometimes feel as though they get a bad press a lot of the time because of broad, sweeping statements made about the younger generation as a whole. I know this because when people ask me what I do and I reply that I am a Teacher, they naturally ask “what age do you teach?”. Most of the time, when I reply that I work in a secondary school, responses are often along the lines of “…ooooh I could never do that…” or “…rather you than me…” or “…you brave thing…”. I think this is rather far of the mark and actually rather unfair.

Young people are amazing; they are so complex (they are human after all!) and it is a wonderful thing. How dull would this world be if they all had exactly the same backgrounds and prior educational and life experience? How boring would it be if they all wanted to do exactly the same thing? If they all had the same interests and talents? What if they had absolutely no issues to unpick and needed no help and support – how would they cope or learn about themselves? What if young people had no character, no quirks, no personality, no opinions, no individual interpretation of the uniform rules (!), no stance on what is wrong and right, no ambition or drive? The world would be a very sad place but for the richness that young people give us. I love that my challenge, is to accept all of the young people that walk in through my door and help with their issues and listen to their opinions and take account of their backgrounds and abilities and support them in dealing with their hang-ups and confidence problems and emotions and develop their talents and encourage their ambitions and fuel their motivations and facilitate their success…all because I am their Biology Teacher.

Variety is the spice of life! And you never have two days the same in teaching. For me, it is the perfect mix. My day is highly structured – it begins at 8:35am, I do registration, teach for two hours and then, at 10.55am it is break time. At 11.20am, I teach for another two hours and then I will have an hour for lunch and my day finishes at 3.20pm after a fifth hour of teaching. Within that structure though, ANYTHING can happen. Take registration: a straight-forward 20 minute slot to register the students and go through whatever is normally allocated for that day of the week. Simple. But maybe some students overslept so they’re late, maybe there’s an outside speaker in for assembly, maybe a student has a shoe that’s broken, or another student has lost their phone somewhere between leaving home and getting to school, or we’re two chairs missing in the classroom, or a drink has leaked all over the contents of someone’s bag, or maybe there’s a wasp in the room and panic consumes everyone, maybe someone is crying, maybe it’s someone’s birthday, what if there was a fight on the way to school? what if someone just broke up with their boyfriend/girlfriend or someone doesn’t feel very well? and then someone has a note to hand in, someone has forgotten to print out their Geography homework, someone has lost their PE kit or can’t get into their locker because they left their key at their Dad’s house and they were at their Mum’s last night or maybe the door handle has somehow come off and nobody has clue how it happened (weird that!)…..or maybe…..just maybe…..none of that happens. That is what every section of that beautifully structured day has the potential to be. And I love that when I step into my classroom, and when I welcome those young ones into it, I have no idea if I’m going to get all of that, or none of that or something in between.

Autonomy. We are lucky to have freedom as Teachers. Sometimes, I guess it can feel as though we don’t because of pressures that come from “above” and to an extent, this is an inevitable truth. But, when you are in your classroom and you have your class in front of you and you are teaching your lesson in your way, you begin to realise that you have had a lot of freedom in getting to that point. Some other being may determine what I have to teach in terms of concepts/topics but beyond that, its largely down to me. If I decide that it is in my student’s best interest to scrap the lesson plan from a scheme of work and instead learn about photosynthesis through the medium of interpretive dance, I can do just that [*goes to edit existing scheme of work lesson plan*]. I can make decisions based on my knowledge and understanding of my students about what is best for them in terms of their learning. If I have an idea, I can try it. If it works, I can do it again. If it doesn’t, maybe I’ll tweak it? Occasionally, I grab the opportunity to think big. And why not? In a school, there’s a very real chance it’ll have a huge impact on so many young people, you’d be silly not to.

You know you’re actually having an impact on the world. Whether it’s that moment when a student goes “oh my God, now it makes sense!” in your lesson after you’ve gone through protein structure for the seventh time, this time using pipe cleaners and coloured beads as a visual model. Or whether its in the lesson about ‘drugs’ when you’ve decided to scrap your original plan and instead start by simply telling them the story of Rachel Whitear and they are so captivated by her life and her story that you can hear a pin drop that room. And its Friday period 5. Sometimes I know I have had an impact because a student will show an interest in continuing with my subject beyond their school life and work in Biology or in a lab or in healthcare or with animals or go to university to study it further – they want to make their life about the thing that I have taught them. How cool is that!? At other times I know I have had an impact because a student might give me the ultimate compliment about an activity or a lesson (“yeah…it was alright actually”). Ultimately, I am very aware that after me, the next steps of these young people isn’t into the safe, embracing arms of another school, it is out there into the world to make it. Somehow. And many of the tools they have to help them do that have been put there by us – their Teachers. We inevitably therefore have an impact and it follows that we can make a difference in their ability to ‘make it’.

The perks. 6 weeks off when it is the hottest time of the year and you never have to work on Christmas or New Year and actually the pay is alright and sometimes you get sweet cards from the students at Christmas and maybe some chocolates at the end of the year. It’s ok to love Teaching.