Maternity Leave: My Choices

Our South West representative, Claire Nicholls, SENCo, and mother to first baby boy, explains how she used her maternity leave to develop her leadership skills.

The original post can be found on her blog here.

Somehow, I worked up until I was 38 weeks’ pregnant. It was the middle of June and I spent most of my final days at school with my swollen feet up, being told off for doing too much by my team. Despite the physical challenges of working so late, I knew I didn’t want a huge amount of time at home before the baby arrived and as those two weeks felt like an eternity, I’m glad I made that choice. I’d already connected with the MTPT project before I left work, optimistically offering to do just about everything! Emma was fantastic; hugely grateful for the support but gently reminding me that I’d need to see how I felt when baby came along.

I had baby C on the 3rd July. An unexpected caesarean meant that I was physically unable to do much and so at first, I spent lots of time on the sofa. Whilst tiny babies need a lot of care and attention, they also sleep for most of the day (those days are already distant memories!) and so I soon found my thoughts turning to work. I’ve previously written about how difficult I found losing my professional identity, and so I carefully chose some things to get involved in which allowed me to feel connected, whilst not taking me away from my son too much. 

Training, courses and meetings

I chose a selection of things that I was interested in, which worked with my situation. My first CPD opportunity was a workshop on diversity in the workplace. It was held from 8.30 – 10.30, which for the first time I was away from my son, who was then less than 12 weeks’ old, was the perfect ‘trial run’ for everyone involved, including my partner who is now the primary caregiver for C.

At other times, I took C along. From short union sessions to a whole day’s conference for Women Ed, I felt welcomed and supported by the communities I’m part of. He napped, fed and enjoyed cuddles from a range of people whilst I engaged in learning, networking and activism.

I also learnt to set boundaries and say no. Whilst I happily attended the first governors’ meeting in September, I was glad to give my apologies for July. I decided against attending Pride celebrations to represent the union in that first month and I cancelled attendance at an evening CPD session when some other training was scheduled for the same day; this balance has remained essential to me as I’ve returned to work.

Becoming an SLE

By late September, I’d submitted an application to become a Specialist Leader in Education for SEN and Inclusion. Being able to focus fully on answering the questions, in the hours of nap time, and not being distracted by marking or interrupted by pupils was a huge bonus of doing this whilst on leave. I also found that the distance from the classroom allowed me to reflect more objectively on my skills and achievements. I interviewed in October and trained in November, with my first piece of work being commissioned after I returned to school. I didn’t mention the fact I was on maternity leave at any point during the process; it wasn’t relevant and it didn’t arise in conversation. At a time when I was struggling with the identity shift of becoming a new mother, this was hugely liberating and reconnecting with my professional self helped my mental health enormously.

KIT Days

I’ll be honest here and state that one motivation for completing eight out of a possible ten ‘Keeping in Touch’ days was financial. Having my maternity pay topped up to a full day’s wages, especially in the later stage, really helped! This wasn’t my main reason for doing them though. I first went to work in late September, to complete a parental meeting for an EHCP conversion and to catch up with my line manager. As a SENCo, much of my role is outside of the classroom, so there was plenty for me to do and I talked with my team about short term, stand-alone tasks that I could complete. This helped me stay involved and keep up to date without placing any pressure on me to take on too much or feel like I was leaving work unfinished.

After October half term, I went in almost every week, which served as a nice transition back to school and allowed me to work out practical things such as what time to feed C in the mornings and when to pump milk at work. There were big changes in my absence, but my KIT days meant I felt fully informed, and when I rejoined the staff for INSET on the first day back in January, I didn’t feel like I had lots to catch up on.

Throughout the time I was off, I also connected with many people through twitter, started my blog and did lots of reading. Engaging in all kinds of CPD allowed me to practise the art of balancing parenthood with my career, which I’m refining now I’m back at work. The choices I made, and continue to make, about how to combine different areas of my life have seen me return to teaching as a more confident, efficient and effective professional.