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Dreams Realised

Kristy Turner (@doc_kristy) is a Chemistry teacher and lecturer at Manchester University, and a single mum to her daughter. She tells of how making bold decisions before, during and after her maternity leave gave her the opportunity to reassess her career and realise a number of professional dreams, including co-authoring a book of high quality, accessible resources for secondary Chemistry teachers.

I found myself pregnant at the very worst possible time. I had just secured my dream job, a job I had been stalking for more than a year. Worse still, it was a year’s secondment (as a Royal Society of Chemistry school teacher fellow) due to start in August with my due date being December. It also quickly became apparent that I was going to be a single parent. I could have slunk back to my secure post as Head of Chemistry in a community comprehensive school, given up the dream and retreated to a safe place with familiar faces at a time when everything else was about to change. I didn’t.

To give credit where credit is due the RSC didn’t bat an eyelid when I communicated the news of my pregnancy although I can imagine what the reaction was in the office when my email landed! I threw myself

into my new role at the University of Manchester, managing the daily rail commute with relative ease. I scheduled my days so I got up and into Manchester early and left before the evening rush hour. I read around widely, in work and on trains, getting a feel for the area of chemistry education research.

For a number of years I had had a book in my head, a book of resources to make chemistry teachers’ lives easier, but that, crucially, was within the means of schools with stretched budgets. At the time (and still to a certain extent) there were two real choices of resources: costly offerings by the big publishers, and the quality-control free, unregulated lottery of TES downloads. Launching my idea through the RSC seemed like the best fit model and predicting how the next few months were going to be, I recruited another school-teacher fellow, Catherine Smith, as co-author. The book provided a legacy from my fellowship year and also meant that there were objectives linked to my work which could be achieved from home. I finished work a week before my due date (mainly due to the increasing length of time it was taking me to walk between the train station and my office!) and the book was nearly finished (if not proof-read or edited) by the time I returned from maternity leave 13 weeks later.

Returning to work was less of a shock than it could have been; using holidays and KIT days I managed a very phased return and quickly adjusted to a routine of packing my breastpump and cool bag each morning and pumping in my office. I was lucky to be able to leave my daughter in the care of my mum who had retired early. Still, part of the job involved travelling to various meetings around the country – you haven’t lived until you have had to ask a government department for a room in which to express milk, or indeed, used a breast pump whilst sat at your seat on an intercity train!

I made the decision early on that I wouldn’t leave my daughter overnight if it wasn’t absolutely necessary. It hardly felt fair to leave her with my mum when she already did all of my childcare. That meant when the time came to present some of my fellowship work at a conference (Variety in Chemistry Education/Physics Higher Education Conference 2012), she came and so did my mum! Conferences are a big part of the academic side of my work and over the years my daughter has become a conference regular. She has become quite used to her regular mini-breaks in various UK cities and is well acquainted with a number of UK university campuses. In general I have had very little issue with this – only one university has not allowed her to stay with me on campus, and as my face has become more widely known, I have found organisers have begun to pre-empt my needs.

Having said this, I have found the academic community to be quite conservative – my being a single parent often takes people by suprise.  On one occassion, at a conference in London, I mentioned to a fellow delegate that my daughter and mum were with me.  Later, I mentioned that I was a single parent and found that he had assumed that my husband was away working, hence my daughter being at the conference.  Apparently I don’t ‘look’ like a single parent…!  Or perhaps the assumption is that academics don’t tend to be single parents?

The arrival of my daughter during my “year off” from my full time teaching post made me reassess my career plans. I had been climbing the ladder towards school-based management, applying for Head of Faculty and Deputy Head of 6th form posts. A year away from the hamster wheel, if not a year off work, helped me put my life into perspective. I realised I had lost sight of why I had originally gone into the job (the chemistry, not the teenagers, though they’re pretty great too). My school had also announced that they were closing the 6th form and I didn’t see myself teaching in an 11-16 school. So I applied for a job as “just” a teacher in the local boys’ independent school. This meant longer days but I was closer to home and had less professional responsibility. I interviewed for the post when my daughter was 9 weeks old. When I confirmed my attendance at interview I told them I was breastfeeding and asked if they could arrange the day so that I wouldn’t be out of the house for too long. When they happily accommodated my request, I knew that they would be a great employer!

I got the post in this new school, and resigned my previous Head of Chemistry post. I loved being just a teacher and after being a “science” teacher I particularly loved teaching only Chemistry and Biology which allowed me to hone my teaching expertise. I maintained a role as an honorary fellow at Manchester and started working with the RSC publication Education in Chemistry as a blogger. My interest in chemistry education research grew and I started to get itchy feet. I really wanted to somehow combine school teaching with HE lecturing and research. I approached my Headmaster who was supportive and then emailed the Head of School at Manchester with an application for a job that didn’t exist! I will forever be grateful to the two men who helped make that happen.

I received a reply that day asking me to meet with the Head of School and since September 2015 I have been teaching Chemistry three days a week at Manchester University and two days a week in school. I have published my first paper in chemistry education and started many others! We have travelled to many conferences to disseminate our work and I continue to enjoy the continuous variety that my role brings.

Maternity leave gave me a great pause and an opportunity to reassess what I wanted from my career – it was a period in which I was able to reconnect with myself, away from the relentlessness of full time teaching.  I have a general rule to avoid saying ‘no’ when approached by a new contact about a piece of work, though I have passed work on once I have become more established in a field and am unable to commit.  This attitude has lead to a number of unique experiences: blogging and writing, subject specific teacher training, even filming with BBC Countryfile!

To hear about Kristy’s views on inclusive conferences, look here.

For more details from her about secondments and teacher satisfaction, look here.