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In her game-changing book, Lean In, Sheryl Sandburg explores the phenomenon of women in all sectors of the workforce ‘leaving before they leave’. Sandburg presents research showing that women choose certain subjects at university; go on to take on certain professional positions, or refuse to apply for promotions or more responsibilities in their twenties and thirties to ensure that their working lives are compatible with their as-of-yet non-existent families.  Many women make these – often unconscious – decisions before they even have a boyfriend or know whether they are able to have children, but apparently men do not subject themselves to the same career and family planning.

Research completed by Marianne Coleman in 2004 indicated that only 60% of female heads were also mothers, in comparison to 90% of male head teachers.  Following discussions at a recent Teach First ambassador roundtable event focusing on the barriers to headship, The MTPT Project have a suspicion that this tendency to ‘leave before they leave’ is the reason that many female teachers do not pursue school leadership positions.  However, there are lots of women out there who not only balance and thrive in headship positions with young families, they also held these roles before and during pregnancy and maternity leave.

There’s nothing like a role model to get you feeling inspired, so over the next few months, we are going to try to source these mother head teachers and find out the practical and attitudinal steps that have allowed them to have their babies, and eat their leadership cakes, too.

We’ve already heard Rebecca Cramer, Angela Browne and Liz Robinson’s stories, and now we hear from Kanchana Gamage, head teacher at Wareside C of E Primary in Hertfordshire.  Kanchana secured her first headship whilst on her first maternity leave when her baby was five months old.  Her second appointment came when she was almost nine months pregnant.  Committed to providing students and colleagues with role models that quite literally reach new heights, Kanchana also set up the Aviatrix Project after gaining her private pilot’s license to encourage more girls to study STEM subjects.

Kanchana agrees that taking on a headship role with a young family is not easy, but how did she ensure that balancing both personal and professional aspirations was attainable?

“I must be entirely honest and say that perhaps I didn’t quite know what I was getting myself in for! It was a very steep learning curve – as a mother and a leader. I was already in a demanding deputy headship position when I secured my first headship whilst on maternity leave. Although this did prepare me well I couldn’t have anticipated all the challenges I faced as a headteacher at 29 and as a mother of a very young and energetic boy! Despite the challenges I was immensely excited about the opportunity. I was able to spend 13 months at home with my son before starting my new role which gave me the balance I needed. What I do know is that I am very grateful for that opportunity and the fact that I made the decision to apply for that headship. It’s changed the course of my life.”
“As you say it is a vulnerable time so the key is preparation. Applying for my first headship was certainly easier. My second application whilst heavily pregnant and with a 6 year old was much more challenging. I really do believe that the key is planning ahead. For my first application I had already decided that my next step would be headship so the previous year I gathered as much information as I could about the types of schools I wanted to lead, kept abreast on educational changes, subscribed to and read online journals, took part in various networking events etc. I loved being a mother but I enjoyed the stimulation of keeping my toes in the education world whilst being on maternity leave. There’s a vast array of networks and information available to us now so 3am is no longer a lonely place! I always keep my application form, personal statement and CV updated so when it comes to applications it’s not an arduous task but a tweaking. This can help so much when time is such a precious commodity as a mother.

“My second application and interview process was much more challenging. I was the acting headteacher of the school at the time. This in fact made the process even more challenging. The turnaround time from application to interview was short and on the day of the interview I was also running the school followed by a late parents evening. The key here was asking for help from family, friends and my team. And also accepting that it was going to be a very challenging time – but for a very short period and taking steps to make sure it was manageable. I cancelled everything non essential in my work and personal diary and gave myself manageable tasks to do each day. This worked well for me – and then I rested a lot after the day of the interview!”

“I do work part time – but the responsibility is full time. I have an excellent team around me and a very supportive governing body. I’m also fortunate that my partner works part time too. We share parenting and we made the decision as a family that this was the best way forward for us. It allows us both the opportunity to pursue our careers and be fulfilled as parents.

“My school is small and whilst this sounds idyllic it has its fair share of challenges. I wear many hats – headteacher, teacher, cover teacher, TA, MSA, caretaker, office manager and many many more. The key is to have clear systems and processes in place. Whilst there are clearly defined roles in our school we all know that we might need to step in and do something entirely different to what that role might be. There is a real willingness to support each other and to ‘make things work’ for the children. I support and encourage everyone to have a work life balance and to ensure that they have the freedom to make time outside work fulfilling. It’s paramount that I ensure all our children succeed but to make this happen I need a healthy, happy team. This in turn means that my team support my work life balance and respect the time I have with my family.”

“Primary schools are smaller so the challenges we face are far different from those of a large secondary school. However I think that comparisons will only serve to isolate ourselves . The context is the key here – the team you have in place, the current situation in your school in terms of standards and inspections and your own family situation all play a part in how manageable a headship might be. My current headship in a very small rural setting is far more challenging than my first headship of a one form entry primary where I had a large team of staff. I think the two roles have far too many differences and subtle challenges to compare fairly.”

You must go for it! If that’s your passion then you must put yourself forward and give yourself that chance. Think carefully before you apply for headships about your circumstances. The question I continually ask myself is – can I maintain my emotional wellbeing and that of my family? Ensure that you have a support network in place – the more diverse the better and you will need them. We are taught in society to manage and be independent – it’s often perceived as a sign of strength. This in my opinion is neither wise nor practical with headship. The more help you have the better – personally and professionally. Most counties will offer support to new heads and aspiring heads. Explore the networks available to you locally. Are there any coaches or mentors who could support you through the process of applying and beyond?

“I love being a mother – and I also love being a headteacher. It’s important for me to keep a balance in life. Career and motherhood are long talked about subjects and there is no one size fits all. It’s so very personal so it’s important that you make the right choice for you and your family. It’s important for me that my boys see me as a role model and that they also grow up with a strong work ethic. I want their perceptions of women’s roles in society and the home to be as open as it can be. For them to know that women can work and aspire to leadership if they choose to whilst managing a home. Our boys are also seeing both parents working and sharing the parenting and this for us is so important. This is also the reason I set up the Aviatrix Project – being a female pilot is still not the norm and I want to break those barriers and show young people – especially girls – that anything can be the norm.

“Regardless of whether you’re pregnant, have a family or simply thinking about headship give yourself the opportunity to try – you can be fulfilled doing both. It is by no means easy and sometimes warrants the skills of an air traffic controller to navigate a working week and manage a home but it is worth it. I have two little boys who are experiencing all of this first hand and I know their lives will be far richer for it.”