MTPT alumna Madeleine (@M_X_F) talks us through her first two weeks as a full time working parent on the leadership team of her new school.
“Perhaps it takes courage to raise children.” – John Steinbeck, East of Eden (1952)
I’m two weeks in to my new role as assistant head teacher in charge of teaching and learning at a new (secondary) school. And so far, I couldn’t be happier. Baby F-B (aged 7 ½ months) is being looked after by her dad, and both of them couldn’t be happier.
So how have the team at my new school made this transition so excellent for me? And what can other schools leaders and future working parents learn from this? Warning: this blog is full of mundane details as well as wider lessons as when I was preparing to go back to work, that is what I needed.
Well we should start before the beginning – my appointment. An employer who spends an hour and a half showing round a heavily pregnant potential candidate, then shortlists her, invites her to interview and appoints her is already starting well. Of course this should be the norm, but I suspect it isn’t always. So if you’re thinking of going for a new role while pregnant/on leave, I’d say go for it – if they take you seriously there is a good chance this is the place for you. If they don’t, whatever the wrongs and wrongs of that situation, you may well not have felt happy/supported there anyway, so good riddance.
After that we come to the preparation. My first week in September was Full On with a capital F and O. 4 duties every day, daily learning walks, and a relatively busy teaching timetable. So I was extremely glad that I had taken the opportunity to visit the school several times during the summer term (days which I was paid for). I had met key colleagues including everyone I am line managing, started to learn staff’s names, and had the opportunity to present my vision during a summer INSET. I also did a fair bit of reading and prep behind the scenes while on mat leave, so felt confident in my ideas from day 1. If you are working full time already, this may not be possible for everyone, and I am not a big advocate of doing loads of work in the summer. So if that is your situation, then speak to the head about starting slowly. New staff with teaching and learning responsibilities at Oasis Academy South Bank for instance are explicitly told to focus wholeheartedly on their own teaching and observing colleagues for the first several weeks, before they are expected to start leading CPD or developing anything new.
Another aspect of preparing involved preparing baby F-B, aged 7 months, for the change. I could go into more detail but in brief we moved her to her own cot, got her used to not co sleeping, started giving her more solids, and moved to bottle feeding expressed milk during the day for the 3 days before I started, to give my body a chance to adjust. We also had a ‘handover week’ where we were both at home and getting used to the new routine so dad would know what to do when he took over full time. Well actually, we had a handover 6 weeks over the summer holidays, which did a lot to build up his confidence to take her out, but I realise this is totally luxurious. We have yet to find actual childcare for her for when dad goes back to work , so I am by no means an expert on this, but it strikes me that if at all possible, starting the new childcare arrangements a week or so before you go back gives everyone the chance to adjust. Some people do more gentle or ‘stepped’ returns, starting just one or two days a week and building up. This may work well but depending on the time of year may not be practical.
Most importantly, what happened when I actually started? Well like I said I was thrown in at the deep end with lots of duties, planning, CPD and meetings. I have felt like a full part of the leadership group (LG) from day 1, though I still had to check exactly what the sanction is for missed homework recently. That said, I am aware that my colleagues on the LG (there are only four of us plus the head) are responsible for a lot more than me at the moment – like the SLT at my last school they still seem to me like superheroes able to pause time and complete all their zillions of disparate tasks while remaining unflappably calm! I appreciate the fact that they are helping to protect my teaching and learning role so I can focus wholeheartedly on that (I also have line management responsibilities which I am enjoying).
As a child-free, carefree teacher and middle leader in the earlier part of my career, I was generally happy to stay at work until 5, 6 or occasionally later if necessary to make sure I did a good job and had every i dotted and t crossed. So it feels strange now to have something – someone – very important to rush home to. I’m lucky at the moment that she’s with her dad, so I don’t have a childcare pick up to worry about, so I can be flexible. On Tuesdays we have leadership group meeting til 6, so that is my latest leave. Most other days so far I have managed to leave between 4-5 and get home in time for her dinner, bath and bed routine, which is great as I am still breastfeeding. On Fridays I leave at 3 (our school day ends at 2.45, which helps). To do this I have had to be very strict with my time, and have found going in early helps (currently leaving home about 6.30am and getting in about 7.15, before anyone calls me a slacker!) The other thing that has been vital to the success of this scheme is having work email on my phone and travelling by public transport. These two things combined mean I reply to a lot of emails on the tube, and when feeding, and any other spare moment, so I haven’t (yet) experienced overflowing-inbox-itis. If you’re wondering how I got time to write this blog, the answer is on my phone, while feeding, mainly.
The most difficult thing about leaving earlier than I’m used to is finding time to fit in all the meetings (line management, meetings with the head, teaching & learning group, year 11 parent meetings, etc). There have already been times when I’ve looked at my calendar (also on my phone) in despair, thinking ‘when on earth am I going to fit in this one?’ I now have some 7.30am meetings scheduled. Not something I am hugely looking forward to, but if it saves time in the afternoon, I’m happy. A helpful feature in my new school is weekly ‘co-planning’ periods instead of after school department meetings. Whole subject groups are timetabled non contact time at the same time so we can talk and plan together.
I assumed I would be doing lots of work from home in the evenings, but this has proved more difficult than I expected. By the time I have played with baby, fed her twice, put her to bed and eaten dinner myself it is usually about 8pm. At 9pm I have to start my ‘bedtime routine’ of expressing milk, showering etc and usually feeding again (and this one takes while as she is half asleep) so I can get to bed at a reasonable time. So that leaves 1 hour to do work! And I am often so tired that this is not a very productive hour. So I have had to learn not to be a perfectionist. Luckily, there are excellent English lessons and resources saved centrally, so my colleagues have made this feat much more doable. Usually I would make them my own, spending more time than is reasonable tweaking and changing lessons. I have done that a bit but it just isn’t practical, so I am trying to just look at them before I teach them, do the printing, then pick them up and go, making adaptations for my students in the lesson where necessary. I have marked a set of books which fitted nicely into my one free free this week, and have timetabled marking each class for an hour before school.
I am working full time, but the word flexibility still applies. I have learnt that if you ask for what you need, you are more likely to get it! So far I have asked for one lunchtime where I am not so intensely on duty and can sit down to eat (!) and spend some time with my department. I also requested to miss a year 7 parents information evening on the grounds that I had very little to do with year 7 directly, and would be missing two feeds to attend (if you’re interested in breastfeeding and working dynamics, see the postscript!) The head thought about it for a few seconds and said yes to both requests, which I appreciate. Other teachers in the school, some with middle leadership responsibilities, have flexible working arrangements where they cover forms certain days and are free other days to do school drop offs for their own children, leave before the end of the day, etc. The English department is made up of a full time temporary HoD, two full time members of LG, the usual HoD who is off on a lovely travelling sabbatical, a part time mum of two head of ks3, who is doing a fabulous job, two other part time mums who are amazing teachers, and a wonderful almost retired teacher who is also part time. Sounds difficult to manage, but communication is strong and so far it’s going really well.
This brings me to the end of this excessively long blog post which feels more like a chapter of an autobiography. But before I sail off into the sunset I want to say that this post is not intended to make anyone feel bad, or suggest that it’s easy, or any other such things. I haven’t yet had my child be ill while I’m at work. I haven’t had to deal with childcare. I haven’t done an ‘exam season’ yet. I haven’t got a toddler too! All of those challenges are ahead. It is intended though as a positive story of what life can be like as a working new parent, and what good family friendly schools look like. If you aspire to something like this but aren’t feeling supported where you are now, keep looking, the right workplace for you exists somewhere out there!
We have a vacancy for history and will have several more next year as we are a growing school (but with low staff turnover!), so if you’re in London or outer North/West London and like the sound of it, get in touch.
Postscript- if you’re a breastfeeding mum and want all the juicy details:
I feed baby F-B in the early morning (has varied between 4.30 and 6.30 these past two weeks). I can then last all day without leakage or pain issues (which I am mighty relieved about) while she has expressed bottles. I feed again when I get home usually roughly around 5. Then again at bedtime at 7. I was expressing at 9 and feeding again at 10 ish before I went to bed, but this was taking a long time so I have just started experimenting with expressing when I get home at the same time or just after feeding (there is plenty after waiting all day!) I am not expressing at work because that would frankly be a nightmare, but if you do want to, HR are legally obliged to provide you with somewhere suitable and private to do so that is not a toilet. I breastfeed her normally at the weekend.
Previously in this series: