Alex Mason, English SLE, adoptive parent and The MTPT Project’s Adoption Advocate explains how schools can support teachers going through the adoption process.
As you go through your adoption journey you are asked to create your ‘eco-map’ of people who will be there to support you through your adoption: strangely and retrospectively, I think that your school should find its way onto this web of support. Not because they are going to be on the end of the phone whilst you are sobbing into your sleeve because you haven’t washed your hair for 10 days and they won’t stop crying; or because you feel as though you are being rejected by the small human who has experienced loss, rejection, trauma; or because you are worried that you are simply not enough. Your school should be on your web because they should provide that constant background noise that you can zone in or out of as you wish, they are supportive and understanding about the time you need, the fact that you can’t give definitive answers (yet) and are able to provide you with information and reassurance about your contract, pay, and leave without feeling as though you have to disclose everything.
It is imperative that your Head Teacher is someone that you are able to have a conversation with when you decide that you are going to pursue adoption. It is great if you have an approachable HR, but ideally you need to be able to have that conversation with your Head Teacher, and that they should be empathetic and supportive. You shouldn’t feel the need to justify your path with ‘Doris, Derek and I can’t conceive naturally so we are going to adopt’. But having that open line of communication of ‘We are going to be starting the adoption process and this is what it entails with regards to time off…’ is vital. We started stage one of our adoption journey whilst I was at one school, and then I changed schools between stage one and stage two, so I had to ensure that I was open about our adoption plan and the implications it had. Fortunately, both schools were incredibly supportive.
Strangely, adoption still seems to be relatively uncommon and it is often something that is done quietly: no fanfare or baby shower, scans or bunting, gender reveals or anything else. There are reasons for this, but it is still important that employers have the conversation so that they ensure that adopters feel included in policy, conversation and support.
So, how could schools support adopters?
Firstly, schools have got to get the duty of care right for adopters, as they do for birth parents, at both middle and senior management level. It is, like being pregnant, a very personal experience, and teachers going through adoption may only feel comfortable having certain conversation with certain levels of leadership. For me, I didn’t feel comfortable giving a lot of information to my Head of Department, but I kept my Head Teacher 100% in the picture – it wasn’t about undermining someone’s position, it is about feeling confident that the person you speak to is compassionate, empathetic and confidential about the information you share with them.
I remember when I took time off to go to adoption panel. It was a personal and private request to which the head had signed off my leave with a full day pay. However, my Head of Department called me into her classroom and told me that as she had not signed off my leave of absence request that it would be unauthorised leave, and asked if would I need the whole day off? I wonder whether the same question or lack of understanding would have been shown if I had been going for a 20-week scan or a scan to see whether the injections for fertility treatment had been working?
I think that in order for schools to support teachers who are going through adoption, they should become knowledgeable about the process they are going through – not only would this support the member of staff, but it would give another layer of insight into our students who are living within the care system.
When a member of staff says that they are going to be going through the adoption process, it would be supportive (and kind) for the Head Teacher or HR to just ask ‘what do you need?’ The member of staff ay not know at that point, but it opens a door. As adopters you will be expected to take 3 days off during stage 1 (possibly 5 depending on whether you are wanting to be recommended for Foster to Adopt and for paediatric first aid training); during stage 2 you will have between 6 and 8 social worker visits at your home, and you may be required to take days off to accommodate them if the social workers can’t facilitate after school hours. You will then need to take a day of for your adoption panel, and then it is a matter of waiting to be matched. Not only will a member of staff need time off to attend the required adoption preparation training sessions, they will need to submit a lot of information and part of that information is financial. It would be incredibly helpful if HR had a policy, when someone says that they are starting the adoption process, that would generate you adoption leave allowance (broken down into monthly payments), your contract, sick leave, dependent leave, and adoption leave policies into a booklet that you would be able to give to your social worker. This would save a lot of emails, conversations and would be incredibly useful to that member of staff.
Schools need to make sure that they have policies that cover Adoption AND Foster to Adopt; do not umbrella than into the same policy. Foster to Adopt comes with so much uncertainty – you usually have very little time between finding out and needing to start leave (it could be 24 hours! And that is exactly what we had), F2A carers may have to facilitate contact, and there is a risk that they may not get permanence and their child could be returned to the birth family, which would be heart-breaking. With Foster to Adopt you can go from nothing to everything in a blink of an eye and that can take some adjusting. Schools should be cognisant of this and make sure they don’t put any undue pressure on the member of staff in terms of handover, books, etc. They will try their best, but remember their world has just been flipped upside down and jostled sideways: that member of staff will probably be in auto-pilot and they don’t need to feel worried or guilty about leaving work quickly. They need to know it is OK.
Beyond the administration stuff, check in with them, ask them about the process, how they are. Adoption is wonderful, but the process can be frustrating and emotional: you can be left feeling exposed and vulnerable, whilst feeling determined and stoic at the same time. It is one that can leave you feeling quite isolated: both before and after placement. When you are matched with your teeny wee human, and you go on leave, you have to navigate your new role like any parent, and post-adoption depression is a real thing and many adopters face it. Keep in touch – a phone call or a text message (check before they go on leave which is best) just to see how they are.
If your school is having a staff-do, don’t forget to invite the member of staff if they have gone on leave. Make them feel included and welcome. If you are having some amazing CPD come into the school and it is something that is going to become part of the schools ethos and culture, invite them without obligation or pressure, give them a guilt-free opportunity to turn down the offer, but also allow them to feel included and as part of the team if they accept it.
Have a plan for when your staff return to work. Communicate with them before they return, and once they have returned to make sure that they are coping with their return to work. When a staff member returns to work, they may not have permanence yet, so please check in with them – ask them if they know when their hearing is, or when their celebration date is.
And lastly, remember that safeguarding will have changed for your staff member. They may not want their name and image on your website, they may say one or the other – please have a conversation with them when they return. It can be very awkward and uncomfortable having to tell someone that they can’t publish your name and image due your child being subject to a protection order.