Stepping in and Stepping Out

Assistant Head, English Teacher and North West London Advocate for The MTPT Project, Madeleine Fresko-Brown (@m_x_f) tells the story of stepping into her first leadership role when 8 months pregnancy.  When she became pregnant a second time, she was delighted by the full support of her school as she continued her personal and professional journey as school leader and mother to two girls.

When I was 8 1/2 months pregnant, I got offered my first SLT position as Assistant Head Teacher (Teaching & Learning).  Since then, I have enjoyed 2 maternity leaves – I’m coming to the end of my second one now – and had a successful year and a half of working full time in the position.  I want to share with you some of the things I think my school did right to help me achieve my dreams of both being on SLT and starting a family. I hope you can take away something either for yourself, a colleague, or for your school, now or in the future. 

  1. Recruiting pregnant people.

Maternity/paternity/shared parental/adoption leave can be a great time to make a change or take a step up in your career, and I know several people who have done it.  For me, one of the main benefits is that I had time to think, read (a bit), connect on twitter, visit other schools and generally prepare for the new role while I was off work. 

But what about the application process itself? How does someone who looks ready to pop go about interviewing for a job?

I asked to visit the school before applying. The head did not know I was pregnant until I turned up. I was a bit nervous, but he did not bat an eyelid. He then spent about an hour and a half showing me round and talking to me, inviting me to enter any classroom I wished. I saw most teachers who were teaching at the time. My pregnancy was barely mentioned. He asked me once what my plans were relating to my pregnancy, but was clear that it wouldn’t affect the process/decision. 

I applied and was shortlisted for interview. I brought lots of snacks! The pregnancy was barely mentioned throughout, except to check I was ok and not too tired.  I was further shortlisted for the second day (the only candidate who went through), by which point I knew they were taking me very seriously and my pregnancy was not a barrier at all! 

Some people may be concerned about losing the ‘enhanced maternity pay’ which is a feature of many maternity packages, providing you return to the same place of work for around 13 weeks. I did indeed forego this, but the uplift in salary made up for it in a few months. 

So lessons for aspiring parents/leaders: 

  • Take the plunge and apply when you’re pregnant – you might be surprised!

And for schools:

  • Take pregnant candidates seriously (as is your legal obligation)
  • Avoid making many comments about pregnancy, except to check they are comfortable
  1. Expectations of a new parent 

When I started, I was thrown in at the deep end – full time with a full roster of classes and duties and line management from day one. It was tough but I felt trusted and valued immediately and rose to the challenge. Where I struggled was in evening commitments- I was still breastfeeding my 7/8 month old and it was physically difficult to be away for long!

Rather than suffering in silence, I spoke up. The head was very understanding and made sure I didn’t feel obliged to go to every awards evening and after school event. At 6th form open evening, after speaking to all the students interested in psychology, I went to the deputy head and said I need to go home now (before the event had finished). The next day, a head of department, also a mum, who had seen me do this, came up to me and said she was inspired by my confidence and speaking up for what I needed. I just felt grateful to be in a place where I wasn’t worried about being judged or penalised for doing so. 

Advice for a new parent/leader:

  • Recognise your pressure points and communicate these 
  • Be confident that in doing what you are, you are a role model for other staff. 

And for a school:

  • Continue to have high expectations of new parents 
  • Support them to achieve these and understand there may be some time limitations which didn’t exist previously.

3. Preparing for another leave – continuity planning and distributed leadership

 When I started as AHT T&L, the school also hired one Lead Practitioner (LP). The next year, we added 3 more. This allowed me to do my job more effectively, but also, when my second maternity leave started looming on the horizon, there was a clear continuity plan.  

Rather than looking to replace me with a maternity cover role, the opportunity of me being gone allowed all the lead practitioners to step up and lead more themselves. They decided they’d like to take it in turns to chair the group and take care of the logistical end, I produced a detailed handover spreadsheet, and by the time I left, I felt completely comfortable that the role would be fully covered and that my colleagues were getting development opportunities to boot. 

So this advice covers any leader taking some time off for any reason:

  • Build a strong team
  • If a period of leave is coming up, delegate and empower your team to do all of the job between them! 

Another really useful thing to do before a staff member goes off is to have a pre-leave meeting, asking things like:

  • What level of communication from the school are they comfortable with?
  • Do they still want to be included on emails?
  • Do they want to be told about positions that are advertised? (the default should be yes)
  • If they are planning on switching off work emails, how should you contact them to let them know about positions?
  • Do they think they want to do KIT days and if so what sort of thing? (no obligation)
  • Have they heard of the MTPTproject?!
  1. Keeping In Touch (KIT) days

The decision to take or not take KIT days is a personal one, but some colleagues I spoke to didn’t even know it was an option.  Employees can work (and be paid for) up to 10 days while on leave, if agreed by the school. See the link for more information: Employee rights when on leave – GOV.UK

My KIT days have varied. Most fun is when I bring the baby with me, but I have also called in grandparent support when this is not practical. Here are some of the things I have done as KIT:

  • INSET day (including presenting)
  • 6th form trip to London Zoo – with baby
  • Coaching and meetings with head and lead practitioners – with baby
  • Training a colleague and visiting my psychology students – with baby
  • Challenge partners cohort event for a programme I was involved in before going on leave – including presenting – with baby
  • Facilitator training with challenge partners – without baby
  • Facilitating a school visit for a trio of schools – without baby
  • Handover meetings – without baby

Each KIT day has been interesting and enjoyable, and I’ve been happy to leave the baby bubble for a short period of time. It’s nice to talk about something other than bodily functions and sleep patterns! Importantly for me there has been no follow up work, (and little prep on the whole), so I still feel the ‘freedom’ of being off and focused on family. 

I have also had a small number of phone calls with the head. These are always initiated by me (even if he wants my opinion on something, he avoids contacting me, respecting my right to be work-free). Each time we have spoken, he has taken the time to fill me in on all the developments. This helps me to feel less daunted about the prospect of returning- I won’t have 11 months of changes to catch up on in one go!

Final thoughts 

If you are thinking about trying to grow your family and progress in your career at the same time, it can be done. If your current school doesn’t seem the right place, ask and look around for one that is. They do exist.  

If you are leading a school, do everything you can to make yours the right place for teachers with families. You will retain a loyal, happy workforce, and have cute babies to enjoy!

P.s. If you like the sound of my school and are in the North/West London/Hillingdon/Harrow area, get in touch. As a growing school, we are often recruiting for a range of roles.