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. Following 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. First up, is Rebecca Cramer: the Secondary Head Teacher and Co-Founder of the Ofsted ‘Outstanding’ all-through school, Reach Academy Feltham, and MTPT Project Leadership Advocate. In her third year of headship, Rebecca had her first son, and returned to her position full time five months later. Her partner, Max Haimendorf, Executive Principal of King Solomon Academy, worked part time to ensure he got his own share of parental leave. Rebecca is really passionate about ensuring other potential head teacher candidates know how attainable school leadership and parenthood – especially motherhood – can be, but how did she do it?
“My attitude to most things is, ‘If it is important enough then I’ll make it work.’ For me, running a school and having a family were both important so I always knew I would make it work. That is not to say it is easy. I was 27 years old when we were approved to open Reach Academy Feltham and it was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity that I couldn’t put on hold until after I had had a family. Nor did I want to. My sister and I grew up in a single-parent household with a working mother and while I have been in a wonderful marriage for many years now, somewhere in the back of my mind is always a niggle that I need to be (able to be) self-sufficient and I need to be successful in my own right. If I’m honest, the only thing I thought about in regards to having a family and a career was that I wanted to be quite far along on my trajectory towards headship by the time I had a child (if I was able to). I definitely have had the ‘leaving before you leave’ conversation with other senior leaders in schools though. On the other hand I’ve also had conversations with those who have been promoted or applied for headships as their next career move while on maternity leave!”
“I love my job and the hardest thing I found was that everyone would tell me that I wouldn’t want to return after I had my son, and then look at me like I was crazy when I told them that I thought I would want to get back to work fairly quickly. I remember having this conversation with Amanda Phillips, sadly now deceased, who was an Executive Principal of a number of schools and had raised a family while being a head teacher: she told me that I should just ignore everyone and do what was right for me because happy parents equal happy children. What was refreshing was that a number of people would ask Max if he was planning to have any time off too. They would then treat him like a hero for looking after his own child, which he and I both found slightly annoying (me more so than him I am sure)! I’m not sure I really addressed either of these things. When you are pregnant or have a baby so many people want to give you unsolicited advice that you learn to nod and smile and block them out I think!”
“The most complicated thing, and something that I didn’t get right, was handing over my responsibilities during my maternity leave. It wasn’t clear enough to everyone that I wasn’t going to be in charge for a while, and I didn’t really feel ready to fully relinquish this control. This led to a challenging time for my team who didn’t feel like they had quite enough authority to make important decisions, but they needed to make them because I wasn’t physically there. I was the first person in the school to go on maternity leave and we all learned a lot of painful lessons from that process. On reflection, I should have gone back to work sooner than after 5 months. I was mentally ready very quickly and what I discovered was that for me, the routine and the interactions of working in a school keep me feeling satisfied and successful and give me purpose. Being a mother gives me a whole other, and in many ways much more powerful, sense of purpose, but in the early days babies don’t give a lot back and I quickly realised how important adult conversation that wasn’t about baby sleep or baby poo was to my wellbeing. I also felt a sense of responsibility to the children for whom the school forms a surrogate parental safety system. I wanted them to know that I was still around, that I was coming back and, as importantly, I now had other and additional responsibilities to my son that ultimately came first. I wanted them to be able to ask questions about birth and breastfeeding and to be able to show them the realities of being a new mother because our society often hides the truth of those first few months away.”
“We both felt that it was an important thing for him to do, and while it definitely had a negative impact on his school, it had a really positive impact on his relationship with Rafe. I would say that it helped me to feel less guilty about returning to work, but for me it was really important that they had time together to bond in the way that I had with Rafe. I’m not sure it stopped me worrying about him every second of the day though, especially when I would receive photos of them in pub gardens with captions, ‘I’ve forgotten his milk, but this is fine right?’ with a pint in front of the baby! I wanted to go back full time, so we would have made it work if Max hadn’t taken time off. I do think that it sent an important message to his staff about valuing both parents and their decisions around work.”
“Erm…tricky! It gets easier. The first morning I was due back at work the nanny arrived and I was running late, very stressed and sweaty, and standing in just my tights and bra sobbing. She’s a pro though, and quickly shuffled my into my bedroom, took the baby and laughed with me at my ridiculous hormones. I am a perfectionist and need to have a plan for everything. These are qualities which lead to a great attention to detail in school and have also led to me being a good mum and managing to juggle everything. However, I have definitely needed to be more relaxed and worry less about letting other people down. When Rafe is ill, I have to take time off work to look after him. There is no alternative, and the world keeps turning. When he goes to nursery he skips in with a big kiss and no backwards glances. I could interpret that as him not wanting to be with me, but, and I think this is the teacher training coming in useful, I am proud of him: he is sociable, well-adjusted and loving and I am so thankful that I can go to work knowing that he is also happy all day. When I go to collect him, tired from a productive day at work, I get a big running-jump-kiss. We’ve both had a great day and I think it is really important that he can have great days with and without me. In practical terms I can’t really work at the weekends anymore and am often too tired to do things in the evening. Am I as good at my job now that I have a young family? In so many ways, no. However, I am different now that I have a young family. My close colleagues would say that it has softened me, made me more relaxed and approachable. I find that fascinating because I feel much less relaxed and approachable! Maybe that sense is actually a reflection of how we see ‘mothers’ in society, rather than any transformation I have gone through? Having a very similar job to my husband makes things easier in some ways because we know that there are times when we each need to lean in a little more to support the other. I wouldn’t say it has been easy, but the older Rafe gets the easier it is to find balance. We have to be more organised and coordinate our diaries in a way that we never used to which is probably the biggest practical challenge. We’ve definitely had a few moments of diary clashes and calls to grandparents for emergency childcare services!”
“I’d ask them why they are hesitant, and then I’d ask them if they’ve spoken to their line manager about their plans to start a family. We have an exceptionally open culture at Reach Academy around this. I know many people would frown upon the conversation about planning for a family, but my staff know that there are no barriers at work to them having children and the more the senior team can build plans into staffing, growth and your own promotion trajectory the more likely that you’ll be able to find a balance that works for you. We have staff who are currently pregnant, currently trying to get pregnant and currently going through processes to adopt. We would absolutely offer a headship to someone who was planning to have a family in the near future. Often the biggest barrier, especially for women, is feeling empowered to say, ‘This is what I want. Can you help me to figure out the best way to get it?’ If the advice that comes back is to put your dreams on hold until after you have a family, I would strongly challenge that. It might be the best thing in some circumstances, but in most cases the perfect headship for you isn’t going to come along very often so you should grab it with both hands and slot your family in around it. After all, you are going to have your family for the rest of your life and who knows what you will have to face in the future that you have to work around? Having a family and a career that you love isn’t a luxury, it’s key to your happiness and being a fulfilled parent and partner.”