In her game-changing book, Lean In, Sheryl Sandberg explores the phenomenon of women in all sectors of the workforce ‘leaving before they leave’. Sandberg 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 2018 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 we created our Motherhood and Headship blog series to share the practical and attitudinal steps that have allowed the mother-head teachers in The MTPT Project community to have their babies, and eat their leadership cakes, too.

The sixth in our series, we now hear from Emily Stevens, Head Teacher at Cockton Hill Junior School in Bishop Auckland, near Durham since 2015.  As a head teacher, Emily contributes to JUSCO, a junior school focused collaboration, and is a governor at two schools – another primary and an alternative provision.

Emily was in post and pregnant during the 2020-21 global COVID-19 pandemic.  So how did she provide much-needed stability in leadership at a time when she was so personally vulnerable?

Whenever I am faced with a new unexpected challenge as a leader I recall an experienced and serving head who led one of my NPQH sessions. They had dealt with a fire that week in school and they stated that you will always have something new to deal with in the role but you’ll use your experience from other unexpected challenges to solve the current one.

I thought leading a school through a pandemic was the challenge of 2020 but pregnancy added a new dimension to this. How do you manage to lead and support your school community when you are dealing with such significant personal change?

That first trimester was tricky. I did not share our news as we were cautious parents-to-be but each day brought constant nausea and little appetite leaving me more tired than normal. Face masks were in place which made me feel worse but were absolutely necessary as the Kent variant took hold nationwide.  

Pre-Christmas, my husband provided me with unparalleled support ensuring I had realistic expectations of what I could achieve and the Christmas break was welcome reprieve. I think for the very first time I did no school work, showing me that it is possible to switch off.

Prior to returning I decided to inform my Chair of Governors.  It’s important to remember the duty of care held for us as head teachers and once we had the all clear from the 12 week appointment, staff were told.

Obviously whilst this was happening personally, we had another lockdown where demand for school places was higher and guidelines had changed further. Fortunately, I was well supported by established and new members of the SLT plus the rest of the team who demonstrated flexibility to ensure pupils at home and at school were well supported.

Pregnancy symptoms lingered but it became more manageable as staff knew and they kept a close eye on my well being. At home I had friends and family doing the same.

By the time 28 weeks came guidance had changed and the opportunity to remain in school safely was there. I knew I could action this and control my interactions and socially distance from others for chunks of the day but I would have offered and insisted others in face to face roles worked from home. To some extent this became out of my control: having kept COVID from the school doors for so long, as the summer term entered those last weeks, cases exploded with the Delta variant. Numerous bubbles had to switch to remote learning. Fortunately budget had allowed my maternity cover to start and therefore I increased my days working from home each week under the request and agreement of the Chair of Governors. The interim head was able to be in school, understand our journey and become familiar with the working day doing joint work with myself and the team either in person or virtually. This was hugely beneficial to the school community.

I was at school on the last day of term which was a Friday and my little boy arrived on the Monday!

So without being too clichéd what have been my takeaways?


  • The team in school are vital. Lean on them when needed and keep communication open and honest.
  • Listen to your body.  It took a pregnancy to ensure I stopped and took a break without feeling guilty about it!
  • Tell someone about your pregnancy as soon as you feel ready.  I wish I had told my Chair sooner.
  • Ask for support.

On reflection these aren’t unique to leading a school in a pandemic whilst pregnant they are essential to any leader at any time. That’s worth remembering!

 As I sit writing this during a night feed, maternity leave is well underway and the steep learning curve of being a first time parent is well underway. In the future, but not just yet, thoughts on leading a school with a young child will be the next steps in my leadership journey.