Interim Headteacher, and mum of one, Farihah Alam (@farihahalam), shares how taking on challenges during her maternity leave gave her the courage to step up to headship when she returned to school.

In October 2023, I gave birth to my daughter having been a Deputy Headteacher at a school for just over 12 months. Having been the career woman in my twenties, I reached a point where my husband and I wanted to start a family and actually, work was going to have to take a backseat and for the first time in my career.  I welcomed it. 

I am fortunate in that my husband works for Teach First and with their flexible working policies, we were able to tap into Teachers SPL and use Shared Parental Leave so that across 11 months of leave shared between us, we only surrendered to the dreaded statutory maternity pay for about 5 weeks. 

I returned back to work the following Easter, and after an unsuccessful attempt at securing a flexible working arrangement, I felt quite deflated about being a senior leader and a working mum. As a professional, I am and have been a deeply committed teacher, but when it felt like I was torn between mum and school – it was the first time I had seriously considered leaving schools and the education sector entirely. 

With the help of a network of remarkable women and coaching that I received through MTPT, I was able to process the conflict that I felt, reframe what (at the time) were really negative emotions towards my return to work and actually settle back into school in a way that didn’t leave me with that horrid ‘mum guilt’ that everyone warns you about. 

Shortly after my return to school, in an unexpected turn of events, I found myself in a situation where the need to become interim headteacher arose and I was put into a position where I had very little choice: I was going to attempt to be mum and headteacher at once. Gulp. 

Whilst this wasn’t the first time in my career that something like this had happened, it was the first time I was in a situation where I had to really consider what my values were and how I could possibly take on such a big role whilst now having the biggest role ever: mother.

And just when I thought things couldn’t get more hectic, at the time of stepping into this headship, I was actually 5 weeks pregnant with our second child!

On paper, as I write this, I can totally understand why anyone would jump to the conclusion that the choices I have made as a leader and mother are quite frankly bonkers, but actually, when I found myself in this situation, the real question I asked myself was “well, why can’t I be a mum and headteacher?” and I decided that actually, in a world where there aren’t that many women attempting to do this, we need more to try, learn and change the rules at the table in the first place. 

So here I am, into the new academic year. I now have a daughter in nursery three days a week (thank you grandparents and husband for the other days) and I am 22 weeks pregnant with my second daughter. I can’t say this has been easy, but I have learnt some things along the way so far: 

  1. Have open and honest conversations with those in your network

When the opportunity to take up the headship came up, the first thing I did was go home and discuss it with my husband and family. I made it really clear to those above me that this wasn’t a decision I could make on my own. It needed to be a family decision for us all to consider the risks and benefits before we went any further. I am infinitely grateful to my loved ones for the support that they offer both in real terms with childcare but also just moral support on the difficult days.

2. Be transparent and vulnerable with your staff. 

I am a mother of 1 with another on the way. I can’t hide that (and boy, did I try in the first trimester). And nor should I hide it. In my opinion,  it works in my favour that my staff know that I have a daughter to work around and that sometimes, they won’t see me on the corridors because I just need a pregnant lady sit down. That’s okay. I don’t think I’ve lost any respect amongst the staff – if anything, I think it’s been a talking point for women in the school to consider how they may aspire to take on leadership roles in the future.

3. Don’t be afraid to seek help. 

I can’t do it all, all of the time. And that’s okay. Sometimes I need help with covering a Parents’ Evening. Sometimes I need a grandparent to help with a pick up. Sometimes I need someone to just listen to me rant on the drive home so that I can decompress and then be fully present when its time to come home and play. There is no shame in saying you need help because if you don’t ask, you don’t get.

4. Know your boundaries 

My senior team know that I am on pick up duty which means our SLT meetings can only run for a maximum of 90 minutes before I am out of the door. To date, no one has complained about me insisting on that. Yes, it means colleagues have to be more prepared and yes it means I’m sharper in keeping conversations focused – but no one resents not having to sit in a meeting room for more than 90 minutes, trust me. 

I also maintain that certain boundaries are sacrosanct: pick up, dinner time, Saturdays and special occasions – they are mine and I am entitled to them just like anyone else is. So I protect them at all costs. Again, as headteacher, colleagues respect you for modelling a healthy balance and your children will appreciate you being fully present.

5. Put your own oxygen mask on first

I read about this somewhere and it’s the notion that you can’t save anyone else until you’ve put your own oxygen mask on first. What does that look like for me? It’s a hot bath at the end of the day when my feet are done in. It’s some time in the swimming pool on my own without baby. It’s listening to a podcast on my own on the drive to work in the peace and serenity of my own car with no one there. And all of that is okay. Because without those things, I’m no use to my daughter, and I’m no use to my school.