Claire Schnellmann, part-time primary teacher and new MTPT Project blogger reflects on how volunteering with her baby on her first maternity leave has acted as excellent informal pastoral CPD, and the lessons it has taught her about building community relationships.

When I took a year off from work to have my first child I knew that caring for my completely dependent daughter would take up a lot of my time. In the early days recovering from the birth, the constant changing and feeding routine and managing the most basic household tasks seemed to take up all the hours of the day. However, I do remember that during this time I was keen to take advantage of the flexibility and regular daytime availability. As I began to see some light and capacity for activities other than feeding and changing I sent a few emails out to local organisations asking if I would be able to volunteer during the daytime with my infant daughter. She was born in June 2020, so I had a few understandable replies saying that they were only using existing volunteers to deliver essential services during the pandemic, with one response saying that they would be interested to hear more from me.

After a few conversations about my background, including my professional career, I was accepted to regularly volunteer (with my daughter) in a local organisation which supports women who have been affected by exploitation. They didn’t say whether they’d ever had a teacher on maternity leave volunteering with them before, or a parent with a baby – but they do often work with women, who are accompanied by babies and small children, so this may have been a factor in their openness.

This opportunity has led me to reflect on the benefits that it has on my development as a teacher.

1) You can build relationships within a local community – your own or your school’s

As teachers we know that relationships are the foundation of schools – with staff, colleagues, other public services, parents and so many people in the local community. For me, this opportunity gave me the chance to work with some dedicated and passionate social workers who have been able to share some of their expertise. I know understand more of why we need these people supporting us with safeguarding because they have different knowledge and approaches which are needed to protect students. The other volunteers are a diverse group of people and I am confident that several would be great at speaking to students in my school if an appropriate opportunity arose.

Volunteering in the area where I work would have a direct link with relationships which might impact my role in school, but volunteering in my own local area could have benefits for possible future roles if I find that working closer to home is helpful (and also for my own wellbeing and sense of community!) At least it is likely that my own child would possibly attend a school this area since I live here.

2) You can more fully appreciate the individual

We already do this as teachers, or at least we try to do it where we are able to. The longer you stay in a job and a school, the more you have an understanding of the factors which affect an individual student, as well as their own temperament, strengths and weaknesses. Volunteering with a different demographic can extend this further and has certainly helped me see the importance of having a formal education and qualifications in all kinds of ways which I hadn’t appreciated before.

Seeing an individual later down the line and knowing that they were once in school – perhaps already vulnerable at that stage, and perhaps not – has helped me to recognise what it is that individuals remember about school. Experiencing kindness, compassion, understanding, honesty and patience by someonewho recognises their efforts, knows them, believes in them and demonstrates hope for their future is remembered a long time after school. These are the exact same virtues and qualities which make a good volunteer.

Also as a parent I now see much more the effort involved in raising one individual child – the thought of going back to 30 individuals, 4-6 times per day terrified me at first – but through volunteering I see that the classroom experience and orgnisational systems are also important for different reasons and it has helped me to appreciate more the one-to-one opportunitities with students in school.

 3) The slower pace and lack of targets can help you to see what matters most

When I was teaching full-time, it really was full-time and full-on. The early days of parenting were a bit similar : full-time and full-on, but after a few months everything became more sustainable and I regained some capacity and margin in life. When you volunteer there aren’t deadlines, targets and appraisals (not for you anyway) and when you ask if you can bring a child with you there is implicitly the expectation that you don’t even have to arrive at a fixed time, with all the correct equipment to do something meaningful to help.

I could never teach with my baby, but that doesn’t mean that there aren’t other meaningful tasks that can help people and students, that are more relaxed. In school there are times and places where people are more relaxed outside the classroom – on trips, during lunch, in the canteen or in the library. The adults who encounter students here can have just as much of an impact on students as a teacher and if I ever get a senior leadership position I would have these areas and settings in mind when considering school ethos and improvement. 

None of these are necessarily measurable CPD – I may be able to track my time and the tasks I have done – but what I have gained is much more worthwhile. It is an experience that I would remember and draw upon if I was applying for a pastoral or leadership role. It is also an experience that will help me work with the individuals in my care, particularly those who are vulnerable. My gut feeling is that it will have more impact than individual training sessions I have attended, and surely impact is the measure of effective CPD! From this, I feel that professionally, my maternity-leave has been more akin to an academic sabbatical than merely a gap in my service.