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Do Parents Make Better Teachers?

By Tracey Leese

 

When I look back at my career, it feels like it’s split into two halves. BC and PC – Before-Children and Post. I am 8 years PC having been a bit late to the game when it came to child producing. My strategy had been to work as hard as I could career-wise before I had children – little did I know that working hard would take on an entirely new meaning in the years that followed.

I was head of a core department when I announced that I was expecting my first child. I had even timed this so that I could make it to the end of the academic year before maternity leave – having been petrified that my exam classes would need cover. I look back at this choice bewildered why this mattered to me so much – from a different perspective now it seems silly (and perhaps arrogant) that my students would be incapable of behaving/ succeeding without my physical presence.

This first pregnancy was an interesting time, people I didn’t know terribly well told me knowingly “you won’t care about your career when the baby’s here” and asking me how many days I would “drop” when I returned to work. Well-intentioned comments mostly from colleagues who I assume meant well. But it felt a bit tone-deaf coming from people with whom I had done little more than phatically exchange platitudes with prior. Of course, every parent should have the option to work flexibly, but this wasn’t an option for me and I resented the assumptions made. I also assumed that when I was a mother my brain would radically re-wire and I would feel completely differently about my career – which to all intents and purposes had hitherto been my baby.

To my surprise, it transpired that whilst I loved my son very much, I still cared about my career I realised quickly that this was not mutually exclusive as I had been led to believe (in fact I got a promotional post whilst on maternity leave – essentially driven by the desire to work closer to home). However, I was struck by how differently I viewed the young people I interacted with, knowing that each one of them was loved by their parents in the same vociferous and intense way that I loved my baby. It had not been lost on me before that people hand over the thing they hold most precious to schools every day – boy did I feel this acutely after maternity leave.

To unpick this seismic shift in my teacher identity, I guess it comes back to having a greater sense of the importance individual children. Becoming a mother and viewing all children through this maternal lens resulted in a heightened sense of the significance of meeting their emotional needs, ensuring they were fully ready for the next stage of their education and safeguarding them.

Clearly there are lots of areas where teaching and parenting overlap – the need for patience, unending selflessness and the imparting of values. Both roles require high levels of emotional investment and commitment – not to mention the careful creation (or curation) of a supportive and loving environment. But does that mean that parents are better at teaching?

NASUWT published the Being a Teacher and a Parent survey in 2020. Of the 3,298 teachers who responded to the survey 96% reported that they had dependent children. In a profession which is starved of both resources and time, it’s perhaps little wonder that according to The Chartered College of Teaching women aged 30-39 are statistically most likely to leave the profession. In fact, it is the same demographic who leave the profession year on year. Women aged 20-39 – in other words: mothers. However, it is my personal experience that the heightened and holistic lens afforded by parenthood can actually result in better practitioners.

Possible reasons why parents leave the profession:

  • A lack of flexible working opportunities,
  • Working practices which don’t feel family-friendly,
  • Childcare costs/ logistics,
  • Unsupportive school culture,
  • Workload outside of the school day

Whilst many parents struggle to devote the same time out of school to teaching, and goodwill becomes something which has to be rationed rather than indulged liberally supporting every single school initiative that sits outside of directed time (or was that just me?). But fighting to ensure that every child is exposed to the same feedback/ opportunities/ curriculum you would deem to be good enough for your own child is a gear I didn’t know existed.

That isn’t to say that childless teachers are less effective, looking back on the BC years of my career I could never replicate the level of devotion I was able to invest in my classes and resources – I was also the first to volunteer for a residential, school disco, or trip and I was happy to pour my time, money and resources into my job with reckless abandon. Whereas now my time is my most precious commodity and I have to budget it accordingly. Something which I fear can sometimes appear as un-committed – whereas in reality I feel permanently overcommitted from bearing the emotional load of my own children in addition to those I teach.

There are other ways in which parenthood has impacted on my professional identity – my patience and energy may not be what it was, but this is outweighed by the heightened compassion and perspective afforded by parenthood. Not to mention practical strategies to boost parental engagement and participation. Similarly, being a parent is extremely helpful in terms of identifying and evaluating sensible working practices and workload. This has resulted in me striving for impact over “working hard.”

When my children started primary school there was another shift, as the reality of experiencing the educational system as a consumer was realised. I found this humbling and fascinating and the ability to speak the language of phonics has helped me when working with students with additional needs in particular. I would also suggest that my son experiencing key stage 2 has helped me enormously in terms of supporting students transition into key stage 3. As well as general insight into the holistic and social aspects of how transition impacts on parents.

Ultimately although the profession loses mothers, for me personally parenthood has made me a far better practitioner and school leader. It had never been lost on me that parents hand over the very thing they hold most dear to us every day, and since experiencing this first hand, I have found this to be the absolute rocket fuel motivation to make the most impact possible – which has proven to be the mother of all lessons to me.

 

You can read more by Tracey Leese here.