I recently returned to my profession of twelve years after my second period of maternity leave: English teaching. I am the mother of two tiny people, a girl, aged one and a boy, aged three.
Parenthood is a job that requires us to give up almost all of our time and energy for the well-being of another. Teachers too are, by nature, givers. The desire to help others, to give something of ourselves up for their inspiration, their betterment, is at the heart of belonging in the classroom. So we find ourselves giving. And giving. And giving.
When I was a young and idealistic teacher, the pressures of the job were a price I was willing to pay for the unrivalled satisfaction of knowing I was truly helping a young person. I would mark into the night, spend hours perfecting a lesson or making resources, run clubs and go on trips and… There was no line between my job and who I was. I was a teacher.
Now I am a mother. And I keep giving.
I have held my pale and whimpering baby as she struggles for breath in a stark hospital room, while emailing cover, one-handed from my phone. I have sent my wailing toddler to nursery with a fever of 40 because the anxiety and workload of having a day off is too much to bear, and there is nobody else to watch him. I have stayed late to finish some marking or talk to a student even though the hours until bedtime are ticking away, and those precious moments with my children are painfully fleeting. I have marked with my daughter crying at my feet because there are deadlines that have to be met. I have cried too, stroking her hair with my free hand, desperately seeking to comfort her distress.
I have felt the hot spike of shame and regret when my absence – my failing – pushes a stressed colleague closer to breaking point and I have despaired that there is nothing – nothing- I can do about it. I have taught a five period day followed by a parents’ evening on two hours sleep and felt sick with exhaustion and overwhelmed with heartache that I didn’t get to kiss my children goodnight.
I have felt like a bad mother. I have felt like a bad teacher. I have felt like there is no way to give enough time, enough effort, enough of me, to both. I feel like I am not enough. Because both roles are all-consuming. At times, it has nearly broken me.
In the short years since I started my family, not long after the coalition government came to power, I have seen the monitoring and paperwork that my colleagues and I have to endure increase in volume and perceived importance. I have seen us all struggle to keep up with three specification changes and an end to re-sits. I have seen the number of times I am observed increase from three times a year to nearer three times a term. I have seen testing increase and the content we are asked to teach become more prescriptive.
In the wake of all this extra pressure, I have seen my pay, which barely covers my childcare costs, become performance-based, meaning that prioritising my students over my own children becomes even more difficult to avoid, even when there is only so much I can do to ensure the exam success of my pupils.
I have seen my planning time taken away, my contact time increase, my pension reduced, and my school’s budget cut. But I keep giving. We all keep giving, in the face of our time, our resources, our rights, even our sanity being taken away. I have been treated for stress and anxiety and witnessed colleagues suffer similarly.
More than this, as a parent, my profession is taking something far, far more precious from me: the brief years when my children really need me.
A friend recently spoke to me about the possibly of changing careers, now that she is a mother. Teaching really appeals she says – because of the long holidays with the children and school hours. “Teaching is so family friendly.”
I stare at her, open-mouthed, for a moment or two.
Teaching is not family friendly at all, I say, sadly. Maybe it was, once. For me, teaching is constantly in conflict with my family life. There’s just no way to be a mother and a teacher and feel successful at both. Every single day, I feel like I am letting someone down. I am stretched thin, like butter scraped over too much bread. I honestly don’t know how long I can sustain it. I still love my subject, enjoy sharing that love with students and watching them grow and achieve – but ultimately I love my own children more and letting them down makes me hate myself.
So why am I still in the profession, I hear you ask? It’s simple; I am a teacher. I don’t know how to be anything else. I am also a mother and I can’t be anything else. Unless we can make teaching family friendly again, I am doomed to be in conflict with myself indefinitely, or leave the profession. Whether I can manage the huge weight of my conflicting responsibilities and pressures remains to be seen.
Today, I left my little girl wracked with coughs and sobs, tears streaming down her face, and I went to work – though every fibre of my being begged me to stay, to comfort, to be a mother.
Today, I hate myself.
Today, I feel like my teaching days are numbered.
To read an update on this situation, please see ‘Teaching: a break-up letter.’
This post is not intended as a criticism of any of the schools that I have taught at. I have worked at several extremely supportive schools over the course of my career – schools that are simply doing their best to support staff in the light of difficult countrywide changes. The post is intended only as a personal reflection on my struggles as a working mother and an exploration of how government policy impacts that. Thanks to all who have read so far.