“Being a mother takes the skin off you”
This was said to me by a good friend (Val Stevens, then a city councillor in Manchester). So true: any child in distress, any parent in distress, any story on the news could reduce me to tears almost instantly, once I had held Roisin. My protective shell had gone.
I had taught for 13 years before having my first child and the difference it made was extraordinary. As a young teacher my greatest fault was “getting too involved” and being overly passionate, and of course I always chose to work in challenging contexts, so I was hardly Miss Dispassionate, but this was different. This wasn’t political or professional passion anymore; this was an emotional empathy that required discipline. So I had to mature quickly: the overly passionate and involved professional channelled her “emotional skinlessness” into “if it isn’t good enough for Roisin, it isn’t good enough for any child”.
By the time I took on my first headship Roisin was 2 and a half and Finn was a baby. This school was a bit of a challenge to say the least – 7% 5 A-C WITHOUT EM and the “15th worst in the country”. My mission was clear: I had to make this school one I would be confident to send Roisin and Finn to.
Throughout my career I have heard and seen teachers (and other staff), not only behave in ways they would find totally unacceptable in their own children’s school, but actually articulate that somehow there is a difference between the children they teach and their own. On one occasion I heard the bereavement in a family belittled as not terribly significant “in a family like that”. Over the years I have honed the ability to “smell” this attitude in the early stages of selection, and needless to say I don’t appoint.
What interests me is that the understanding that my lesson (and our academy) need to be a safe, happy and stimulating experience for any and every child is not actually related to whether staff are parents or not. Some people know this regardless of whether they have children of their own; some never will.
In some ways being a mum has made me much more confident about school leadership
Some of these ways are just obvious. When talking to parents you can use the line “as a parent myself … ” etc. There is also a huge confidence in knowing what parents want – I always use the same mantra at new intake events: children need to be safe first, happy second and then they we work on their success – my priorities come in that order. Parents love this and I know they will because I do.
But there are other less obvious ways too. There are some things that I believed but found harder to justify; things I wanted to establish as “givens” in a school I led, but that were (back then) considered controversial. For example, right from the start of my career I hated the “we treat them all the same” attitude. Once a parent myself I had complete confidence on that one: we don’t treat them all the same because they are not all the same. I don’t know exactly how and why motherhood built confidence, but that is only one example of what it did for me.
I have become increasingly aware of the needs of the able child
I think I was a bit rubbish at this. I had always worked in, and then led, schools in extremely challenging contexts, and schools that were working really, really hard to raise aspirations and hit floor targets; more able and motivated children were a minority and had never really got onto my priority list. I feel ashamed at that last sentence, but it is true! Listening to my own children’s experiences and anxieties has cured that.
It has also confirmed opinions that I reluctantly held. For example, I have a particular “downer” on group work, mainly because I loathe it myself, and I always thought this was a bit unacceptable so kept quiet about it. Following a car journey on the M62 during which Roisin described her experience of group work in detail, I am quite sure of the reasons why group work is not usually a good idea for the more able child! I think that needs a whole other blog entry actually.
I deal with guilt better (and humiliation)
The one thing every parent learns is that it is impossible to get everything right: for everything you get right, there is something you get wrong. (Apparently it is all my fault Roisin is stressed about GCSE grades, because I made such a big fuss of the work she produced when in nursery!)
When in A+E with Erin’s second broken finger inside 6 months a few years ago, we were asked if we had a social worker. (My Twitter followers will be aware that Erin is the daredevil one who breaks bones!)
I used to feel guilty about not being able to be everywhere in the academy; I don’t now. Motherhood has made me accept that you make choices with the best information available to you at the time, and exercising the best love and judgement you can – what happens next is not your fault. (Although it is your problem!)
Schools and academies go through similar development phases as a family
When first a Headteacher (particularly of a challenging school requiring turnaround) you have to do everything for them: everything comes to the Head’s office and everyone needs you to show them how it is done. The job is to ween them off and you know that, but as they are able to do things for themselves you have to adjust your style of leadership, and this can be painful. Watching an SLT able to run the school without you constantly role modelling everything is rewarding, but it is a bit like watching your child start school and manage without you.
When your academy becomes a teenager, you have to adjust again because it is far from the baby that needed your tender loving care, but it can be difficult to judge the level of guidance it needs – and, guess what? – yes, you’ll get that judgement wrong sometimes!
Above all being a mother has taught me that you make choices and you make the best of them
The best choice I ever made was marrying Steve, because he is a superb father and husband. I cannot even begin to understand how single parents cope. We made the choice that he would be the carer and I would have a career. It made sense at the time and it has worked pretty well for us – I certainly couldn’t have done what I have done without him at home – but not being a double income family has had other consequences.
The truth is you cannot have it all. I sense a lot of angst amongst a lot of colleagues who strive for perfection in their professional leadership and in their home life. I know I cannot have that, even if I make different choices!
I didn’t make the choice to be born female, and one day I will blog about how the educational establishment treat women like me, but not for many years yet!
Thoroughly agree with the message here. As a mother and a teacher i have had to make some tough decisions. I used to stop myself shouting in class because i thought-would i want a teacher to shout at my own children? Answer no-find a different solution. I have also had to leave full time teaching due to my own children’s needs. Not an easy decision at the time and i have found that as you say i can’t have it all. It has affected my long term career strategy, but i have found other paths. Currently a bit of supply and some tutoring. Not ideal for someone with my experience, but i do enjoy it. Onwards and upwards. Who knows what the future holds.
A lovely post, Ross. I suppose one more thing which a head shares with a parent is how they hire people to look after their children. If a parent is to hire a nanny, they’ll put the needs of the child first. Similarly, when the head hires teachers he or she will first consider if that teacher is suitable for the children.
Reblogged this on The Echo Chamber.
Gosh, this resonates on so many levels; the different phases of work life and home life, the guilt, the choices, the compassion, all so very true. Thank you for giving voice to this, it’s a unique perspective we hold in this profession. With a partner working full time the choices become very real but hopefully not unachievable. Please don’t wait too long before the follow up post you allude to, there are a great number of us who would love to hear it and share our versions of that story!
A brilliant blog that defines the relationship between motherhood and leadership. I’m in agreeable with Caroline Barlow – write your follow up post sooner rather than later regarding the establishment and female leadership in schools!
Thank you both, BUT I am a long way off retirement yet! The world will have to wait for that one!
Hi there! I’m Heather and I wanted to know if you would be able to answer a quick question regarding your blog! My email is Lifesabanquet1(at)gmail(dot)com 🙂