Pregnant Then Screwed TEACHERS

ant Then Screwed Teachers

Nearly nine years ago, one lunchtime, a teaching colleague gave me her copy of the Heidi Murkoff’s pregnancy handbook ‘What To Expect When You’re Expecting’.  As I sat in my office, as a full time head of department and five months pregnant, flicking through the pages of this parenting manual, there’s no way that I could have appreciated the abject irony that, whilst what was in front of me could tell me in black and white what to expect during the froggy newborn stage, no one was telling me to expect that this same froggy newborn was going to later determine how people perceived my role in the workplace, future financial worth and career progression.

The decision to become a parent removes, for many, the ability to retain the same level of career autonomy and leads parents, particularly mothers aged 35-39, to leave the profession in droves.

Navigating a return to work or a change to more flexible hours, I’ve since learned to appreciate, is a bit of a dark art. It is also very much dependent on the subjective perceptions of those in charge. Phrases like ‘we don’t want to set a precedent’, ‘it will open the flood gates’ or ‘it’s on you to make this work’ often get bandied about as if a flexible working request is some kind of unwelcome subversive act. Considering it is supposed to be a job centred around the education and well being of children and young people, teaching is not actually that child friendly for teachers who happen to be parents.

The largest number of calls and stories Pregnant Then Screwed gets are from teachers and, judging by the overwhelming response in the comments on their recent posts on social media about the matter, it is clear there is still a very long way to go to achieve a more positive and discrimination-free attitude towards flexible working patterns.

Whilst there are some really positive stories of schools creating a culture that values the need for and benefits of flexible working, sadly there were many more stories of unconscious and conscious discrimination, ignorance, downright bullying and hostility. One commenter said “I know so many women who have subtle demotions by having their job description changed/given additional or decreased responsibilities, bullied, sidelined and subsequently pushed out” and others recounted how they’d had to hand in their notice or leave teaching altogether when their request for flexible working request was turned down.

Many also felt that the subjective and arbitrary nature of how requests and complaints are sometimes handled in schools leaves teachers vulnerable and in a bit of a grey legal wilderness. If you couple this with the fact that many new parents, who are expending all their available energy adjusting to a new work-life balance as well as the financial pressures of costly childcare, putting in a flexible work request in a hostile environment or fighting workplace discrimination may just be one challenge too far. It’s no wonder that the stats look so depressing.

Another commonly reported problem was the stress and anxiety directly related to flexible work requests and its associated issues. One teacher said “The stress of a move to a new unsupportive school following maternity leave all lead to anxiety, panic attacks and depression and I had to leave the job for the sake of my mental health” and another simply commented “Thinking about returning to teaching makes my stomach lurch”.

It is also clear that whilst some school leaders are still shackled to the culture of presenteeism, the fear of ‘opening the flood gates’ or the idea that flexible working is not in the best interests of their pupils, these school leaders also fail to realise the potential benefits of embracing flexible working.

There are plenty of examples of increased productivity when businesses in other sectors have introduced flexible practices and, in terms of teaching, research has shown that teachers working flexibly demonstrate an enhanced loyalty to their school, they work more efficiently and are ultimately happier. There is no need to fear the flood gates opening because a good teacher is a good teacher regardless of whether they are full or part time, parent or non-parent. And if the flood gates don’t open, there might very well not be anyone left behind them.

The picture is not all bleak though. The government, in response to a burgeoning recruitment and retention crisis in the profession, has recognized the need to address the seriousness of issues and, in 2017, at a summit on flexible working the DFE released official guidelines for schools. The message is taking a little time to filter through but there are many schools working hard to embed flexible working into their employment practice and evidence of a shift in mindset is starting to become more and more discernible.

The other good news, too, is that on Thursday 28 February, Pregnant Then Screwed will be running an event for teachers wanting to share, find out more or ask for advice about flexible working. So if you want to find out the different types of flexible working available and how it could work for you and your school, how you go about requesting a flexible role and what you need to know before you do, find out how it’s working for other schools, need some practical or legal advice or you simply want to join in with the conversation, then join us on Facebook, Instagram and Twitter. A panel of experts will be on hand to answer your questions, offer advice, listen to your experiences and, ultimately, keep this important conversation going.

Michelle Thomason has taught in the sixth form sector for over 18 years. She has previously worked flexibly as a Curriculum Area Leader but now teaches part time whilst studying for a doctorate in education. She is also a campaigner for flexible working, written blogs for education publications and, last year, spoke at the inaugural New Voices conference to teachers and school leaders about the importance of flexible working. 


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