A family-friendly culture shift in schools would help to stem the teacher retention crisis and improve wellbeing for all teachers, says Emma Sheppard.

In June this year, as I impatiently awaited the arrival of my son, I was forced to face the painful realisation that in choosing to become a mother, I had potentially sacrificed my ambitions to become a school leader. For many women like me, maternity leave is the first stumbling block on the slippery slope of career regression. At best, mothers teeter on the edge of burnout as they doggedly pursue leadership positions, constantly playing catch-up with their male counterparts; at worst, they leave the classroom for good, unable to find workable solutions suitable to the demands of teaching and parenting.

Despite desperate drives to tackle the teacher retention crisis, anecdotal evidence I have heard whilst founding the MaternityTeacher PaternityTeacher project cites misguided school leadership as one of the most significant contributors to this negative culture. Ironically, in their attempts to retain valued members of staff, some school leaders alienate and disempower the mothers within their ranks by perpetuating social narratives that inadvertently continue to repress women.

We are cast adrift on the seas of maternity leave

Behaviour that purports (and no doubt often attempts) to be considerate towards women on maternity leave – such as disabling work email accounts, offering part-time hours and well-meaning comments about what it is to be a “good” mother, for example – result in teachers being cast adrift on the seas of maternity leave to drown in the joys of Jiggle and Jam. Their colleagues, waving from the shore, do so confident in the knowledge that this new parent is floating happily away from the stresses of marking, behaviour, bureaucracy and lesson planning, convinced that they are therefore more likely to return to the classroom, following the respite of parental leave.

But for many teachers, their self-esteem, identity, self-worth and intellectual wellbeing is also abandoned on the sand and lost by the time they return to the dry land of the classroom. Whilst they are gone, policies and departments change; curricula and specifications are rendered unrecognisable – I even discovered new locks on the school gates!

Is it any surprise, therefore, that 27 per cent of teachers leaving the workforce are women between the ages of 30-39? The correlation between this figure, the detrimental impact of maternity leave and other prevalent issues such as the gender pay gap, gender inequality in leadership, the uptake of shared parental leave, and teacher wellbeing might seem obvious, but it is currently a research void. Everyone, it seems, is averting their eyes from the “problem” of maternity leave.

Rather than perpetuate this systemic failing by accepting it as unavoidable, however, how about this: parental leave is not a professional problem. Parental leave – for mothers and fathers – is a career opportunity.

Parental leave can offer the choice to use this time away from the classroom to reflect and complete self-directed CPD in a manner that fits around the new demands of family life. Teachers are at liberty to read, to complete online courses, to explore museums and sites, to be coached, and to attend conferences and networking. The empowerment of this choice will help teachers to gain, rather than lose confidence whilst on parental leave.

When teachers are out of the classroom, EdTech, in the form of live streaming, social media and video coaching, can provide invaluable access to professional learning. But CPD on parental leave doesn’t have to be limited to naptime networking on Twitter: time and time again, I have been moved by the hospitality of organisers and colleagues who have been delighted for me to bring my son to events. All I had to do was ask!

Now we need the same open-mindedness when parents go back to school. We need flexible working hours, on-site crèches, paternity leave packages that rival those offered to women, co-leadership positions. These are just a few of the many creative solutions that could mobilise and retain a currently overstretched section of the teaching workforce. Not only would this family-friendly culture shift help to stem the teacher retention crisis, parents’ collective voice could improve wellbeing for all teachers.

 

Emma Sheppard is lead practitioner in English and founder of the MaternityTeacher PaternityTeacher project