Rachael Stevens, Assistant Headteacher, Christopher Whitehead Language College.
Having young children is (mostly) ace, but it’s hard. Teaching is (mostly) ace, but it’s hard. Both together, hard squared.
My kids are a bit older now, both at high school and old enough to make their own tea and be left alone for enough time for me to go into town to wander about in shops gormlessly and at my own pace, or for A.N.Other and I to go to the pictures sans enfants. It means I can stay as late at school as I need to without worrying about collecting them from childminders or nurseries any more and I can also head off in the morning leaving them in the house to get themselves to school. I like being home to cook tea for everyone several times a week so we can eat together and catch up. But them being older means I have a choice, and that’s very liberating. When you’ve got little ones, you don’t have this freedom.
I line-manage four departments this year and each of those subject leaders has children, mostly the little or very little kind. They, and many of my other younger colleagues, carry around with them the burden of wondering whether they are good enough parents if they’re working so much of the time; good enough teachers if they come to school later or leave school earlier or have days off to care for sick children. In short, they are permanently tired and feeling guilty. Someone once told me when I had my first baby that the guilt a mother feels is somehow transmitted via the umbilical cord. PREACH! Noone really warns you about that bit of parenthood. But I don’t know whether it’s necessarily a thing our own parents or grandparents felt when they had their children. I wonder if the absence of imminent danger and the survival mode that war and less affluence produced in the UK at least has meant we not satisfied with just getting through the day intact.
I do blame books and TV and t’Internet for this one. And ourselves of course. Much of the information for parents in the last 20 years especially produces an outcome more cruel and vicious than The Hunger Games: parents pitted against partners and fellow parents in bouts of Competitive Tiredness, Percentile-Growth Anxiety and Screen-time Battles to the Death.
Occasionally I will be posting about trying to balance teaching and life, including parenting, caring for and losing your own parents, and trying to be a happy teacher whether you have kids and/or parents or not. I’m no expert, just someone in their 25th year of teaching and 17th year of parenting and I’m not finished yet, in either job. All I can share are experiences; mistakes made and lessons learned so far, as a teacher, a mum, an orphan now, an AHT and a line manager. If anything I write here is of any use then I’ll be very happy.
Teaching when you have poorly kids
As we know, in teaching, it’s always hard to be ill enough to not be in school. It’s often easier to come in and die at your desk than set cover work and send countless emails before 7.15am. But when you are off because your child is ill, it triggers a whole new raft of guilt. You aren’t ill yourself (fingers crossed) but you can’t do anything resembling work because you’re trapped under a feverish, sleeping/vomiting child; you can’t get to the TV controller or your now-cold coffee, let alone flip open the laptop and answer some emails, or mark a book.
You find yourself quietly plotting the downfall of the childminder/nursery/school because they won’t take your child back until they are 48 hours free of a vom (even though in a few weeks you will have uncontrollable RAGE when you hear another parent sent their child back in after just 39.5 hours in case they re-infect your child.) I once started work at a new school only to be off two weeks later for spells of two to three days at a time for the next three weeks when they had a sickness bugs which they shared with one another and us, and then one another again. I was mortified.
Here’s the thing: babies and young children are often ill. This is normal and it’s how they develop the defences to not be so ill later on. Hopefully, if you have a partner, you will be able to share nursing duties when they are poorly. Or you may be lucky enough to have relatives to hand that love your child enough to risk a bug or to cuddle them when they have a stream of snot resembling a candle coming from each nostril. And although you may be horrified, as I was, when I had to set so much cover work and miss so many lessons, it’s really not the end of the world. Far from it. You’re much better off just giving in to it. Great if you can share the load and make it in some days, but if you can’t it’s OK.
Keep in touch with your line manager. Try to set clear, easy to set and peer-marked work so you keep the cover staff on side. Don’t promise you will ‘definitely’ be in tomorrow when you’re not sure how your child will be. And stop apologising. Most of your colleagues will have either been there themselves and they understand only too well. Others haven’t but they will be sympathetic. And those that don’t seem particularly sympathetic aren’t worth worrying about. They are short-sighted, because one day they will be in your shoes, whether it’s with children or a debilitating bout of flu, or other difficult family commitments. And when they are, you can be kind and supportive and offer to help set cover with a saintly halo above your head.
Hold your nerve in the face of the guilt and try to say to yourself: ‘This is not my fault. I am being a good parent and caring for my child. This is a normal part of life.’ How would you feel if a colleague was in your shoes and worrying themselves sick about having to take time off? Be like this to yourself.
I once had a deputy headteacher that prided himself in only having one day off in his long career, and that had been the day of his father’s funeral. He had three children and had never helped his wife when they’d been ill. And he’d not been around to support his mother and come to terms with his own grief in the days after his father died. He was a poor role model for his staff and in the end I actually felt sorry for him. It’s a prehistoric way to act.
As the line manager or department head of teachers with sick young children, all you can do is be patient and supportive. If it’s looking a bit more long-term or it’s a regular occurance, it might warrant a face-to-face chat, but even then it should be to check up how everyone’s coping and what plans can be made to prevent any long-term disruption to classes. An effective and sensitive line manager will be able to tell if there’s something else going on and take it from there. There’s a level of professionalism that you can expect in terms of setting cover and communicating, but bear in mind your colleague may struggling to do things like access laptops and computer files. They might need to be in and out to get to the doctor’s, so don’t expect a hot-line to them. Hopefully, their department has cover work in place for such events but if not, offer to help if you can: it will be appreciated.
Hang on in there everybody – it does get better.