Reflections on WomenEd unconference

by Cara Carey @CaraCarey20

I’ve always been very career focused and loved my job as a teacher. In fact, I remember one colleague expressing surprise at my pregnancy as she thought I was more of a ‘career woman’… as if you could only be one or the other. But I’d known that I wanted children for as long as I could remember. I’d progressed to middle leadership fairly quickly, and at 30 when I fell pregnant with my first child, I was in my first year as Head of Sixth Form.

I had no idea how I was going to feel on maternity leave. Part of me expected to not be able to fully let go of work and to be in-touch often (the control-freak in me wanting things to be done my way), but as it turned out, all I wanted to do was spend time with my new baby and work couldn’t have been further from my mind.

On my return to work, I went down to four days a week. Even though my TLR point and time allocation for the job was cut to 0.8, the responsibility for Sixth Form remained the same. In fact the Sixth Form cohort had increased massively, but the team had not so I ended up working during my day off and the weekend to get everything done. As usual, things had changed in my school in the previous year and I felt out of the loop and out of practice, particularly as I was teaching new GCSE specifications for the first time. Add undiagnosed post-natal depression into the mix and I just felt like I couldn’t do any of the things that were being asked of me, at work or at home, well. I made changes to make the situation more manageable: I had some counselling, I recruited new members of my team.

But the thing that helped me the most, was accepting that I was no longer going to work how I used to. I used to pride myself on doing everything at work to the best it could be, and that was unsustainable now, so I embraced the fact that I was now a ‘working mum’ and would do what needed to be done and what was possible.

Although this was a necessary transition, I found it difficult and I often felt like I was grieving for my old work persona. I found it very hard accept that sometimes “done” was “good enough”.

I was determined to manage the return to work after my second maternity leave better and be more prepared. I kept abreast of developments in school by checking in on emails regularly, I also found the time to do some reading (or listening via podcasts) on developments and research in education. I also had a much clearer idea of how I was going to be able to work and what I needed in order to make my job manageable. Even so, I just couldn’t shake how difficult I had found my return to work the first time. I wondered whether it was actually possible to juggle leadership in school with small children. Besides, the thought of my eldest starting primary school and me not being able to do any drop-offs or pick-ups broke my heart. When the school made changes to my role without my consultation whilst I was on maternity leave, it was the final straw. I decided it was time to move out of the classroom.

I really really love my new job in Initial Teacher Education, but for ages I couldn’t shake the feeling of failure. Failure of not being able to balance the demands working in a school and a family, but also a feeling of having given up on my career aspirations. I also felt frustrated that I was contributing to statistics (quoted in 10% Braver: Inspiring Women to Lead Education) such as 62% of teachers in secondary schools are women but only 39% of secondary headteachers are female and 1 in 4 women aged 30-39 leave teaching.

Reflecting on the inspirational sessions at WomenEd global unconference, I had a “light-bulb” moment.

I realised that I was not alone in the struggles I had faced after having children: many schools (possibly the majority?) are not currently set up to be able to offer the flexibility and work-life balance that I required. This was what had made it impossible for me to continue, it wasn’t my failure. I was really motivated to hear that things seem to be changing. Schools are recognising the value of making flexible living really workable and therefore hopefully others should have a much better experience in the future and at some point I might find a school that I can return.

My biggest takeaway from the weekend of events, and I can not thank WomenEd enough for this realisation: I have made this change in my career plans because I am prioritising the needs of my family and I would never consider that a failure.

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