Are teaching and parenting incompatible?

One of the delights of edu-twitter is the ability to converse with interesting and intelligent people who also happen to be teachers. Of course, it takes time to get to that point. One must curate one’s Twitter feed carefully, firstly by following random other teachers and then noticing the ones that say sensible things consistently. One also notices the silly ones, who can be jettisoned at this stage.

Next, one cultivates the acquaintance of these sensible teachers, responding to their blogs and tweets, engaging in Twitter conversations, and sometimes, meeting them in real life at one of the many edu-conferences that grace our calendar during normal times. I am fortunate to have made several such Twitter friends over the last few years.

One such friend is Grumpy. No, he’s not one of the seven dwarves, but a former history teacher who goes by the Twitter handle of @monsieurgrumpy (or The Grumpy Teacher). I do of course know his real name, but I delight in calling him Grumpy. Now, I agree with Grumpy on many things, but one area of dissent is his assertion that good teaching is incompatible with being a parent. This has come up a few times in discussions, and today Grumpy wrote a blog, expounding on his theory. And naturally, I had to come out of my blogging exile to post this riposte.

As a parent of a primary aged child, there was much that I recognised in his description of how his life changed after he became a parent. If you have to pick up your child from an after-school club or nursery, trust me, you are not going to want to hang around at school one second longer than you have to. There are also going to be those days where you are unable to come to work because your little one is sick – and that feeling of guilt over your colleagues having to cover your lessons for you. Once you have a young child to care for, your priorities are naturally going to shift, meaning you won’t be as available for those extra-curricular activities that you might have signed up for before. Much of what is expected of teachers today is in profound conflict with the responsibilities of being a parent. Thus far, I am in agreement with Grumpy.

Sadly, cultural norms have developed within the teaching profession about what the job involves. It is no longer a matter of what you do in the classroom, but increasingly what you also do outside it. High stakes accountability, league tables and competition between schools have turned education into a rat race where nothing is ever enough. Whether you are teaching in the most socially deprived neighbourhood or in an elite private school, you are drip fed the notion that what you do is transformative, that you hold the key to your pupils’ future, and that if you don’t rise to the challenge of doing absolutely everything you possibly can for them, you will have somehow failed. This emotional blackmail is rife in teaching, but it is also true that many teachers will actively collude with it, for in their heart of hearts, they like the feeling of playing the good Samaritan who rescues the poor and downtrodden. Oh what validation there is in believing that the success of your pupils is down to your own endeavours!

That is not to say that teachers have no effect on their pupils. Obviously, a good teacher will teach children more effectively than a less good teacher. We are role models for them and we are on the front lines when it comes to issues such as safeguarding. Yet I would caution against overstating the job of a teacher – and it is a job, not a vocation (though some will naturally excel at it more than others). Listening to this interesting podcast with Akala and David Olusoga where they discussed their journey to professional success, I found it striking that both of them talked of having a supportive parent who instilled confidence and ambition in them. As teachers, we need to remember that we are only a small part of the jigsaw that makes a person the person they are.

So what is it exactly that should be within the remit of teaching and what should not? Grumpy talked of enrichment activities, such as United Nations day, ski trips, school plays and other extra-curricular activities. Much of this comes under the heading of “cultural capital”. I am not going to be a sour grapes and say that none of these things matter. It is a good thing that children get to visit museums or go on a day trip to a farm (I have very fond memories of visiting a farm as a young girl and seeing a cow being milked for the first and only time in my life). I don’t think it is too onerous to plan one day trip each term if you are a primary school teacher, and something similar if you are in secondary. Within reason, these should not impinge in any significant way on parenting duties at home. Residential trips are another matter, particularly if your children are very young. Here though, I would think it possible to pool resources so that teachers who have such parenting responsibilities are able to opt out. This would not make them a lesser teacher, just a teacher who at this moment in time has parenting responsibilities – in a career that hopefully spans at least a decade, this would represent a small blip (unless you’re planning to pop a child every few years).

I am not so approving of the other things that interfere with the normal day-to-day routine in school. Grumpy may have relished United Nations day, but I would have found this an unecessary chore. Already in my school career, I have had to endure World Book Day, countless dress-up days, the Resilience Oscars (where children voted for their favourite resilient book character and teachers dressed up as these characters) and Science Week. I just think, if reading is part and parcel of the curriculum, and so is science, then why on earth do we need to interrupt our rhythm for such events? These are unecessary fripperies and do not a good teacher make. The nuts and bolts of education are in the lessons we teach each day, not in these frivolous extras. Oh how Puritan I sound!

Now I come to the next item on Grumpy’s workload list: lesson planning. I am not, like him, much of an advocate for scripted lessons. However, I do feel strongly that there is too much change and not enough continuity. Curricula and exam specs are continuously moving goal posts – in an ideal world, we would have more stability and any changes to curriculum would be introduced very gradually, with lots of forward planning time. It should not be impossible or unusual for a teacher to teach fundamentally the same curriculum over the course of 4-5 years, re-using lesson plans and resources, tweaking them and reducing the need to plan from scratch. Unfortunately, the rat race and constant need to demonstrate improvement have meant that this type of continuity is rare.

I hear what Grumpy has to say about marking – even if it is whole class feedback, it does entail reading what is in the books. Teachers should be entitled to a quiet hour at the end of the school day to tweak their lesson plans for the next day and check books, but here again I have a bête noire. Because of course, teachers’ time is not their own at the end of the school day. Staff meetings, CPD training, detentions, after-school clubs, the list goes on. It has become acceptable to pile on all these extras to the extent that no one blinks an eyelid at them. After a full day of contact time with pupils (and all the energy-sapping that results from it), we are not given the space to reflect and prepare for the following day. Our time is not our own. I am fairly certain though, that the teachers who gave me an excellent education over three decades ago, did not do half of these extra things that are expected of teachers today. These are recent constructs that have become normalised. They need to be un-normalised and teachers’ time out of the classroom not monopolised – allowing them to have a functioning work-life balance.

These are all choices that are there to be made, by teachers but most importantly also by school leaders. The ingrained mindset currently is to “sweat” the teacher to the maximum – using as a pretext putting the children’s needs first. This is what happens when the narrative around teaching strays into talk of transforming children’s life chances rather than admitting that this is a job which must be done between hour A and hour B, and then thinking of how to structure it most effectively to fit within that time. So I would say yes, as the situation stands, teaching is not compatible with parenting. It does not have to be.