Ever had a student call you ‘Mum’?
It seems a natural progression. We spend almost as much time with them as their parents - sometimes more! But how does it work if you actually are the student’s Mum?
To celebrate Mother’s Day, I spoke with three educators who are also mothers to find out how they juggle motherhood and teaching.
Clare, a primary teacher, has two children who both attend the small, rural school where she teaches grade two.
How does she find teaching at the same school as her kids?
“I love it!” says Clare. “My children are desperate to have me teach them. But I’m not really keen on that. Not because I think it would affect my children or my relationship with my children. But I think it would affect my relationship with their friends and their friends’ parents. I do check in with them sometimes like, ‘How do you feel about me being at the school?’ Because, you know, I’ll give them hugs or something if I see them in the playground and they come up to me. And I’m like, ‘Is that still cool?’ And at this stage, yes. And that could change one day, and I’ll be told where to go, I’m sure!”
It’s a unique position to be in, being around for all the sports carnivals and assemblies, but it wasn’t always that way for Clare who used to teach at a school with some extensive challenges.
“I was finding it really tough,” she says. “That was a pretty hard time for me and the family as well. Because I’d come home absolutely emotionally wrung out and I just had nothing left in the tank for my own kids. And it was a vicious spiral because I’d feel guilty about that. And I’d feel guilty about taking time out to try and recuperate mentally and I’d feel guilty about not spending time with my kids. So, I’d spend time with them but I’d be cranky with them because I actually didn’t have any patience left. That was a really unpleasant time for me. I can remember going to bed and just sobbing and going ‘I don’t know how to get out of this circle of hell’. And I was feeling it was so unfair to my family, so unfair.”
The culture of the school, and the support of the principal and executive staff, is clearly a key factor not only for teacher wellbeing but as to how mothers juggle teaching and family life.
Sharon, a primary teacher in south-western Sydney has three boys aged between 17 and 23. She agrees that the support of a principal can be crucial. “The principal really supported me when I came back from having kids,” says Sharon. “[She] helped me out so when asked if I’d be the librarian or whatever job, I was always happy to. And with my eldest son having a disability I always said to [the principal], 'until my kids are grown I cannot come back to work full-time.'”
A supportive work environment is not the only challenge to being a mother and a teacher.
“The constantly being needed wears you down,” says Clare. As a teacher “you’re giving all the time. And you’re really emotionally invested in your work and these kids and making sure you’re doing the best for everybody all of the time. And parenting is like that too. So, both of them together is pretty exhausting.”
Sharon is clear about the greatest challenge.
“Organisation,” she says. “Getting myself organised. I had no family down here that I could rely on so getting myself organised, get them organised, get to school. And cope with all the running about of both being a mother and a teacher.”
But there are plenty of benefits to being a teacher as well as a mother.
Teacher insight can help to support your own kids’ school work, says Sharon. “A lot of my friends say ‘You probably do all the work for your boys!’ but one of the big benefits is that I understand the workload and the work. I’ve never done the work for them but helping them has been one advantage.”
“You can see things from the teacher side and the parent side,” says Clare. “You know as a parent how important [it is] that your kids are looked after and that they’re happy. And anything that happens at school, I think ‘okay, if this was my child...’ So, you make a bit more of an effort to contact the parents if something good happens, or if you think it’s likely to be blown out of proportion. You’ve just got that bit of a different perspective.”
"I don’t think you need to be a mother to be a good teacher," assures Janine, a high school principal in Byron Bay who has two primary-aged kids. Although in a head teacher position when they were both born, she’s recently moved into her current role as principal.
“They are used to me being busy,” she says. “So, for them I’m still busy and they get to come here. I think my daughter, who’s a bit older has a bit more of an idea of my role. But, look, for them I haven’t really changed because I’ve always been busy. [They] go through my lolly jar or talk to people I work with. They have a sense of who I work with and where I work.”
She reflects, “because I’m doing something I’m passionate about, they’re getting that passion as well. I think my kids are getting the best of me because I’m doing what I want to do. I think that's ultimately what it comes down to. If I have made compromises in what I think I should be doing or what my path is, my happiness will be lowered, and my relationship with my kids would be less.”
Do these hard-working teacher-mums ever get a break?
“Yeah,” says Janine. “I’ve got to make it though. I’ve got to force it. For example, last holidays I went away on a two-night yoga retreat. The break has to be deliberate and planned. It doesn’t happen very often but needs to happen.”
When I spoke with Clare, she was enjoying a three-night break away, a very rare, but welcome occurrence.
“I feel human!” she says with a laugh. ““I was like ‘how am I going to cope?’ [away from the kids] and I’m finding that I’m coping just fine!”
Sharon reflected on how things have changed over the years as her kids have grown up, and also with being in a learning support role as opposed to a classroom teacher.
“I find that these days I don’t need to take work home,” she says. “I know when I was teaching on a class, I was constantly taking work home, or programming or preparing. The fact that my boys are older too. When they were younger it was full on. I still have to do a lot for my eldest son but my other two are pretty self-sufficient and will do things like cook dinner.”
I love getting insights from these teacher-mums because lots of my friends are becoming mums and it makes me reflect on my own hard-working teacher-mum. I think she taught my class once as relief teacher, but I doubt I gave her any relief! I’m fairly certain I was a brat and expected special treatment (or at least money for the canteen!). Now, years into my own teaching career (and without children of my own, I should mention) I can appreciate to a much greater degree how she chose to spend time raising me and my siblings, and how her teaching and mothering support each other.
It’s easy to forget, in this high data, progression filled, often achievement focused education system that we’re in, that we’re not robots. We are not devoid of emotion. And neither are our students. We are complex, emotional beings. Our students sometimes call us ‘Mum’ (or ‘Dad’) not just because we’re an adult who happens to be around. It’s because we so often care for, love and support our students just like a mother would.
And so, this Mothers’ Day, I would like to pay my very humble respects to teachers who are mothers, mothers who are teachers, and those who are both, including Clare, Sharon and Janine. And especially my own Mum, who taught me so much about what it is to be a great mother and a great teacher.
Happy Mothers’ Day!
Are you a teacher-mum? Did you have a teacher-mum?
What wisdom can you share?
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