Last week, I had to make a difficult career decision and let down a headteacher of a South West London school I would have loved to have worked at. He had called me the day after I had accepted a leadership post at a successful and expanding London fringe school (that will also lop off a good forty minutes each day from my commute, ensuring I have more time with my family). When he called, I felt crushed and the doubt about my decision set in: I had not seen another job offer coming my way simply because maternity leave had left me feeling vulnerable and concerned about the impact of a baby on my career. I knew my professional achievements were fairly impressive, but I didn’t think anyone would see beyond my new identity as a new mother and I didn’t know how I could loudly shout about my credentials – certainly not when I had never been very good at talking up my work – not when I was always horribly embarrassed about being singled out, and always so deeply mortified when others did it for me. Instead of being excited at accepting a post and declining another, I felt positively overwhelmed.
At the time of the call, I felt locked in at the first school, having spent two days becoming emotionally invested through taking part in the most competitive, challenging and rigorous interview of my career to date. I’d never had an interview like it – I wasn’t only mentally exhausted, but I felt unrehearsed and unpolished after coming back from maternity leave. An internal promotion at my school simply had not prepared me for those two days. I’d also been lucky enough in my career to have interviews that resulted in headteachers impulsively offering me the job during relatively short interviews. To have beaten 60 applicants to the post and not made a complete fool of myself, was a huge achievement: I couldn’t turn my back on that. I floundered during the phone call and agreed he could call me back in a few days, but it still took me days to work up conviction and the courage to write back and explain how flattered I was but how I wanted to honour my acceptance at the first school.
I am a notorious people pleaser: I don’t like to let others down. I noted the missed calls, but I couldn’t bear to call back and say “I’m sorry” in person, or gently explain that in the end, the extremely generous salary and timetable wouldn’t be enough. It would have been a career defining move too, and I think, in fact I know, I would have been able to transform the culture of teaching and learning the school. But my MTPT project coaching calls with my coach Naomi had taught me that I wasn’t interested in trying to prove my credentials anymore, and that it was okay that I wasn’t ambitious for headship in the way my peers were. I’ve always been a reluctant leader and leading on teaching and learning has been one of the loneliest and hardest experiences of my career. While, I have been fiercely proud of changing the teaching and learning discourse at my school, often being ahead of time on a lot of things I’ve led on, it had always been the pastoral side that appealed to me. My message read a bit like a nice breakup text for a relationship that hadn’t even started. I even offered to mentor or support anyone they appointed in the future, and provided my email address to freely share all my teaching and learning resources, but I felt terrible.
How could I let down a headteacher, who said I was “heads and shoulders above” anyone else, and was responsible for giving me my much-needed post maternity ego boost? At that moment, I didn’t realise then just how privileged I was having two job offers at two schools from two great headteachers, and during the midst of a global pandemic at that. I felt torn, conflicted and scared. Had I squandered an opportunity? Had I been wasteful here? Could my judgement be trusted? I knew teaching and learning inside out, so could I really take on the enormous task of pastoral care at a large school?
Pregnancy had categorically affected my confidence and almost completely eroded my professional sense of self. I had gone through a tremendous period of change, and suddenly I’d become disconnected with my own professional and personal identity. The coaching which is an integral part of the MTPT project was important in reconnecting me deeply with my values: they had changed a lot while on maternity leave. My coach had worked hard to support me in reshaping the way I saw problems, and suddenly I had sharper lens to look at challenges. The coaching showed me that while motherhood had made me feel vulnerable, it had taught me about balance and empathy, about knowing how to push myself for the things I was passionate about, but also when to let go of things that didn’t matter anymore. I had changed so much, and while I was feeling dissonance at times with my former identity, I was also more sure of the mother, leader and teacher I wanted to be.
While I fretted, I thought if she was on the phone to me at that moment, what would I say to her about my predicament? I’d say family, trust, teamwork and personal fulfilment were more important than anything else. I’d say I was excited that my new school knew about the MTPT project and allowed me to talk about what I’d done on maternity leave. I’d say I believed I could make a profound difference in a newer role because I had never failed at all the scary and daunting things I’d done before I had a baby. I’d say, my gut was telling me to trust the headteacher who put me through an unflinching and uncompromising two day interview but who said I’d been his first choice. I’d say, I wasn’t letting anyone down, that it isn’t just about a school choosing me, I had the autonomy of choice too. In fact, in January Naomi asked me where I’d be in September 2020 and we walked through my fictional life: I’d said I would be pursuing my dream role: leading on pastoral care and behaviour and closing the door on teaching and learning. And suddenly, September was real, except it was just scary how real it was by thinking it out aloud.
Naomi might have also asked me to take a moment to celebrate having two schools interested in having me on their team, and asked me to celebrate myself as a mother and leader too. Once I’d played out what our coaching phone call might have been like, I felt less agonised about my choice.
In the end I went with my gut: I chose not to be swayed by the flattery, money or promises of professional comfort, and I stuck with the school that struck the greatest chord with my values. And while I can’t pretend I’m not terrified of leaving behind the familiar for the unknown, I’m genuinely excited to get started in September. And maybe one day I’ll join that South West London school that I feel I know inside out as a South West London girl. It’s entirely possible when the headteacher there is still keen on me staying in touch despite the breakup text. And where does this shaky but tangible conviction and hope spring from?
It comes from the wonder of being a new mother and also being part of a professional network that supports teachers in celebrating their strong identity as a parent and professional. The self-reflective process of the project has instilled in me a deep sense of who I am. Motherhood has made me even more empathetic, aware and patient as a leader. I believe I always had these traits in me but they have grown significantly over the last few months. I feel better equipped to understand and support others when they are going through a challenge, personally or professionally. Not only has motherhood changed the way I see myself and the world around me but it has supported me in knowing I want to be an ethical leader living her values, and not being afraid of making hard choices if they are the right choices.