Emma Kell

Shifting identities: a mixed-methods study of the experiences of teachers who are also parents

Emma Kell Thursday 21 April 2016

My research project, for a Doctorate in Education at Middlesex University, examines the experiences of teacher-parents in UK maintained schools, and poses the central question: What is the influence of parenthood on teacher identity, effectiveness, well-being and career aspirations?

The study takes as its theoretical framework an adaptation of Bronfenbrenner’s Ecological Theory (1979), in order to examine the contextual factors which affect teacher-parent identity.

The study examines the positive and negative influences at micro-, meso-, and macro-level on teacher identity, well-being and career aspirations and seeks to determine which policies and practices are effective when balancing parenting and teaching and how might these be developed further.

The thesis rests on the shoulders of key authors around teacher-well-being and teaching and parenting, including Sikes (1997), Cole (2004) and Day (2007) and its approach is based on the established link between well-being and effectiveness. The original contribution of the thesis lies in the combination of teacher-as-researcher perspective, its in-depth approach to an issue only fleetingly alluded to in policy literature, and its emphasis on providing a balance of male and female voices.

What began as a single-site qualitative study quickly gained unanticipated momentum, and the research methods and methodology had to be adjusted accordingly. The voices of 1.648 teacher-parents, gathered through focus groups, ‘netnography’ – the analysis of online blogs and discussions – and a questionnaire.

The thesis builds to the following overarching message:

Parenthood has a significant impact on teacher identity

Parenthood has a significant impact on teacher identity, with the vast majority of teachers questioned acknowledging a change in perspective with regard to their role in the classroom, their sense of professional vocation, and their relationships with colleagues.

Key features of role enrichment, or the positive influence of parenthood on teachers, include the following:

  • An enhanced sense of moral purpose in their role as teacher or leader;
  • Increased efficiency and improved time-management skills and an enhanced ability to prioritise tasks;
  • An increased sense of empathy and understanding with colleagues, students and parents.

Where teacher-parents experience role conflict, or struggle to balance parenthood and teaching effectively, this includes the following key features:

  • Feelings of guilt and regret at neglecting family, duties at home, or indeed duties at school;
  • Feelings of exhaustion due to lack of time for sleep or relaxation and/or lack of time for oneself;
  • Feelings of stress and frustration at juggling the two roles and feelings of ‘failure’ in one or both at different times.

Where there is a distinct and undeniable gulf in experience between men and women, according to this study, is in terms of career progression. Motherhood has a stark and striking impact on career progression for mothers, with 84% of female focus group participants making explicit referencing to having suspended or abandoned their career aspirations and 80% of questionnaire respondents citing parenthood as having had a negative impact on their aspirations.

The study concludes with the following recommendations, on the clear understanding that each situation is unique and there is no ‘one size fits all’ approach.

At micro-level – close relationships

  1. Dispense with guilt – there is no evidence within the study or beyond that it has a useful purpose.
  2. Capitalise on support available from family and friends

At meso level – within the school

  1. Organisation and forward-planning make a huge and positive difference to teacher parents – calendared, efficient meetings and a shared diary are suggested.
  2. Consideration given to part-time and flexible working hours at all levels. I wrote about this in a recent article for the TES. (1 Jan 2016)
  3. Explicitly communication working values and transparency of communication. A sense of being valued, challenged and supported as ‘humans first’ (Myatt, 2015) is of vital importance to teacher-parents. Trust, courtesy and support are crucial.

At macro level – society and government

  1. A positive portrayal of teachers by government and media.

Negative portrayals of the profession are, according to the findings of this research, insidious and potentially contagious. An approach from policy-makers and journalists which fosters such a positive approach has to potential to impact positively on the recruitment and retention of teacher-parents.

 

  1. A challenge to the ‘having it all’ ideal

The idea that parent-teachers of either gender should seek perfection in every aspect of their life and work is equally pernicious. An acknowledgement at national level that ‘good enough’ (Winnicott, 1953) is likely to lead to more effective and happier professionals and parents in the longer-term is likely to be beneficial to teacher-parents.


I’m a doctoral researcher, a secondary teacher of languages and English of 20 years in the UK maintained sector. I’m currently leading an English department in North London and have experience as a Senior Leader and Head of Languages. I’m wife to a journalist and mother to two girls, aged eight and six. My research examines the impact of parenthood on teacher identity brings together the various aspects of my identity. I regularly publish articles and take part in TeachMeets and teacher conferences as a participant and seminar leader.