This is what it sounds like when I eat my words.
When I last wrote about the subject of peri/menopause in schools, I rather dismissed the subject of Flexible Working with ‘teachers’ lives aren’t like that. Schools don’t run like that.’ Now after discussion with some of my teaching colleagues, Gemma Drinkall my coaching colleague and attending a fabulous session on the subject by the Athelstan Trust I am back peddling a little. While eating my words.
Gemma has written an excellent article for The Effing Menopause about flexible working — what it actually means in schools and why it’s so important.
So, is Flexible Working the silver bullet for fixing peri/menopause in schools?
Perimenopausal symptoms are bad news in schools
You don’t need me to tell you that. The 200m dash to the loo in less than zero seconds in order to relieve a tender bladder or deal with a menstrual flood. The fatigue. The forgetting of the simplest of words, while faced with the most complicated demands on your time. The tears. The rage. The sheer exhaustion.
And of course it’s not just that. Peri/menopause seems to hit at just that point in our lives when we’ve got caring responsibilities for our elders, and teenagers who, on the occasions when they speak to us, seem to need us, and specifically us, more than they ever did when they were tiny.
The timing’s bad news too
The first symptoms of peri-menopause often hit while we’re in our early forties. We’ve got extra responsibilities — we may be leading departments — or whole schools. We’re enjoying leading our teams and shaping our schools to best serve the people in them.
We’re not prepared to go ‘part-time’ and lose not only our seat in the staffroom but our seat at the table. This is the worst possible time to take a career break.
So we soldier on. And we all know what tends to happen to brave soldiers when they get too brave!
What if there’s another way?
What if reducing your hours didn’t mean losing your points?
What if leadership roles could be shared?
What if jobs could be shared?
What if there are other members of staff that would actually love the opportunity to reduce their hours slightly?
What if part time work was seen as a way of finding the right staff for the right role and not getting a convenient body to fill a timetabling hole?
What if there are people, currently not teaching, who would love to teach a reduced timetable and bring valuable experience with them?
What if you could teach the same number of hours, but make sure that certain key times were avoided. It may be too much information, but I know that my bladder doesn’t cope well with early mornings !
What if there were certain elements of your job — that could be done at home?
I don’t build the timetables
When I was developing my career as a teacher I attended a training session about time-tabling. In those days it was mostly done on whiteboards or with post-it notes. The trainer said ‘don’t let anyone tell you anything’s impossible. It’s always possible. There’s always a price, but it’s always possible.’
At the time I thought she was sharing something deeply philosophical about life (something I have since found to be mostly true). It occurs to me now that she may, in fact, have been talking about time-tabling.
Time change, timetabling changes
These days timetabling doesn’t happen with white-boards, post-it notes or even Excel spreadsheets. There’s apparently some fancy software out there that can help.
Added to which there’s increased flexibility from sharing staff across schools or across sites in Multi Academy Trusts — although as someone who has also done the 800m at break times the importance of allowing for travel time is not lost on me!
It’s even possible that if the school hours extend (in a fully funded way, obviously…) then that extension could be covered by more teachers, doing the same number of hours as they do now — but with staggered timetables.
Just like that?
So I reached out to someone who does do the timetabling. She tells me that when there’s a request, she provides an analysis and if it’s workable, and the Head agrees, then the request goes through.
This is something that was also stressed in the launch at the Athelstan Trust. Requests for flexible working are welcome — even encouraged — but there are no guarantees it will happen exactly as hoped. It depends what’s possible at what price… There’s going to be a process of experimentation, of negotiation and flexibility is likely to be required on the part of the teacher as well as the school.
It’s not the silver bullet that will fix menopause in schools
It won’t be for everyone. Not everyone can afford to take the financial hit that comes with reduced hours. It may be harder for small schools in isolated locations. Some schools will simply prefer not to work that way. But it sounds like it’s something we’re going to keep hearing about!
It’s not the only strategy. There are lots of other solutions to think about — I discuss some of them in more detail here. But solutions won’t happen if there isn’t an open conversation about peri/menopause in your school. It won’t happen if your peri/menopausal staff don’t recognise what’s going on with them. It won’t happen if your staff don’t know who to talk to and they aren’t reassured that they will have a sensitive, pragmatic conversation.
The golden lubricant is creating the right kind of culture in your school.