Finding time, space and empowerment

A guest post by @TeacherEmpower

Wondering whether I was having a heart attack or a panic attack on the way in to work should have been a wake-up call. The next wake-up call should have come from the relief I felt when I realised that it was my old friend panic attack. The relief came because I knew I’d be able to still deliver an assembly and teach two sets of year 11 once it passed.

I wish I could report that when I told fellow teachers this story in the pub that they were shocked – nope. What happened was that most told me their panic attack and anxiety related stories in return. Meanwhile, my non- teaching colleagues in the pub looked at us all like we were insane. We were the badge of honour brigade, fighting the good fight no matter what the cost – a thought that now makes me cringe.

The Teacher Empowerment Event (5th October, People’s History Museum, Manchester) is an event that aims to speak to teachers and empower them with options (better ones than heart attack or panic attack). I want it to be a space where you can come and get an ego boost, fill your boots with options regarding how you can make changes in your career to make it work for you. Whether that’s through progressing and accessing world class CPD, by changing jobs or sector, by diversifying your income or even looking at your options outside of the classroom.  I want to show you are valuable, desirable members of the workforce and if your current workplace isn’t giving you what you need to be happy, well, someone else out there will.

And I mean it when I say that this is for all teachers (because, let’s face it, most staffrooms hold a diverse bunch). I’d love to see those that are driven and want more from their careers, teachers who love life in the classroom and want to see what else they could do to boost this, those that on the verge of burn out that think no body wants them (we want you – we really do), the badge of honour brigade (my people!), those that are burned out and about to quit and yes, even those who have quit. You’re all far more skilled than you’ll ever let yourselves believe and I want you to realise it. Think: careers fair with the added bonus of inspirational speakers and career workshops.

The event will bring together people who are looking to work in education in a variety of sectors (both in and out of the classroom) and those looking to employ them. It will bring people together who are having a positive effect in changing things for the better such as Flexible Teacher Talent, MTPT project and Ambition Institute. It will provide opportunities for teachers to shop for, hear about, discuss and partake in world class CPD – CPD that can inspire and push your career further. It also aims to provide options for those who might be looking to diversify their income so they can potentially reduce their hours and free up some of their time for more of what else makes them tick besides teaching. I dream of helping teachers by making them feel like they alone decide the fate of their career (rather than their line managers or the DFE), that they are the driving force and that they own their careers. Think: empowerment.

So, how did I get from panic attack to empowerment?

Working as a head of English in an inner-city school was a job I absolutely loved. I loved building and working with a team, getting to develop practice, and, of course, my first love, teaching. Yes, it was stressful and there were days I felt like tearing my hair out, but the never ending cycle of government changes (cheers Gove) and the pressures from above and below felt like a complicated puzzle, one that if I just worked hard enough I might be able to solve, or at least come really closeand get some great results. I went from having some semblance of a social life and interests outside of work, to working longer and longer hours and seeing less of my friends, family, dropping social commitments and passions and putting off my dreams of starting a family time and time again. That makes it sound like a no brainer: just leave. But, to be honest, I found it all strangely addictive and for the most part really enjoyable.But, as the heart attack panic attack confusion suggests, my body was clearly trying to point out to me that this strange addiction was fast becoming a health issue.

I was fortunate that the respite of the summer holidays gave me some thinking and (family) planning time. Once I became pregnant, I tried to slow down at work but deep down I knew I just wasn’t going to be able to marry the future I’d envisaged for my growing family with the 60+ hour weeks and intermittent panic attacks. It was making me ill and I started to want to jump ship. Cue: Sunday night Google searches of ‘What to do after teaching?’ ‘Want to quit teaching’ etc, ad infinitum.

My Google searches proved fruitless. There was an abundance of CPD I could attend to help with the role I already had, plenty of advertisements out there to encourage me to get into teaching (sadly nothing about retaining me as a teacher) and not much else. There was little to nothing that allowed me to think creatively about my skills and the endless options that I now realise that I have.

I’d gone from being a UPS teacher with tons of prospects to feeling like I only had the two choices of: 1. work myself into the ground or 2. start working minimum wage jobs just to be able to see my family and maintain some level of positive mental health. They really did seem like my only two options at the time. But then, during maternity leave, I started to take small steps to change that.

Whilst on mat leave, I decided to attend a careers event for mums which – despite not providing me with any firm career prospects – provided me with the opportunity to have a day with a friend to discuss our career frustrations, hopes and dreams. It afforded me the space and time to think about my career. To think about: what I didn’t want to do as well as what I did, what really mattered to me, what skills I had, and where I wanted to go next. Despite not getting firm job prospects we found that simply investing in the time to really think about our career had a huge impact on us both.

Having space and time allowed me to think creatively about my skills and how I could go about diversifying my income, freeing up my time to spend more of it with my family and thankfully still teach. Through getting my creative thinking cap on magic things started to happen: I was offered a job in Adult Education (a sector I’d never previously thought about working in – thank you creative thinking), I took some supply work which opened my eyes to the type of school and role that I now wanted, I became a board member for a charity that I’d dreamed of working with, and I became a partner in a tuition business. All thanks to my good friends space and time.

I benefited so much from having space and time on my maternity leave – not much between the breast feeding, not sleeping and food fights I’ll admit, but – a damn sight more than I’d had working sixty-hour weeks at work. I really got to think things through, where I wanted to go and what I wanted to do next. The dream of being able to provide space and time for other teachers to think about their own careers and take matters into their own hands played on my mind throughout my second maternity leave. From this dream: The Teacher Empowerment Project was born. It started as a Twitter account (@TeacherEmpower ) which provided teachers the opportunity to speak about their career concerns via the DM function and ask for advice, but it fast became a plan to bring lots of people together who could help and support each other to make positive changes in their careers. Changes such as moving job, changing sector, diversifying their income, gaining CPD, meeting wellbeing experts, networking with like-minded people and much more.

The Empowerment project aims to empower people to take matters in to their own hands, whether that’s going for that promotion, trying out a different sector, being bold enough to follow your dreams in and out of the education sector or simply realising that you are a valuable asset, worth investing in and that your option are endless.

I do (even after three years) feel like somewhat of a failure for no longer teaching full time in mainstream education. I see so many inspirational teachers out there carving out an amazing balance of social, family and work life and I feel like I’ve let myself and my students down. I feel that I should have been able to do it too. Not to mention, what do my badge of honour mates think of me now? Come to that, what do you think of me? Am I a traitor to the cause, should I have my honour badge stripped off me? (I’m somewhat joking but there’s also a lot of truth spoken in jest!) I think I’ve just got to try and be ok with being happy with my new career route and screw the doubting talk – I’m starting to think that teaching and maintaining a balance that’s right for me should be enough. And, to be honest with you, it is.

Yes, there’s apart of me that thinks I should have stuck at mainstream and worked within the system but then there’s another part of me that feels like I don’t have enough time to wait for the powers that be to make things better. I needed a better work life balance and, the cries from the thousands of teachers out there begging for the same thing were having little to no impact on my work life balance. I realised I needed to stop waiting for someone else to save me and change my life to suit what my ideal balance was.Instead of thinking that by working insanely hard I would be picked out and chosen to have a great life- I needed to pick and choose my own great life.I didn’t and don’t feel like I’ve got decades to give hoping that someone else is going to get it right for me. I need to get it right for me and I feel like I finally am – simply by diversifying and being creative with my rigid ideas of what my linear career should be rather than what, deep down, I want it to be. My career now, isn’t linear and it isn’t on an upward trajectory but it’s mine, it’s me, and I love it.

Thankfully, for those of you still in mainstream education, things are changing for the better. Had I known about it when I had my first son, the Maternity Teacher Paternity Teacher Project (@mtpt) could have saved my sanity. It is also so heart-warming and inspiring to watch Flexible Teacher Talent @FlexTeachTalent fight for better conditions and a common sense approach to teacher retention – I can’t praise what they are doing highly enough. There are also so many important and intelligent voices arguing for positive change. And so many people out there showing us how it can be done. I have been blessed to meet so many supportive people (some virtually, some physically) who are trying to help teachers get the most out of their careers: Jonathan Cobbold and NiamhClewes from Ambition institute, Naomi Ward (@naomi7444 ), Slava and Lucy from ZenEducate, Emma Sheppard (@Comment_Ed) and Sara (@masalledeclasse) from The Maternity Teacher Project, Katie Strickley from DidTeach @didteach1 , not to mention Schoolwell’s very own Sam. All of these amazing people (and many more) will have contributed or will be contributing in some way shape or form in bringing the event to life on the 5th of October.

The day will provide you with the opportunity to network, shop around and get information from those exhibiting. Inspiring workshops and talks will also be held throughout the day for attendees to partake in. As we all know, but often forget, teachers are blessed with so many transferable skills: they are diligent, well educated, vibrant, creative and capable people who often take their skillset for granted. The event aims for you to realise your skillset, tap into your possibilities and empower you with space, time and options.

The event is being held at The People’s History Museum based in the city centre of Manchester. This location was chosen as it’s hard not to be inspired a place that celebrates the power of people coming together to change things for the better. I wanted it to be outside of a school so you have space to think of real alternatives outside of a traditional institutional environmentand I also wanted to ensure that once you have had a few hours networking and thinking about your career with friends that you had the opportunity to enjoy the city (with or without alcohol). From my experience of events such as these, the often profound changes come from talking to your friends and the people you meet. Having the space and opportunity to express your frustrations, hopes and dreams can have powerful ramifications. Wonderful things can happen when we come together.

Tickets are £15 or two for £10 (I really want you to talk to your mates:) and will be on sale at the end of July. Preregistration is open – simply email hello@teacherempowermentproject.co.uk to be added to the list and have the opportunity to be offered additional experiences.

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