When Kate Jefferson returned to work after maternity leave, she joined a new school, Millbank Academy in London, as a headteacher. But she didn’t expect to be returning as a head in the middle of the COVID-19 pandemic. How has she coped with the challenges of juggling home and family and leading her school through the pandemic?
What was it like going back to work during the COVID-19 outbreak?
Returning to work in the middle of a pandemic was unexpected. I made the difficult decision to live apart temporarily from my husband, who is a doctor in A&E and so is at high risk. Balancing headship with caring for a nine-month-old, away from home, has its challenges. My son's main interests include chewing electrical cables, emptying cupboards and pulling the dog's tail, which can prove interesting on a conference call! Nevertheless, it is an interesting time and I am very glad to be able to play a part in supporting our community.
How are you and your team supporting each other?
The team at my new school has been unfailingly welcoming and supportive. Home and work lives have become inexorably integrated for the first time, allowing us to see each other in a much more holistic and realistic manner. Hopefully, this level of understanding for people's family lives will be a positive legacy of the current pandemic.
How have you got used to a new routine?
Adjusting to a new routine is perhaps made easier by an infant who already has a very structured schedule. My mother has been a fantastic help. I had arranged to start part time for my first two months to settle my son into nursery. This flexibility has proved useful in a different way to that which we had intended!
How are you coping with the challenges of being a headteacher during this time?
I am a planner. Thinking through potential scenarios enables me to plan solutions before they are needed. Feeling prepared can reduce anxiety of the unknown. Write down your worries; if there are practical solutions, work towards them. If worries are beyond your control, know that you must let them go.
How are you looking after yourself?
It has been challenging to switch off and make time for myself. Headship is a demanding, and seemingly never-ending role, as is caring for a baby. In my three years as a headteacher prior to maternity leave, I learned the importance of carving out time for myself.
It is important to pay attention to both your physical and your mental health. My passion is running and, rain or shine, I set aside time for this each day; it gives me a new, and always more positive, perspective. My advice would be to make this 'me time' as much a part of your routine as you can. To look after my mental health, I have stayed connected with friends and colleagues during the pandemic, which has supported me emotionally and practically. My son loves to call his father on Zoom while we’re living apart, especially at bath time!
Any advice for teachers returning from parental leave during COVID-19?
During the pandemic, you may be without your normal circle of support. Family members are distanced and you may not have chosen a nursery before lockdown. Draw on the experiences of other local parents, who will often be happy to share their views on local nurseries. As a key worker, you are eligible for emergency child-care. Consider how you can adapt things like your commute and travelling to keep safe. We have recently bought a cargo bike so that we can cycle to nursery and avoid public transport.
What advice do you have for women who might be worried about juggling a family with teaching in the future?
It will never be as hard as you anticipate. Draw on the support of your family and friends where possible. Say yes when help is offered and do not see this as a failure. At work, you rely on a team to support you; the same is true when raising a child.
Think carefully about how you will manage your return in order to make it as smooth as possible. Your employer has a duty to support you in this, where possible. Would a phased return work best? Can you work part time? Ultimately, there is no one solution that fits everyone, and you should not feel guilty for making the choices that are best for the wellbeing of you and your child.
Who inspired you to become a school leader?
My mother was a headteacher and has always been a fantastic role model. She is positive, capable and led a school whilst looking after three children at home. The most inspirational aspects of her leadership were her generosity with her time and her support, and her drive to improve. I studied law at Cambridge and it was my mother’s passion for teaching that inspired me to change career path; I certainly haven't regretted it.