“Where do you see yourself in five year’s time?”
My headteacher stares inquisitively at me across his desk, waiting for my reply. It’s my annual subject review, and as a head of department in a secondary school, I am outlining my development plan for both my subject area and, it would seem, my future career. The Head has his Investors in People hat on and is doing what any good manager does and is nurturing and encouraging the progression and development of a member of his staff.
I wish he’d stop it.
I hate questions like this, for all sorts of reasons. Reason number one is that, since we first realised our son was autistic, any career aspirations I may have had took a back seat. In fact, they took the very back seat of the bus- the one where naughty kids who don’t like school sit.
Once upon a time I had been a very ambitious young man who quickly climbed the career ladder. Teaching is a pretty all-consuming job but I embraced it and was successful. Becoming a parent for the first time added pressure and difficulties to my work/life balance, as I’m sure is very common. However, in my case it actually made me a little more focussed. I made much better use of my time and energy as a result of having less of it. I was more efficient at work and ironically, it was probably the period when I was most effective as a teacher. In retrospect, I was also very happy with life, which probably reflected on how I felt about work.
And then it happened. Or rather, life gradually started to become quite challenging, less clear, more uncertain. My son was autistic, and this changed things. As we tore up the road map of our lives and set out on a less certain pathway, I found my priorities, beliefs and aspirations start to change. I don’t think I can underestimate the impact my son’s diagnosis had on my attitude to work. Suddenly, a lot of things that were previously important seemed utterly meaningless.
For months, my son was all I could think about at work, particularly during his first year of hospital appointments, assessments and MRI scans. I was distracted and I did not want to be there. The job that to such a large extent had defined the person I was became irrelevant. I coasted, put little effort in and got little out. I resented the hours I was spending with other people’s children and I resented the stupid hoops of exams and assessments that we make children jump through. In a very short space of time I had gone from contender to pretender. It simply didn’t matter any more. Obviously, earning a salary was pretty high on my list of priorities, as was doing a good job. But my heart was not in it. My mind was not on the job. How could it be, when my boy was autistic? How could anything matter again, now that this had happened?
Unsurprisingly, many parents of special needs children choose to stop working. Or rather, stop working for a salary. I can totally understand someone’s decision to do this. What job could possibly be more important than looking after your child? For some people we know, the level of care required takes away the element of choice. One couple we know had so many medical appointments in the space of one year that it would have been utterly impossible to consider trying to hold down a job, no matter how understanding the employer. My boss, the Headteacher, was very patient about my frequent absences for medical appointments. He might have been less understanding if he knew the extent to which I was coasting at work. The extent to which I simply did not want to be there.
Why am I sharing all this? Well, for one, I have wanted to write about it for a very long time. Until recently, when things began to improve a little, I struggled to find the words to explain how I felt. Also, I think there will be other people out there who feel this way. Most importantly, I have a positive message. Things are getting better and this improvement is something that is worth sharing, I think. I will never forget the dark days and months that we went through. I know some readers are there now. Maybe they feel the way I did about work and those other parts of their life that previously seemed so important. I hope that it will help them when I say, it’s okay to feel like that and it will get better.
I am also writing this to my wife. Much more than me she has felt the impact of our situation on her work life. She also works in education, and is a skilled and experienced practitioner. She finds her work rewarding and always goes the extra mile in delivering a good service to the young people she supports. But her career has been seriously compromised by the difficulties of raising our son. Before and after-school child care have proven impossible to provide for B, meaning his mum’s hours have had to drop considerably. Moreover, training opportunities and additional qualifications have become closed doors to her. As a result she is frustrated and no doubt feels guilty about whatever she does in her struggle to manage the catch 22 of work/life balance.
I hope that, in time, things will change for her.
With time, my attitude to work has begun to adjust. This coincides with life being easier in general, being better equipped to cope with a special needs child and, I guess, feeling a little happier. I’ve also been through a particularly intense period of various inspections that have forced me to focus more at work. This has been good for me, as I’ve felt the benefits and satisfaction of a job well done- something I’d almost forgotten about. I’ve been able to say to myself, ”I’m good at this. I’ve worked hard at it. I can’t just throw it all away. It means too much”. My job might not quite define me in the way it once did, but it’s still a huge part of who I am. And I’m lucky to have a job at all, let alone one that I love. I think I’m starting to get back my work/life balance, after a period of imbalance.
So who knows where I’ll be in five year’s time, but at least it’s looking a little less bleak than it did at the start of the (academic) year. I’m feeling optimistic.
If there’s a cloud on my silver lining, it’s the issue of my son’s future secondary school. In five year’s time B will be ten and, if mainstream is the right pathway for him, choosing his secondary school. This throws up a rather awkward problem for me. As things currently stand, B’s destination school would be the one I work in. Talk about a work/life balance clash! The obvious thing would be either to move house or go and work in another school. The latter seems a little extreme, but moving out of the area does not appeal either. By then B’s brother will have been at secondary school for two years and we’d like them to go to the same school. This means moving house in the next couple of years, which means getting our finger out and starting to make it happen very soon. We are not really in a position to make that move. It’s things like this that keep me awake at night!
There’s a part of me that wants B at my school. A part of me that wants to keep him close, so that when things go wrong, as they inevitably will, I am there to make sure he is okay.
A bigger part of me says it’s a recipe for disaster.
B is convinced that the students at my school call me Mr Daddy. He sees me as only having one job: being his dad. As time has progressed, I’ve started to find the balance and the ability to be more than just that, and to cope better with the demands of a career and fatherhood. But I will never, ever forget what is the most important job I will ever do.
And it’s not being a teacher.