The Returner: Getting back to HE Teaching after Maternity Leave

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Dr Steph Fuller on the challenges of returning to teaching and some practical tips to ease the transition.

I always find returning to teaching after a break somewhat intimidating.  Returning to work after a year’s maternity leave, I found myself scheduled to teach a seminar on my third day back.  In some ways this was a good thing as I was plunged straight in, but as someone who normally prefers to plan teaching well ahead of time, it took me a little out of my comfort zone.

Returning from parental leave to the workforce can be a difficult transition to make.  Lack of confidence and self-doubt can plague returners, with one report claiming: ‘not only may [returners] have actually been sidelined but many also feel less confident in themselves, and feel that their employer is almost doing them a favour by letting them come back, perhaps on more flexible terms.’  This lack of confidence coupled with a sense that you need to prove yourself all over again can have serious implications when you are returning to the classroom.

Working in the UK, I was lucky enough to be able take a long period of parental leave and return to my post.  I simply cannot imagine how women in other countries such as the US are physically, emotionally or intellectually able to return to work just 12 weeks after their babies are born – and for many these 12 weeks are unpaid.  This blog gives a taste of the challenges.  Unlike many colleagues who work in academic departments, I was able to fully handover my work and concentrate only on my new job of keeping a baby alive.  (It was a very steep learning curve but also completely brilliant.)

Many academic colleagues, however, have had their parental leave treated like a research sabbatical, and feel immense pressure to keep up to date with developments in their field and their own research while they are off.  The spectre of the academic career did also continue to haunt me throughout my leave.  I was able to finish writing a book chapter when my daughter was three months old, writing only during her naps which lasted a maximum of 30 minutes at that time.  It was a good lesson in how much can be achieved in 30 minutes when you really put your mind to it.  But it was also hugely challenging to juggle the deadline with full time childcare, and although I am glad I did it, I feel like I have perhaps contributed to the erosion of the validity of parental leave.  Rachel Moss, a lecturer at Oxford, discusses this issue and the associated dangers of the idea of academia as a vocation in this interesting article.

The challenges of returning to academia after parental leave, or a career break of another kind, are beginning to be recognised.  A recent Guardian report found that numbers of academics taking parental leave were on the decline, that on average academics take less parental leave than those in other professions, and that many (women, primarily) cannot find permanent posts upon returning to work.  In the sciences, where colleagues are arguably most negatively affected, a range of organisations now offer ‘career re-entry research fellowships’ or flexible working fellowships to begin to redress this situation.  These organisations include: Wellcome, British Heart Foundation, The Royal Society, and Daphne Jackson Trust (see Guardian article here for more information).  I have been unable to find information about similar schemes in the humanities or social sciences, an area which surely needs attention.

While there is limited support for those returning to research, little thought seems to be given to returning to teaching in higher education following parental leave or other breaks.  In all of our work in the Educational Development team we seek to promote teaching as an equal and complementary partner to research within universities.  Therefore, the process of returning to teaching after a break should be given the same care and attention as returning to research.  We should not simply assume colleagues will immediately pick up where they left off with teaching without any help or support.

Drawing on my personal experiences, some of the key issues to consider for those returning to teaching might include:

Ensuring you have enough time to prepare.  So often academics are thrown into teaching just weeks or days after they begin or return to a post, and so teaching can feel ad hoc and last minute rather than planned.  This is something you may well not have any control over, but if you are able to, carve out time for teaching preparation; it is important particularly when the material is not so fresh in your mind, and when you may still be highly sleep deprived.

Build your confidence. It’s important to remind yourself of past successes and achievements.  Cast your eyes over feedback received in the past or talk to colleagues.  Discuss any concerns you may have with people you can trust.  You are still the same teacher, and if you’ve been on parental leave have spent the past months teaching continually.

Practice disciplinary discussion with friends or colleagues.  I found it surprisingly difficult to move back into the language and vocabulary of my subject with fluency.  Having hardly read or written anything vaguely academic during the past year, I felt positively rusty teaching and talking to students at first.

Being out of the latest research loop.  Similarly, the feeling that you are no longer up to date with the latest developments in the field can undermine your confidence in the classroom.  But remember, it is always completely valid to tell students that you will go away and find the answers to any questions you can’t respond to on the spot.  Linked to this, I have found my ability to think on my feet is severely hampered by lack of sleep which is certainly a challenge for teaching.  Making use of a range of different methods to interact with students can help; adding extra materials or suggested further reading to a virtual learning environment, using group discussion boards or emails, or making time to catch up with students individually where possible can help address this.

Peer and student feedback.  Once you’ve settled back in remember to make use of feedback – from students or colleagues.  See this excellent blog from my fellow Educational Developer Emma Kennedy on responding to negative student feedback for advice on how to deal with any particularly thoughtless or hurtful comments.  The Educational Development team also offers teaching observations to any colleagues who would like impartial, supportive and developmental feedback on their teaching.  (Contact us here if you would like to arrange an observation.)

Research around returners to work from maternity leave (hopefully comparable studies of the effects of paternity leave, adoption leave and shared parental leave will soon follow) makes for depressing reading.  A report by law firm Slater & Gordon claims that six out of ten women claim they have faced discrimination at work while pregnant or upon their return.  But hopefully the recognition of these issues through schemes like the career re-entry fellowships are beginning to turn the tide.  Taking time to reflect on the potential difficulties in returning to both research and teaching in higher education will hopefully begin to help colleagues tackle these challenges.

References:

‘All that you Can’t Leave Behind (on Maternity Leave)’ Tenure, She Wrote blog, available at: https://tenureshewrote.wordpress.com/2015/03/05/all-that-you-cant-leave-behind-on-maternity-leave/

Anna Bawden, ‘Academia for Women: Short Maternity Leave, Few Part-Time Roles and Lower Pay,’ The Guardian, available at: https://www.theguardian.com/education/2014/nov/18/academia-for-women-short-maternity-leave

Annie Hayes, ‘Sidelined? The Disappointing Maternity Return,’ HRZone, available at: https://www.hrzone.com/lead/culture/sidelined-the-disappointing-maternity-return-by-annie-hayes

Emma Kennedy, ‘Responding to Negative Student Feedback: Retain your Confidence, Improve your Teaching,’ ADEPT, available at: https://adept.qmul.ac.uk/?resource=responding-negative-student-feedback

Helen Lock, ‘How to Break Back into Academia when you’ve had a Baby,’ The Guardian, available at: https://www.theguardian.com/higher-education-network/2015/nov/18/how-to-break-back-into-academia-when-youve-had-a-baby

Rachel Moss, ‘Returning to Academic Work after Maternity Leave,’ Times Higher Education, available at: https://www.timeshighereducation.com/blog/returning-academic-work-after-maternity-leave

Jonathan Owen, ‘Most Women Face Discrimination at Work after Falling Pregnant, Study Shows,’ Independent, available at: http://www.independent.co.uk/life-style/health-and-families/health-news/most-women-face-discrimination-at-work-after-falling-pregnant-study-shows-9662247.html