Career decisions and no clues — writing, being a parent volunteer in school, teaching, and science

[Friday update and conclusion here]

This morning Mr U gaped as he caught me in front of the mirror, purple-faced, picking stitches from a minor operation out of my own shoulder.

‘What are you doing?’

I explained that my GP appointment on Friday clashes with my invitation to read with Y1 class in school, and I’d rather pull out my own stitches than miss reading.

‘Stop,’ he finished the stitches for me, ‘are you sure you don’t want to train as a teacher?’


I’m at a pivotal point. I’ve enjoyed 20 years of writing about science, loved my maternity leave (working/writing part-time) and for ten years, I’ve been a parent volunteer in school.

This July though, I realised that I needed to kick-start my writing career and more challenging projects might mean no time to volunteer. On the first day of autumn term, I dropped off my children, received my first client email before I’d left the school grounds (yey!), and was about to gallop to work when I passed Reception class, realised I wasn’t going in, and burst into tears. Cue a backtrack. I snuck back in, helped take 90 children on a trip, 25 to swimming lessons, and now… I’m pulling out my own stitches so that I can read on Friday?

Meanwhile I’m also working every waking hour because I’m still kick-starting my actual career — the job for which I’m actually qualified, the one that actually pays for food.

‘Are you sure you don’t want to train as a teacher?’ 

Beautiful writing
Beautiful writing

I don’t want to be a teacher per se, but I’m not sure I ever wanted to help in school, either. I just wanted to be with my children, then enjoyed being with all the children, then discovered hands-on child development. The vibrancy, the academics — literacy, numeracy, sport, and social development. Special needs, starting to understand dyslexia, autism, bereavement, and various physical disorders. Seeing incredible abilities in every child. Their wonderful openness; their constant seeking of experiences, boundaries, and friendship. Their individuality. I love their expressions as you walk in; curious, challenging, friendly. When they run up to grab your hand, bursting to tell you, show you, include you in their creativity; their stories, pictures and dances. I love when they do as they’re asked. I love when they don’t, the sideways glance of “what can I get away with?” Trying not to laugh when I need to be assertive. I love helping the ones who don’t automatically walk on the pavement or sit in a circle.

Most of all, I love the expression on their faces when they engage. The child who doesn’t want to read — when you peer out of the window at a tree, and ask, ‘Have you heard of Tattybogle?’ and they forget everything else for a fabulous, curious microsecond.

Happiness on a page

I love it when children who struggled to read complete a chapter. I love their first swimming strokes; love watching their faces light up. I also love kneeling before a disappointed child, watching their expression change as they realise they can try again, and that it’s OK to have to try a few times to “get” something. I love watching them foster resilience, fanning tiny flames of determination, trying again.

And the teachers. Watching adults encouraging, soothing and steering small children with warmth and skill is a life-affirming experience.

I love ALL OF IT. Even the tidying up, dammit. Do I leave all this behind? Do I have to walk away? (Sobs pathetically.)

Except what am I really walking away from? Let’s get real.

It’s time for a reality check: no matter how much I love being there, I’m not a colleague or team member. I’m not trained to teach, and I’m responsibly aware of my limitations. In school, a volunteer is invited to help with specific tasks: to read after registration but go home after phonics / to take them swimming but disappear before lunch, etc. There are times (e.g. the first week of term) when a volunteer might need to step back to let the teacher know the group (the exact same period when some children most need continuity, and this stepping back when you might have been able to help is the worst part of volunteering).

On which note, there are two professional divides at school. The obvious first is that the teachers are at work, while parent volunteers are not. There’s also the second little matter of the teachers quite possibly  never seeing parent volunteers in any professional capacity. Just like doctors mainly see sick folk, and so could be forgiven for assuming the public is an unwashed mass of smoking, drinking, infected liars, teachers mostly see whichever parent is hauling kids to and from school, with their rumpled hair and yoghurt-coated jeans. So teachers could be forgiven (cough) for imagining us all watching daytime TV with a fistful of Haribo and fags while they educate our children. They don’t routinely see us presenting to a conference full of delegates, or managing teams, or writing reports.

Given this, are volunteers even useful? Are they gold dust, or more effort than they are worth? I don’t know, so today I asked @tes who kindly tweeted the query:

For it to work, the parent volunteer in t-shirt and jeans has to adopt the professional standards of the school. It’s easily do-able, but it can feel strange to be “working” with people who don’t see you as a professional. It’s OK — refreshing even — but it’s a different dynamic than you’d get in a shared work environment.

It can be great. Many teachers “manage” the classroom parent volunteers in a set format (time, seat, routine), but other times a teacher/TA team will adopt you as one of their own and you find yourself tidying and chatting as if you’ve known them forever. Then at the end of the year, you move on and miss them for months.

Being a classroom parent volunteer is a distinct and offbeat role. You work with incredible people for a decade, but you’re not their colleague. You support a warm, friendly team for a decade, but you’re not a member. You’re made welcome, but you don’t belong. It’s heartwarming, and heartbreaking. 

Right now, I’m perched between two different worlds, fully achieving neither, and feeling alone.

I asked a friend, a headteacher of a different school, about the possibility of teaching, and we talked of workload, assessments, budgets, and politics — all of which I’d seen online at @tes or Twitter groups). The hurdles — changing goalposts, budgetary restrictions, politics, unpaid overtime, etc — are familiar enough; they span industries.

Meanwhile, for ten years I’ve failed to secure the time to write, and now I have it. My writing career waited faithfully for me and shows immediate signs of blooming — the work request on the first day of term felt like an omen. I can support my family by doing a job I love, with medical colleagues who welcomed me back as if I never left — and a fiction writer has invited me to be a writing buddy.

I’m pretty sure these things all make me extremely lucky, and I need to appreciate them without peering back over my (slightly mangled) shoulder.

I’m a working mum and it’s time to grab this chance to work and write. This is not a time for daydreams or procrastination; it’s a chance to create the most useful and successful career that I can. Regarding exactly where that takes me, the jury’s still out but once the verdict’s in, I’m not allowed to look back.

(In other news, my shoulder has stopped hurting now, and I can’t wait for Friday.)

Image attribution.

Friday update:

Worth the shoulder pain. Fabulous.


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