This much I know about…why putting your family first matters

I have been a teacher for 25 years, a dad for 17 years, a Headteacher for 10 years and, at the age of 49, this much I know about why putting your family first matters.

To publish this has been a tough call. After a week of talking it through with him, my son Joe agreed to me posting this article. The tipping point came when one of my closest colleagues read it and said, It MUST be published at some point soon because too many of us are working ourselves into the ground. Joe remarked that what happened to him and me probably happens to lots of people…

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An Arthur Miller Life Lesson

“People are much more similar than you think. As I go around the world and ask those I meet what matters most to them, they all say their family comes first.” So said the CEO of Barclays, Antony Jenkins, to his sixth form student audience on a recent edition of the Today programme. But I’m not sure everyone who says his or her family comes first really means it; I now know that I didn’t.

When I began blogging back in June 2012 I used the This Much I Know format, plagiarised from the Observer magazine. That first blog post resonated with many readers and had over 1,800 views in the first twelve hours. This final bullet point seemed to touch people most:

To some extent, I missed my eldest son growing up. Joe is 15 years old now and a young man. When I cuddle him I can’t believe the width of his shoulders and he squirms away as quick as he can. He thinks I’m an idiot! Read Death of a Salesman if you want to know why you should spend more time with the people you love. I taught it last year and now, whenever my sons ask me to do something, I do it, irrespective of my work.

Between 1998, when I was appointed Deputy Headteacher at Huntington School in York, and a February day in 2011 when Miller’s play awoke me, Joe morphed from a two year old toddler into a young man; metaphorically I had slept through the whole process.

We always wanted our house to be an open house. We planned for it to ring with youthful laughter. We hoped it would be a second home to all our sons’ friends. We imagined it alive with bright, young faces. But I put my work first and our dream died.

I didn’t mean to be a misery, but I know I was. I would take Joe to football on a Sunday morning when he played for the Under 9s knowing I had a Technology College bid to write. I would be moody when the kick off was delayed. I would be mad with him when he didn’t try. I felt like he was wasting my time, time when I could have been working.

When his mates turned up, I would snap at them when they were rowdy, growl at them when they had a popcorn fight in the front room, bark at them to be quiet in the early days during the rare sleepovers at ours, because I had to get up early to work. They soon grew afeard and Joe went to their houses to watch the footie, to hang out, to lark around because their folks were much more fun.

Despite the obvious signs of failure to connect with Joe, I ploughed on with my career. I secured one headship then another. Headships are all consuming things; you’re a Headteacher every minute of every day. And my designation became Joe’s vehicle for abuse. “Stop being a Headteacher” he would mutter with no attempt to conceal his contempt for me.

I justified my work obsession through the middle-class lifestyle it afforded us as a family, even though I knew that was nonsense. I ended up working even longer hours; coming home late meant I didn’t get to eat tea with my wife and the boys. In so many ways I was an absent father, though present every day. And the gulf between me and Joe grew wider.

So it was, teaching A level English on that day in February 2011, that Miller’s insight changed my life. Near the end of Death of a Salesman Willy Loman clashes with his son Biff; as they fight Biff suddenly kisses him. Willy is astounded. He says, (after a long pause, astonished, elevated): Isn’t that — isn’t that remarkable? Biff — he likes me!

We were watching the Dustin Hoffman film version of the play before we got to read the text. I’d never seen the play and so, with the students, was watching it for the first time. Biff’s kiss and Willy’s response destroyed me. I had to leave the room, weeping uncontrollably. The students were bemused whilst my colleague Jane provided me tissues in wordless confusion as I fled to an office across the corridor.

 

A myriad of different issues surfaced in that classroom: my own Postman dad’s sense of futility having spent 42 years delivering letters and dying three years before he could retire to tend his roses; my sense of failure at being unable to forge a healthy relationship with my son; the hope that Joe still loved me.

The next lesson I took my father’s alarm clock into class – the same despised alarm clock that had rung him out of bed at 4 am every working day – and talked about it as an objective correlative for my relationships with both my father and my son; the whole sense that we can waste time without choosing and once it has passed, it’s passed. How I wanted for my son something wonderful and I felt I’d mucked the whole thing up.

As I said in that original blog, I decided that day that if either son ever asked me to do something I would do it, no matter how much work I had and I’ve stuck to that principle fiercely. It’s meant me going to bed later, getting up earlier and doing some work stuff just well enough, but that’s OK – the school’s doing fine. Consequently, since that moment in my English class nearly three years ago, my relationship with Joe has, to a great extent, healed.

And last night the 17 year old Joe had his mates round. They commandeered the front room, played cards to awful music and laughed like we’d wanted them to laugh all those lost years ago when, before Arthur Miller taught me a life lesson, I’d have claimed to have been one of those Antony Jenkins types who always put their family first.

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About johntomsett

Headteacher in York. All views are my own.
This entry was posted in Other stuff, School Leadership. Bookmark the permalink.

212 Responses to This much I know about…why putting your family first matters

  1. Very moving and I know it is true. Both my children are teaching and I see them struggle with their workloads, but they find it hard to say ‘no’ to the unreasonable demands made on them. Any advice?

    • johntomsett says:

      Just do all you can do and that’s enough. I like this quotation from Gould’s last interview before he died of cancer at 61.

      ‘What would have been better for me would have been to have said, “I’ll do what I can do, which I do quite well” and then just push it back a little bit.’

      Philip Gould to Andrew Marr, 18 September 2011

  2. Stu says:

    John, thank you for this.
    I’m an illustrator and community artist, and though I have more time with my children than I’m sure some dad’s do, I’m often consumed with work (and the worry of not often knowing how we’re going to pay the bills next month) … Thank you for the reminder to be present – there is nothing more important than our families – I needed to hear this today.
    All good wishes.

  3. Robert says:

    I taught for 31 years and quite often during busy periods I would not get home from my office until 8 or even 9 o’clock at night. My work/life balance was not good. It took a mini-stroke following an Ofsted inspection to make me realise that there was more to life than work and that I was being unfair to those I loved and to myself. A few months afterwards I took the decision to take early retirement with the support of my wife and I have not looked back. I enjoyed my teaching and the students I taught were superb but the time had come to live life to the full and find other ways to be useful. Thank you for the post as I honestly think it is an object lesson to people in all sorts of jobs that there is more to life than work and that while it is important there are many other factors that make life worth living with family and friends being right at the top of the tree.

  4. ET says:

    Thank you for sharing. Fate that I’ve read this today as I’ve been off school to go to the doctors this morning. I’m a deputy head. Although my mum and dad are very proud of me they don’t want me to move up to headship as they think it will be too stressful and will have a negative impact on my health. This post really struck a chord with me as we’d imagined the same with our house & two boys as they grow up. Even bought a lovely 6 slice toaster as we’d imagined having lots of growing boys to feed after weekends of football, and as they get older ‘after the pub snacks’ :-) Why then, only this week, did I say to my youngest that he couldn’t have friends over until after 27th Jan as I’ve got to finish work off for my NPQH! I’ve woken up to myself today and when I go to collect him from school later (a very rare event as I don’t usually tend to get home until 6.30) I shall invite his friends ’round for the weekend.

  5. Marianne Shaw says:

    This is why I choose to work only 2 days a week with my young family. I try to start my work when they are in bed although this is sometimes difficult and results in some very late nights!!! I sometimes think about my full time friends big houses and new cars but then I realise, nothing matters more than your family! Time is precious and you can’t get it back! Thank you for posting this- let’s hope more people start thinking like you!!

  6. Phil says:

    This is the most important thing you will ever write. You’ve changed my mind about an idiotic, selfish decision I was going to make today: to commit myself more thoroughly to work.

    I’m off to the theatre with Len instead.

  7. Emily says:

    Your post has made me cry. I am so glad your son persuaded you to post this. I am part time with a young family and off sick at the moment but worried about getting better for school ASAP. If only that message could be spread by all those in charge…

  8. Ginz says:

    Reblogged this on Reset Parenting and commented:
    A wake up call to us all. Do we really put our kids first or are we kidding ourselves. Let’s stop for a minute, be completely honest with ourselves and take a long hard look at life to see where our priorities lie and where maybe we would prefer them to lie

  9. Ginz says:

    Thank you for writing this. I hope you don’t mind but I have reblogged on resetparenting.com and tweeted @ginzandtonic. Such a valuable contribution.

  10. pat gilbey says:

    Hooray for you, Joe and Arthur Miller!!! i’m 58 and began teaching in 1977 as a humble drama teacher. I scaled the heights pretty quickly and then, pulled back…..these days i work as a freelance Drama teacher, hopefully showing other teachers the power of teaching through stories!!!!

    Happy Teaching, Pat Gilbey http://www.whatifworkshops.com

  11. Debra Awty says:

    John, would it be possible to remind me of a recent link you sent to a video clip. I couldn’t workout if it was genuine or ironic – it was a discussion of teachers having and imparting all the knowledge (or something like that!). Hope you know what I mean. I have tried to find your blogs, to no avail. May be it was something you sent separately. Hope you know what I am on about! thank you, Debra

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  13. emma says:

    Jon,
    this is why I gave up teaching after rising to the dizzy heights(!) of assistant head of faculty. I was beating myself up to find a full time HoF post and thinking about assistant head jobs. Then I stopped. I get to spend two days a week with my lovely son and still work with young people as an educator in the Houses of Parliament. But even so, I don’t always appreciate the time I get with him when I’m too tired or busy. This was a timely reminder of why I chose to forego the bigger house, car and holidays. Thanks!

  14. Andy says:

    A great piece John (only just found this blog, but will be following from now on!)

    As a new(ish) dad – in York as it happens! – with two young children and a wife about to return to school as an assistant head after a year of maternity leave, it certainly resonates! Thanks!

  15. Sallie says:

    So pleased to have literally stumbled across this on FB where a photographer friend had posted it, so very true and touching, … you used to work at Hove Park, when my Mum Jan Quinlan worked there, am passing her the link to read your blog, she will love this.

    • johntomsett says:

      Hi Sallie! How are you? Great to hear from you. I’d love to get in touch with your mum. I was talking to my Joe about her the other day, about how I used to give her a lift in the mornings when she lived in her flat at Bath Street. Say hi to Jan for me and pass her my email – jtomsett@hotmail.com. John. x

  16. abigail Gaines says:

    What a wonderful read. I returned to full time work after a year maternity with my first child (now three and a half) and am about to do the same after our second (nearly a year old). I have always said no to PT work as I felt I needed to stay FT for my ‘career’ and to ‘provide’ for my family. I’m in a difficult place in my career as I get the same pay as at assistant head (i’m an AST with full school responsibilities) but always wanted to be an Assistant Head to have achieved this role – but why? I get the same pay? School is all consuming – when I come home, I try and play but i’m thinking about school, wanting them in bed so I can work. But I have spent the last year feeling guilty that I will never be able to take my child to school or pick her up (we live in York but I work elsewhere) or spend the same sort of time with them as I’ve had in my years off. You have helped clarify my thinking – we have one life, our children are young once. What a brilliant blog (thank Joe for letting you post this – my children will appreciate him for this).

  17. Rob says:

    Yeah it must be hard having 12 weeks a year off of work to bond with your family… Did you work all through your holidays as well “marking papers”?Gimme a break… Whining teachers again…

    • johntomsett says:

      Thanks for the comment Rob. I think it’s an important comment because your viewpoint is one that people wouldn’t necessary post here but many would have. I wasn’t whining – I love the job to be honest; it’s a privilege. 1,200+ parents trust me with their children and their children’s futures on a daily basis. Loads of my non-teacher mates work weekends and don’t see their kids either. There isn’t a whinge in the whole post – just a confession of personal failing. We all have to work – it’s just that I’d lost a sense of balance between work and home life.

      • Steve says:

        Your blog is a very moving echo of many of my own sentiments, but it is this reply that has inspired me to comment as I think it gets to the heart of the issue. I am not a teacher, though I am a governor at my daughters school and my wife is an assistant head. However, I work long hours, am committed to a job I love and feel it is a great privilege to be responsible for an equally committed team – so I guess we have much in common. I think there is also a sense of wanting to improve the lives of others at play here, including those of our kids. So perhaps the sense of perspective spans a little wider? I certainly don’t consider what you have described as a failing. It’s not possible to get the balance right all of the time, all we can do is recognise when it’s drifting and correct – a bit like steering a ship! Sounds to me like you have done this John and you’re still very much on course.

  18. Joanne says:

    Touches some raw nerves. With one daughter in final year at uni and the other in yr13 I find myself close to having a house without children. I have spent the last 25 years teaching full-time, went straight back to work when the girls were 4 months old and now regret wearing myself out TRYING to be an amazing mum and an amazing teacher/ head of department. Marking and planning from bedtime to midnight night after night, never considering going out in the week. Fortunately i have a fab relationship with my girls but I now realise that I have sacrificed ME and now I don’t feel it was worth it. I could never settle for “it’ll do” until recently. Even off sick with vertigo I am stressing and spending hours planning decent cover work

  19. Ed says:

    There is pressure in all jobs. The difference in teaching and I’ve done other jobs, is firstly the interference from ones who don’t, can’t and have no qualifications to undertake the role. Not only that but they sit in judgement of those who can and do. Judgements often not based on any scientific method but simply the latest meanderings of whomever is education secretary. Parents should not be fooled into believing schools are full of terrible teachers whilst the rest of the world forges ahead. The truth is education is a political football and led at many levels both in and out of school by incompetent and unprincipled management teams who have a total disregard for children and staff’s welfare. Teaching is also the only job I know of in which you are ‘on stage’ performing in front of, in some cases, an eager audience all day, every day. Not only that but constantly being told you must change your delivery method regardless of what has or has not worked previously by someone who never sets foot inside a classroom other than to criticise others. Parents also need to know who many teachers are replaced with when they leave or break down. Qualified teachers? Wrong and you never knew. Cheap though and we are all in it together after all, aren’t we?

  20. Bia Medeiros says:

    Touching & full of inspiration! Thanks for such a lesson!

  21. sarahg0802 says:

    thank you. I had a lump in my throat as I read this. I became a HT fairly young I suppose, then v quickly had my daughter. Was lucky enough to go part time when she was a toddler, went back into full time HT as she started school. Then I gave up headship because I wanted to see if there was something I could do and make sure wasn’t burnt out for my family. I gave up one term before my daughter finished primary school so, instead of going to all Year 6 stuff at my school I could go to hers and not feel guilty. I now work with trainee teachers and do this http://www.lightingcreativefires.com and http://www.storyshack.com Sometimes I’m wobbly about it as I think we all want to do well and I like schools very much but I love my daughter above all that and I think we need more blogs from folk like YOU and others to try and shift to a family led society where it’s not frowned upon to go home early and to put your family first. I think there was quite a famous speaker/leader who suggested you needed to be the last one at school to be a good HT-stuff like that just doesn’t help at all. If we’re leading a school for children we must get our own priorities in order and put our children FIRST.

  22. Amanda says:

    Thankyou to helping me to re-affirm my decision to go part time in 18 months time. I have been teaching 32 years, my children are 17 and 19 and luckily we have managed to keep good relationships even though my working week as a Faculty Leader is 80 hours every week.. The only reason this has worked is due to my husband working p/t throughout their childhood and I teach in the school they have attended, so we feel connected. Their father has been brilliant at caring for their every need. Don’t want to conk out before grandchildren kick in and so p/t for me and a compromised income for the whole family. It has got to be worth it. Hope your new found relationship continues to grow.

  23. Neil Humpleby says:

    This is a great point. I have no children but I do work long hours. I have friends who I’ve not seen in many years already.

    A career is for life certainly but the point of time for both family and friends along the way is massive. I think of being where I want one day and I want my friends there too, not forgotten on the journey. It’s never too late to think about this and change it, my 2014 resolution for the new year

  24. grant says:

    When I was little my dad travelled all over the world and would always bring us gifts back from his journeys, the trouble is, what we really wanted was his presence and not his presents and now it’s too late, he died last year and we can never get that time back! Live your life as if today is your last, it just might be!

  25. Alan says:

    Thanks for this, Jon. I’m a deputy head in a primary school and have been off work since June last year with depression caused by the awful working conditions of just being a teacher in this modern society. I have made the decision to take early retirement at 56 but what seriously worries me is the number of teachers now who find themselves in similar situations these days. You only have to read some of the replies on your blog to see that. I think we as a country need a serious re-evaluation of our whole education system before too many more teachers also end up neglecting their loved ones or even burning themselves out.

  26. a wonderful post, it is good to hear you have been able to repair the damage – not all fathers can say this! I would like to point out that your story is true for many working parents, not only for headmasters! Many parents are so busy working that the years fly by. Unfortunately the way our society operates people are led to believe that the job has to come first and children come second (if not third or fourth).

  27. Alison Clarke says:

    My son asked me for the last 5 years to ‘leave that school’ as I worked from 7.15am-10pm every day. I left in Dec and am enjoying sleeping a full 8 hours a night. I also get to spend more time focusing on my family, asking my teenage & adult children and husband about their day. My son is however now telling me to get a job, as I am able to see just how much homework he really is doing! Setting up my own business as a leadership consultant after 25 years of teaching (13 as a headteacher) is scary, but I don’t want to go back, I’ve already missed too much of my children’s growing up and look forward to being there for them now. I too hope it’s not too late.

  28. Ed says:

    I assume you’ll bring advising leaders to work less and ensure the rest of the staff are treated fairly and allowed a work life balance. After all many good teachers choose not to pursue promotions in order to ensure this and as such are paid significantly less and expect lower pensions in addition to not embarking on well paid consultancy/ofsted work after leaving the classroom. I wish you luck but please bear this in mind when analysing data, children and staff. My current experience is that teachers and older pupils in many schools are not enjoying the school experience at all.

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  30. carol says:

    Hi John..a colleague from days gone by here – Carol Livingstone (Hove Park). Just wanted to say thank you for what is, once again, a thought provoking and inspiring post. As I read your post, it brought to mind a poem I studied with my wonderful sixth form students today, Hardy’s ‘The Self-Unseeing’. Memories of a childhood happiness are vividly recalled but it ends with a regretful line, ‘Yet, we were looking away’. Both Hardy and yourself encourage us to embrace ‘now’ and appreciate life and family to the full. Better be off…I’m off to walk the dog with my boys as the sun sets. Thank you!

  31. gary says:

    I thought that maybe I wasn’t ambitious enough but now I know I was family orientated and my ambition was in perspective and aligned with what I could actually achieve. Thanks for this post, brilliant and honest!

  32. the1985thirtybeforethirty says:

    Really hit home. When my first child is born I will only be able to take 6 weeks maternity. It’s ironic that I will be spending more time with other people’s children than my own. Teaching isn’t always the ‘rewarding’ career people make it out to be unfortunately.

  33. Sian Pickering says:

    I’ve been teaching 18 years and had the same realisation three years ago. My first grandchild is due in 2 weeks, I won’t make the same mistakes again. Family that’s what matters xxxx

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  35. David Richardson says:

    Wow a very emotive piece. I caught a sight of my two children colouring in my office while I evaluated my action plan…I have just become acting head in a primary. I have years of juggling the children, planning who is picking them up etc. walking in late or just missing events as ‘I need to be at school.’ I am a dad first….something has got to change here. Thank you for the wake up call!

  36. john calvert says:

    Well said. The irony is that because of the over-supply of teachers and the ridiculous lack of worth government puts on the profession this is now the norm, not the exception to the rule in teaching…when teachers start to get a ‘normal’ life, they are moved on and replaced until the next incumbent is run into the ground…or forfeits their family life for their work. Being recently divorced (with not a twinge of guilt that this rings a chord) I can totally empathise with the writer. Unfortunately I can’t see it changing any time soon, especially as we obviously ‘require improvement’ as our children are suffering (sic).

  37. Tish says:

    Oh my goodness, I just came about your post after seeing someone ( you know) I worked with sending me a ‘well done’ message on a Facebook page I manage. This is also after a row today with my 32 year old daughter, complaining that I had let her down terribly as a teenager, and that my work and how I’d been was why she left home and lived in a young people’s hostel. We blamed each other for what seemed like an hour and I earnestly tried to get ‘her’ to understand me! The ‘why I worked so hard’, trying to keep a new job, with 2 hours travel each morning and back again each night, no car, public transport, delays, long hours, traveling safely at night, and within 2 weeks of that, stayed local to my job, arranging a new urgent management transfer of tenancy, working away, new home, new Managerial job, new life, and managing all this as a single parent, desperate to get her and us away from London, where I previously worked as a drugs worker. She finished her exams, as we agreed, my family ‘watched her’ each day and stayed many evenings. We spoke on the phone. She ‘insisted she was ‘fine mum you’ve got to trust me’ and I paid for extra expenses I could scarcely afford in both homes, to be close to work, whilst she felt in recollecting these events now as an adult…… abandoned. I felt it hurt, but then railroaded myself and her into a vehement denial!! I have ‘evidence’ in work diaries of the 59 hours a week, the UK wide training and networking days I had to attend, that all seem to start at 9am! The conferences and evening meetings, the weekend working, the sickness record that seemed to be creeping up, the complete and utter stress of managing all this as a lone parent, even with a partner at times, this was useless in terms of support. All defining how much it should have STOPPED! and had a chance to breathe, or listen, to BE still! and then to notice the impact on my daughter. Why she didn’t want to move in with me in the new home , why she did for a short time , ‘ Harrow is miles away, all my friends are in East London’, then left. I am to blame. ‘But chasing this job was for her benefit’, I told myself . The drugs scene in London was terrible back in 1998 and in the borough that we lived. I feared losing her, and then did just that! I lost a part of her life and her memories are tarnished by my actions. It is repaired now, but will always be misunderstood. I think until now….after reading your blog and writing this. myself. I feel able to hear what her perspective is and was. I feel terrible for her memories and for mine. I am at least ready to listen. I just hopes she can talk

  38. boatie says:

    A really interesting and thought-provoking article. It is impossible to do my teaching job properly and also have enough time to see my family, do any kind of exercise, life admin etc. At any point you know that senior management can quite legitimately point out that something hasn’t been done. My sympathy and admiration for John Tomsett is tempered by the realisation that as a headteacher he will have gone to a great deal of trouble to inflict an unreasonable workload on other people.

  39. LittleMiss says:

    As a recently qualified teacher (<5 years) who came to teaching after having children I understand this situation completely. It isn't something unique to management, teachers, experienced or recently qualified teachers. It seems to be a situation that affects all teachers. I love my job but I love my children more. Being a teacher has had a negative impact on my health as well as my relationship with family so I have decided that I will leave the profession. This was not any easy decision to make. It might be something that I may later regret. I (we) had to sacrifice a lot to allow me the opportunity to retrain. However, reading this article made me think that maybe it is the right decision for all of us.
    As a parent I think it is a shame that good teachers are moving away from teaching but as a teacher I can understand why this is happening.

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