Maternity leave as a lecturer: at what cost?

Jessica Johnson on the challenges of arranging maternity cover

October 8, 2017
pregnant, maternity
Source: iStock

I had been in my new lecturer post for a year and a half when I found out that I was pregnant. On a personal level, I was over the moon, but I started to really worry about the consequences for me professionally. Others have written about the cost of taking a break from research and the effect of a family on the work-life balance. This blog will reflect on the teaching side.

The school that I work in is wonderfully broad in terms of subjects researched and taught. However, that means that there are few lecturers for each subject. In fact, I am the only geophysicist in the university even though we run a suite of geophysics degrees. Since I started, I have worked tirelessly to improve the reputation of the degrees, the student intake and the content that the geophysics students are taught.

The prospect of having six months away made me worried that all my hard work would be undone. This fear was not alleviated when I told my head of school that I would soon be going on maternity leave and his first response was to suggest cancelling the main geophysics module for a year. Thus started the battle to get approval for maternity cover. 

The second challenge, once a post had been released, was to find someone suitable. Luckily, I knew somebody perfect for the role. He was coming to the end of a postdoc and didn’t have anything lined up; and he does not yet have a family so he was happy to relocate for six months.

The third and most interesting challenge was to ensure that my maternity cover did a good job. This sounds fairly straightforward – just pass on the teaching materials. However, there is more to it than that.

  1. Preparation of teaching materials (lectures, practicals, field course, coursework, exam)
  2. Information about administration aspects
  3. General “inside” information about working in the school/university
  4. Handover period to the cover lecturer
  5. Measures of success
  6. Handover period back to me 

Because there is no budget for maternity cover in my university, the cover needed to be paid out of the money saved by not paying me. This meant that my cover was only 0.5 full-time equivalent and was not given any paid preparation time. I felt that it was my duty to minimise the amount of work that he needed to do in order to teach well, while allowing him to personalise the courses. Therefore, in preparing the material I included explanations, model answers with marking guides, hardware and software quick-start guides and source materials.

As most lecturers will know, the role comes with significant amounts of administration load. This was the case for my maternity cover. Therefore, I provided him with a list of tasks, copies of forms with explanations, and a timetable for the required forms and meetings. This bundle also included names of people who could provide assistance, and a summary of the support network in place. In addition, I supplied information about the day-to-day life at the university, including when and where colleagues meet for coffee or go for an evening drink.

With no university budget for maternity cover, normally there would be no overlap. But it happened that my baby was due a couple of weeks after the start of term, so we were able to have that time to handover. This gave the temporary lecturer the opportunity to ask questions if anything I provided him with wasn’t clear or if about anything had been overlooked.

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The main query that I had not planned for was the use of our online teaching environment. There are guides available, but it was one of those situations where it is so much easier to ask someone than to trawl through tutorials. The other activity that was important in the handover period was a day in the field with all the equipment that he would need to teach. He had used similar equipment before, but the nature of the field is such that different versions of equipment have different procedures. In general, he said that the material provided meant that he could have done his job without this handover period, but little questions and demonstrations meant that it was still a very valuable exercise.

In fact, the temporary lecturer found it more useful than the official induction he received.

I measured the success of the maternity cover in three ways. I prepared a questionnaire for the students to gauge their attitude about the teaching while I was away, as well as viewing the official student feedback at the end of term. I interviewed the temporary lecturer about his experiences of recruitment, preparation, teaching, assessment and administration. My third source of data is the students’ marks and recruitment of students for the next year.

Without going into statistics, the whole thing seems to have been a success. All the students were happy with the teaching, and more than half said that their attitudes towards temporary lecturers has become more positive. The temporary lecturer said that the material given to him meant that the role stayed at 50 per cent of his time, and he felt that he had performed well and enjoyed the experience. He said that it gave him an important insight into what was required as a lecturer and that it would be a useful addition to his CV.

When asked, the only negative point that he could think of was that six months wasn’t enough time to develop a social network and so he felt slightly socially isolated during this time. The students received a good spread of grades, which should be expected, and the recruitment on to the modules has stayed fairly stable. This means that the reputation of the subject has not suffered, and the students going on to do final-year projects in these topics will have the required skills and knowledge.

Unfortunately, because we had overlap at the beginning of the maternity cover post, there was a gap at the end. Not only was there no handover period, but there were a few weeks when neither of us was in post. This was the main weakness in my plan.

I had made provisions for the teaching activities of my maternity cover, but I had not considered all the work necessary to prepare for my return. There were forms relating to my teaching the following year that had not been completed. There were students who were halfway through their undergraduate research projects but I had no idea what they were doing and how they were getting on. If I go on maternity leave again, this is the one aspect that I would put more effort into.

I was lucky with my experience of maternity leave in that I was able to find the perfect person to cover my teaching, but making the process a success takes more than luck. It requires planning, preparation and consideration for everyone involved. It was a considerable amount of work, but the results show that it was worth it. With the right support in place, maternity leave doesn’t have to be an inconvenience; it can be a positive and enriching experience for all.

Jessica Johnson is a lecturer in geophysics at the School of Environmental Sciences, University of East Anglia.

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