You know you're married to a teacher when...
…their work takes over your life too. Teachers’ spouses and partners play a vital supportive role, but sometimes the all-consuming nature of the job is overwhelming. But it can’t all be bad, can it?
Emily Hamilton admits that she sometimes asks her husband James to perform favours that “teeter on the edge” of what most respectable citizens would deem legal.
There was the night she insisted that he drove around the Sydney neighbourhood where they live and steal oranges, lemons and limes from the trees, for example.
And then there was the time she sent him on an undercover mission to rustle sand from the local children’s sandpit. One evening, he was made to raid the city’s travel agents for dozens of holiday brochures.
But Emily is not a prankster using her husband as a partner in crime. She is a primary school teacher in search of resources. And as is the case for many teachers, her other half is her most precious one.
The welder has accompanied Emily on a hair-raising night-time walk in the Australian bush, searching for artistically twisted wood for an art display. It later turned out to be riddled with spiders. He has even designed and built a full class set of iPod stands to help in his wife’s lessons.
“Since I became a teacher, my husband has been pushed to discover his new creative limits,” Emily says, justifying her exploitation of her beloved. “He creates innovative solutions for my educational resource needs.”
But James is not alone. Teacher Melinda Crean’s husband Stephen, a structural engineer, was asked to knock together a “fantastic aeroplane” to be hung in his wife’s primary classroom. Along with some 6ft-high trees.
Actor Doug Jackson*, whose wife Fiona* teaches English to teenagers, bakes cakes for his wife to take into school to cheer up her hard-pressed colleagues.
Less practically minded spouses are assigned “donkey work” such as treasury tagging heaps of coursework files or adding up marks.
These vignettes illustrate just some of the ways teachers’ partners are dragged into the simultaneously creative, tiresome and sometimes surreal job of being a modern educator. But this is just the tip of the iceberg. Being married to a teacher is a much bigger commitment than merely fishing out some tadpoles for the classroom pond.
Those who make the commitment to a teacher wife, husband or partner are entering a very specific world, where the normal rules of employment may not necessarily apply (16-hour days, anyone?) and emotions can run high.
Those entering the quantum universe of the teacher’s spouse may need to develop saint-like levels of patience, a sudden interest in education and the listening skills of a vicar, among many other new talents.
“I sometimes feel like the priest at the confessional,” says Nicky Byrne, whose husband Edward* has taught English in a London secondary school for 10 years.
“He spends the day absorbing all the kids’ problems, problems in the school and with parents, and when he comes home to me it all kind of spews out. My role is like a therapist, listening, agreeing and nodding.”
She describes her husband’s PGCE (training) year as “one of the worst years of our lives and our relationship. He couldn’t think about anything else; it was so dull, he had no perspective,” she says.
Emily agrees that since she became a teacher three years ago, her husband has accepted his principal role as a sounding board. Their frequent lengthy road trips in search of surfing sites up the east coast of Australia used to see them sharing deep philosophical reflection. “These trips now ensure I have a captive audience to bounce my latest ideas off for next term’s unit of work,” she confesses.
The stress of the job can also lead teachers to endlessly commiserate with equally strung-out colleagues. This is acceptable when it is down the pub, but slightly disturbing when they bring their co-workers home.
“The house can get full of moaning women drinking wine and bitching about people. At one point it was like a coven, with shrieking, drunken women, all tired and emotional,” Doug says.
And when a teacher’s partner has successfully listened, nodded and offered a shoulder to cry on, there is always the fun of arguing with them. Many non-teachers report their partners adopting a somewhat uncompromising attitude during conflict.
“He just goes into teacher mode,” says Nicky, of her husband. “He’s so used to standing up in front of the class talking, he will talk to me like I’m not on the same level. I then inevitably take on the role of the child, listening. Luckily he can’t send me to the headmaster.”
People also complain of their teacher partners adopting the infamous “teacher voice” or “teacher look” to gain the upper hand in arguments.
However, Melinda insists that her husband “adores it” when she adopts her chastising classroom persona: “I must have this down to a fine art, as my husband tells me ‘Don’t give me your teacher look, I’m not one of your students’. Which we know really means ‘OK, I’ll do what you want’.”
Aware of the politics
Many previously apolitical people have said that having a partner in teaching has made them much more sensitive to education politics and the negative press coverage of teachers.
Whereas once they wouldn’t have wasted any time thinking about government reforms, they now feel the same passion as their partner. Partners often become defensive on their behalf.
Nicky, who works in web production, says: “By listening to my husband’s diatribes I’ve ended up knowing an awful lot about teaching. You notice the negative coverage on radio and television a lot more, and you start to get annoyed by it.
“I wasn’t remotely interested in education before my husband became a teacher, but you get sucked into the politics, and you realise how little recognition teachers get.”
Andre Schmeichel, whose wife Alissa teaches French in rural Wisconsin, US, is frequently infuriated by the poor funding levels in schools, and inevitably irritated by the $500 (£330) a year he and his wife shell out on resources for her students.
“There is ever-increasing pressure to do more with less and staffing is seen as just another cost to be minimised under harsh fiscal scrutiny by the state and public. This creates immense emotional tension,” he says.
But probably the biggest challenge of all for teachers’ partners is the sheer workload that the job entails for many.
The vast majority of partners who spoke to TES complained that their loved ones were working too much, and there was little time for them to go out or even spend time at home together.
Doug is sometimes to be found watching box sets on his own as his wife slaves away over her marking. He watches them for a second time when she finally finds the time to sit down with him.
Holidays together feature long sessions of marking and there is rarely time together during the week. Even weekends can be fraught, and trips to family weddings and parties can pile stress on a couple later in the week.
The partners of teachers are some of the few people who truly understand the “myth of the teacher holiday” as they watch them fill the majority of their leave preparing, marking and generally fretting.
Mark Francis, whose wife Lisa recently became a primary teacher aged 42, with children aged nine and 12, says: “It can be tough on a spouse and your relationship. She spends most evenings working so I am doing things for the children and around the house. I don’t have any time for myself now, except when I’m eating a meal.
“You do end up feeling a bit resentful that it’s impacted on you, but you see there’s no point in being angry as I made the decision to support her. She is also very motivated by what she is doing.”
It’s no wonder that the Teacher Support Network advice line in the UK received about 720 calls in 2010-11 from teachers looking for help with their family relationships.
“You get people who find their partner doesn’t understand their commitment to things such as going on school trips or lesson planning,” chief executive Julian Stanley says.
He says that teachers often married other teachers because there was more understanding from them, but this was by no means a magic bullet. Two people in the same job can end up in competition with each other, he warns.
“Clearly for some people it can be a great help, but for others it can be tricky, and people still struggle around setting barriers about the amount of work they do outside the school day,” he adds.
Some partners of teachers have become so concerned for their partner’s well-being they even seek help independently. The advice line Concerned Spouses of Stressed and Suffering Teachers takes calls every week from partners looking for advice on how to help their partners quit teaching.
Founder Peter Lewis was for many years the husband of an overworked teacher. “They complain about how it’s affecting their relationship, but they feel powerless,” he says.
But enough of this negativity. There must be upsides to marrying someone of a teacherly bent? After all, it is supposedly one of the most rewarding jobs in the world.
Artistic types with erratic incomes can revel in the relative security of their partner’s job and pension, for example. And what about the holidays? Teachers can’t work every day of a six-week break, surely? And what about the transferable skills they pick up in the classroom?
“Contrary to what you might think, I see very few downsides to being married to a teacher,” says Daniel Wainwright, a political journalist married to a physics teacher in a private school. “First off is the school holidays. My wife gets about three months a year off, which means we save well over £1,000 on childcare costs - so that’s the family holiday pretty much paid for in one fell swoop.
“Then there’s the benefit that comes from having a knowledgeable disciplinarian in the family. Even at one year old, when our daughter does anything that might be construed as wilful or naughty, my wife is able to deal with her in that strict teacher way. I get similar treatment when I make a mess painting the bathroom or accidentally wash the brights with the darks.”
And then there’s the advantage of having the television remote control to himself while his wife toils over school reports all evening.
Pride and glory
Another teacher-consort pointed out her teacher husband’s amazing ability to be completely unfazed by large gangs of youths hanging around in their street. “He will even go as far as challenging them if he doesn’t like what they are doing,” she says. “It’s quite impressive.”
And of course, there is also a general satisfaction to be had in hearing charming tales of the classroom. “I like hearing about my husband’s students, what they get up to, their adventures. He has a good relationship with them and they tell him a lot,” Nicky says. “I learn all about the latest slang, what young people are into, it keeps me down with the kids. It’s also very sweet when he gets cards from them at the end of term and they say hello to him in the street.”
Perhaps one of the most pronounced things to come across in our interviews with teachers’ partners was pride. Despite the long hours, the pressure to perform and the tears, many partners said they took great pleasure in supporting a teacher to do an important job.
Others said they felt a vicarious satisfaction through seeing their partner make a difference in the world.
This is perhaps summed up best by Doug: “It’s a pleasure to see my wife’s pride when her kids go to Oxford or Cambridge. I’m proud that she’s a teacher, it’s the hardest thing to do.”
* Names have been changed.
Photo credit: Getty