Careers are funny things. Back in my parents day you qualified to do something and often stayed at the same company from apprenticeship to retirement. Now, certainly within my peer group, a lot of people go off to university and hopefully find a job within the sector that they’ve studied. People move companies a lot more now, but generally there aren’t many who make a big career change. It’s understandable, starting from scratch again when you’ve already worked your way up a salary ladder, seems like a daft idea. At least it always did to me. Maybe having kids changes your outlook on this though.
Before I had my two boys I was a waste management consultant at a large engineering firm. Waste management wasn’t what I’d planned to do but I had no idea what to do with my Environmental Management degree. A fixed term job came up as a recycling officer for a council and so the journey began. I checked peoples recycling and told them what they could and couldn’t put in their bins. Yes, I was the bin police! From there I ended up, rather by accident, running a council waste service. I found it challenging having to deal with local bureaucracy and the general public so after a couple of years I made the move to consultancy.
I really loved my consultancy job. It was varied, I had some fantastic clients (and some not so great ones), I got to travel around the UK, often very last minute (I’m not bitter at missing out on the Maldives trip, honest!) and I had an office full of great people in Manchester. The waste team were dotted all around the country but I had a great relationship with my boss so it really didn’t matter. At least to start with. But as with everything times change, people leave, new people come and projects come and go.
Paul & I got married in 2009 and we knew we wanted to start a family fairly soon after. My brothers had just had children and I wanted my kids to know their cousins. I had my year of maternity leave and returned to work three days a week. It was a nice change to have some adult conversation that didn’t involve nappies, sleeping or puke. The freedom of not being attached to a pushchair and being able to drink hot tea and eat a whole meal in one sitting was exhilarating but the novelty didn’t last for long.
Before I’d had James things had started to change at work anyway. The big waste procurement projects that had been our bread and butter had started to dry up and work became a bit thin on the ground. A few good people had left, both from our team and in the office I was in. The ethic in our team had also changed a lot.
Private sector consultancy is all about making money. I got paid a very small proportion of what we charged our clients. When I first started we always did a thorough job, producing quality pieces of work. Clients regularly came back to us for repeat work because they knew we could be relied upon. But a change in management in our team turned it around into a money making game. To my mind we charged extortionate amounts of money for pieces of work that, previously, I’d have charged at a quarter the price. It just didn’t sit right with me. It felt too corporate and cut throat. Having had a child my outlook on life changed and I didn’t want to be part of that anymore. I had more important things to think about.
To add to my change in attitude we didn’t have enough work within our team and I was bored stupid. Because I only worked three days a week, had requested at least a little bit of notice if I needed to travel (like 3 days rather than 3 hours) and worked away from our main team in London I was often overlooked for work. I’d get asked to contribute the odd bit to a project but it was never anything substantial and I was certainly not offered any big projects to manage. They didn’t seem to think that working three days a week was conducive to managing clients or projects, which I realised was what I’d loved the most.
I ended up doing odd jobs for other teams. I remember spending weeks reviewing reports about fuel storage tanks on petrol stations in far flung locations. It was boring and tedious and not what I’d spent the last eight years working towards. I would sit at my desk crying inside at the boredom and the fact that I could be sat at home playing with my one year old instead of paying someone else to do it for me!
It got to the point that when I came home from work every day I would burst into tears as James met me at the door. I couldn’t hack it much more. Either I needed to move jobs to something more satisfying or have another baby. I didn’t want to be that woman who moves jobs and then has another baby straight away. In my heart of hearts I think I knew if we had another one I probably wouldn’t go back to work. The costs of childcare would make it almost pointless and, even if I got the best job in the world, I wasn’t sure I could hack missing out on those really early years when they actually want to spend time with you.
So, in 2013 along came Ben. His arrival was a bit of a testing time. We’d moved house to a new village three weeks before he was born. I’d moved away from the mum support network I’d built with James and it was a tough year. A new baby, a toddler and having to make new friends again was bloody hard work. But, I got there. We live in the loveliest village and I’m lucky to have made some amazing friends.
As the end of my maternity leave ticked closer I knew I wasn’t going to go back to work. The thought of trying to get two small children out of the house, get on a train and potentially be bored out of my mind at my desk all day just didn’t appeal. I know plenty of parents do it every day. Some have to for financial reasons, others do it because they want to. Everyone’s different and everyone should be free to make the choice that’s right for them. But for me I knew working wasn’t right and I was lucky enough to have the choice. It would be tight financially but Paul & I agreed together it would be best for everyone’s sanity. I could take on all the childcare and we wouldn’t need to worry about juggling childcare if either of us needed to travel. I’d worry about getting a job again at some later date.
And so, I became a full time stay at home mum! It’s stayed that way for the last four years. Four years of playgroups, nursery rhymes, soft play, nursery runs, school runs, tantrums (mine and theirs), cbeebies, Disney films, puddle jumping and endless days stuck at home because the toddler doesn’t want to leave the house and the tantrum just wasn’t worth it! Days of no contact with any other adult (expect poor Paul who just got complained at and/or handed the kids), conversations with other adults that only revolved around the children and endless conversations half-finished because a child screamed/fell over/vomited/filled a nappy/ran off.
Yes, I missed conversation about grown up stuff, I missed wearing nice clothes, I missed the hustle and bustle of work, I missed someone saying “thank you” or “good job” when I’d done something worthwhile. Despite all that I wouldn’t have changed it for the world. I got to spend those very early years with my kids when they change so quickly and learn so much. I was there if they were poorly or needed picking up early from school or nursery. Don’t get me wrong here, I was certainly not an angel mum, I do my fair share of shouting, sulking, crying and swearing. However, I think I’d have done all that and more had I been at work.
About a year ago the sudden realisation that, come September 2017 I wasn’t going to have kids to look after all day kicked in. Ben was due to start school and rather than the two days of free time I had thanks to nursery I was suddenly going to have five whole days to fill! Five whole days with potentially nothing to do. Well nothing to do other than usual house stuff anyway. But I’d go completely barking mad if all I did all week was housework. I didn’t much like the thought of being a completely kept woman and a bit of extra cash wouldn’t go amiss. I was going to have to find something to do.
I knew I didn’t want to go back to having a long commute every day. Going back to working in Manchester would have created a minimum two hour commute per day. A waste of time and a waste of what money I would earn. Ideally I needed something based at home or nearby. I toyed with the idea of going back to what I’d used to do but try to wangle home working. However, after 4 years out of the industry I felt very out of touch, lacking in confidence and I really wasn’t sure I wanted to go back to the corporate world. I needed something that I could work around the kids, something fairly close to home and something I might actually get some satisfaction from.
I started swimming regularly in 2015. I was incredibly lucky to find some sessions that provided very low key, easy going coaching. I learnt how to swim front crawl again. Previously I’d never managed more than 100m in one go. Suddenly I could manage a mile of it! I loved understanding the technicalities of it and how you needed to move your body in a particular way to make it easy and enjoyable. It’s fair to say I’m fairly addicted to my swimming. It’s also fair to say I like to spread my love for it. I’ve become a bit of a swimming bore!
My friends have come to know my passion, and to some extent, ability for swimming and people started asking me for tips. A friend asked me if I’d teach her front crawl in time for a triathlon she’d entered. We didn’t manage it in time for the triathlon but I did get her from an exhausting 50 metres of splashy desperation to a smooth easy 1 km fairly quickly. Almost more importantly for me I’d really enjoyed it. I’ll never forget the day she managed her first length of easy front crawl. I had a massive grin on my face. It was so satisfying to see someone achieve what I’d set out to do with them.
I taught a couple more friends with varying success and the prospect of trying to do this for a living started to take root. I mentioned it to a couple of friends who were surprisingly enthusiastic about it.
I had, and still have, a lot of doubts. The pay will never be as good as my previous job. You only get paid for the hours you teach and sessions are often only 2-3 hours long. The hours can be slightly unpredictable and are often at weekends and evenings (not great if I want to see my kids!). I would have to spend a lot of money on the training courses I’d need. What if I did my training and then hated it?
I think it took me a whole year of pondering to finally bite the bullet and book my first course. I would have to do two courses to get qualified to teach. A total of eleven days of training courses plus time getting significant experience under my belt.
I did my first course in March 2017 and felt completely out of my depth. Most swimming teaching in the UK is provided to children. Therefore all the swim teacher training courses are structured around that. You have to qualify as a swimming teacher with kids. That’s fine, I have my own kids, I know how to speak to and deal with your average 3-8 year old. However, my eldest had only just started swimming lessons and I’d never got to watch them because his younger brother always pinned me down on a chair while he played on his tablet. I was completely clueless about what happened in a kids swimming lesson.
It was a steep learning curve but I managed to pass it. This course was fairly light touch and only allowed me to work with kids as an assistant teacher. The expectation is that you never teach on your own out of this qualification. In reality that’s not much use to a leisure centre who need people to just take a group of kids and get on with it.
We’re well served with swimming pools locally with six within a 30 minute drive of our house. Surely someone would be willing to let me get some experience. I fired a couple of e-mails off to local pools. I was very honest about wanting to work around the kids, didn’t want loads of hours and, in particular, didn’t want loads of hours after school and on weekends. Eventually I got a few replies that said either they were looking for the higher level qualification or they could only offer me one 30 minute class a week on a voluntary basis. There was definitely work out there but only once I’d got the higher level qualification. However, those responses didn’t really matter anyway as, almost instantaneously, I got a very positive response from one pool who invited me in for a chat as soon as I could.
It turns out I’ve fallen on my feet. The coordinator at this pool had re-trained as a swimming teacher twenty years ago when her kids were small. She completely understood my need to work around the kids and my need to not take on too many hours to start with. They’re a small, independent leisure centre so, unlike the large national chains who run so many of our leisure centres now, they’re able to dictate their own swimming programmes based on quality rather than quantity. Their swimming lessons in the early stages are very small with only four children per lesson and the teacher is in the water with them. Most learn to swim programmes have the teacher firmly stood on the side and can have between eight and thirteen children in a lesson. Can you imagine trying to contain eight excited six year olds from the side of a noisy pool whilst also trying to get them to learn anything?
To add to the beauty of the small classes they also run a mentoring programme for new teachers like me. I was lucky enough to be offered two hours a week in an after school session on a day that Paul could pick the kids up for me. For twelve weeks I worked alongside an experienced teacher learning their methods and how to deliver a swimming lesson at different stages. I went from just watching to planning and delivering full lessons on my own. It was tiring but rewarding and as I gradually got to know the children better it started to become pretty enjoyable too. Don’t get me wrong I still have the odd class or child that’s hard work and I regularly pull out “mum voice” when they start messing around but, by and large, I can get them to do what I’m asking them to. And to top it all off they pay me for it!
I took on an extra three hours per week in September and quickly booked onto my next course. This course would make me a level two swimming teacher. Able to teach on my own, teach higher stages and get paid more. Cue emptying what small amount of savings I had to pay for it. This had better be worth it!
I completed my course last week. It was largely populated by 18-25 years olds. I was most definitely the Mum of the group. Sitting in a room with a bunch of not particularly enthusiastic 18 year olds does make you question whether this is the right career choice at the age of 36!
I wouldn’t say it was the highest quality of courses. I was hoping to be taught how to teach. It turns out you needed to already know how to teach and this was a bit of a “tick in the box” exercise checking that you actually knew what you were doing. At eight days punctuated by long lunches, regular coffee breaks and early finishes it was a slightly pricey “tick in the box”! By and large I do know what I’m doing but I’d never taught at higher stages before and I was just expected to get on with it with no guidance. I fudged my way through it as best I could. I must have done OK because I passed. I’m now a level two swimming teacher!
What has come out of the course though is an increase in my confidence. Having had my teaching ability validated by someone else and having had the opportunity to discuss teaching methods with other teachers I’ve realised I do actually know what I’m doing. I’m much happier in my current teaching methods but I also feel more confident to try out new things.
I’ve already been thrown a few extra cover shifts at work since I finished the course and I’ve been let loose on some higher stage classes and the toddlers. So, already I’m seeing some benefit out of the course but it is clear that, despite my very expensive “tick in the box” I still need to get some more experience. That for me will mean me giving up more of my spare time and sitting and watching how the pro’s do it. Oh well, in everything there’s always something new to be learned…………I just wish my expensive “tick in the box” had done that for me.
Even now, with that extra confidence I still have ups and downs about the benefits of this as a new career. The money will never be amazing and I know I need to expand my repertoire. Teaching kids is great but it’s exhausting and can get a bit tedious. I don’t want to be one of those poor swimming teachers who just looks like they’re going through the motions rather than enthusing any kind of passion for swimming into the kids. I think I need a bit more variety in my life. It would be lovely to teach adults again but I need to find a way to do that.
The course did re-inforce some other things as well though. The course was based in Manchester so I commuted in on the train. After five days I’d firmly rejected any notion of ever trying a long commute again. It was just exhausting. It was a nice novelty to have 50 minutes to myself on the train but I’ve got used to having peace and quiet and open spaces around me where we live. I couldn’t hack the amount of people and hemmed in feeling of the city every day again. A friend from the village commented on his feeling of Groundhog Day every morning as he makes the busy walk from the station down to his office. All the people moving, almost like one living being, in the same direction to the nearby offices. It felt like being an ant in a giant nest. I used to love working in the busyness of Manchester, and I still like to visit once in a while for a hit of civilisation but I definitely don’t want to go back to it on a regular basis again.
It also re-iterated my need to see my kids. Despite the relatively lax hours at times it was still a fairly intense course. I had to do extra reading (partly because I wasn’t being taught what I’d expected to be during the lessons) and some homework. I was out by 7:30am, back no earlier than 6pm every day and then did an extra couple of hours reading or homework each night. I really missed the boys and ended up in tears one day when I’d missed my train and subsequently missed bedtime. It felt like when I’d gone back to work after I’d had James. I really don’t want to go back to that life again.
There we have it. A change in career. My youngest going to school was always going to be the end of an era. I’m hoping my new career’s going to be the start of a new and equally good one.