From Eastenders to messy play

Catherine Baigent was a top script writer and editor on soap operas like Eastenders, but when she had children she knew it would be impossible to combine family life with the long hours that her job required so she is retraining as a Montessori teacher – and loving it.

Catherine Baigent plotted Tiffany’s death in Eastenders. Now she’s plotting sewing sessions with toddlers – and she’s having a great time.

Catherine worked for 15 years as a script writer and editor, mainly on soap operas. She worked on everything from Byker Grove to Brookside, The Bill and Eastenders. It was a job she loved, starting out with a blank sheet of paper and making up what should happen in the soap for the next year. “As a script editor, I worked in a team of two or four editors and we would come up with a blueprint for the writers. It was very collaborative and fun, but it was long hours and incompatible with having children,” she says.

After working on various UK soaps, she got a job at the head office of a multinational company, making up new drama shows which could be sold internationally. It was badly hit by the recession, though, and in 2009 Catherine’s entire department was closed down.

She was on maternity leave with her second child at the time and had moved out of London. “I didn’t think I’d get back into script editing and I couldn’t imagine how I could do that anyway and get any kind of work life balance. I’d have been leaving at 6am and getting home at 9pm,” she says. “I began searching for something I could do around the children. I was still hoping to get back into freelance writing, but no-one was taking on new writers. Lots of shows had gone because of the recession. I thought about retraining.”

Her oldest daughter was starting preschool and Catherine looked around at local nurseries. The nearest one was a Montessori one. “I had walked past Montessori nurseries when I lived in London and thought that if I had a baby they might be right for my children as I liked their ethos,” she says.

When she went into the local nursery she liked the look of what she saw. “The children seemed very engaged and were enjoying what they were doing. The atmosphere was unlike other settings; there was a big emphasis on the natural world. It felt like a wonderful place to learn,” she says.

Montessori nurseries are based around the idea that children learn best by doing and that happy self-motivated learners form positive images of themselves as confident, successful people. They emphasise the importance of teaching independence and a love for learning from an early age.

Catherine put her daughter in the nursery. “She was a shy two-year old and not walking. She soon became a happy, confident girl who loved life, nature and learning. I started to wonder how they had achieved that,” she says.

At around that time there was a heavy snowfall and some of the nursery’s teachers couldn’t get into work. The nursery asked if parents could help out. Catherine volunteered and loved it. “I could see myself doing it. It was very rewarding and quite cerebral and creative. It was right up my street,” she states.

She didn’t think she could do the training required, though, while bringing up two children, but she was told there was a distance learning course. She started the course when she was three months’ pregnant with her third child. It was hard work and a big commitment. She did it around her children, working mainly in the evenings and at weekends when her husband was around.

Over last summer she did a two-week practical workshop in London. Her mum and husband took it in turns to look after the children. Catherine says many of the other people on the course were mums. Some had come from overseas, including China and Hong Kong. “They were all very passionate and the group was very multinational. We were taught all about the philosophy of Montessori and had our first chance to learn how to use all the resources. It was hard work. The days were long and we had homework too. Plus there were tough exams to do at the end,” she says.

After the workshop, Catherine started her teaching practice. She has to do 420 hours to qualify and hopes to finish in June. Because of childcare issues – her mum helps out while she is doing her teaching practice – she chose to speed up her qualification process, but she could have spaced it out over three years.

Her children, now aged five, three and one, have been helping her with her assignments. “They love it,” she says. “They are my guinea pigs. They are all Montessori kids.”

Catherine says she does use some of her writing and creative skills as a teacher. She has to write up everything she does in her teaching practice and relate it back to the Montessori philosophy plus she can do drama as part of Montessori’s creative curriculum.

“I never thought I’d be the kind of person who would stay up till midnight cutting out a penguin sewing card for a three year old, but I don’t want to let the children down and I like the creativity,” she says.

Eventually she would like to balance part-time working as a Montessori teacher and writing. “One minute I had a high-powered career and the next minute I was living in the countryside with a load of nappies," she says. "Doing the Montessori training has made me feel I have something to offer. It has engaged my imagination and intellect. It is very rewarding and I can see the achievement I am making. It feels like I am contributing something."

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