Teacher Karli Myers, along with her husband Jordan and their seven-month-old son Luke, proudly poses for a photo. Karli had meticulously saved up sick leave over the years with the sole intention of spending quality time with her newborn after he was born. This dedicated approach to stockpiling sick leave paid off, granting her over two months at home with Luke. Karli recalls the sacrifice she made, stating: “I went without utilizing a single sick day during my seven years as a teacher to ensure I had the time for this precious moment.”
Unfortunately, Karli’s situation is not unique. According to a recent survey conducted by the National Council on Teacher Quality, less than 20% of the largest school districts nationwide offer paid parental leave for teachers. Only a select number of states, including Delaware, Oregon, and Georgia, guarantee this benefit. This leaves teachers who wish to start a family with limited options: take unpaid leave, accumulate sick leave days, rely on the generosity of colleagues, pay for a substitute teacher, or hope for a timely birth during summer break. However, planning pregnancy is far from an exact science.
Jennifer Williams, a former high school English teacher in northeast Oklahoma, faced a similar dilemma. She and her husband decided to try for a second child and realized they had a narrow window for conception if they wanted a summer birth. Williams explains, “We had a very specific time frame in mind, as we knew we wanted the baby to arrive as close to summer as possible.” Unfortunately, their attempts were unsuccessful, and Williams believes the lack of a paid leave policy played a major role in determining the size of her family.
Fortunately, Oklahoma, the state where both Williams and Myers reside, has recently enacted a new law providing six weeks of maternity leave for teachers. It’s important to note that maternity leave is allocated exclusively for the biological parent, while parental leave can be taken by either parent. Other states, including South Carolina, Tennessee, and Arkansas, have also implemented similar policies to address teacher leave.
Casey Montigney, a middle school instructional coach in Newark, Delaware, vividly recalls the stress she experienced when she gave birth to her first son, Emerson, during the school year with no guaranteed leave. Determined to spend the first 12 weeks with her baby, Montigney scraped together her sick time, short-term disability, and FMLA leave. However, these combined resources only added up to five weeks, leaving her without pay for an additional seven weeks. The arrival of the second son, Sullivan, coincided with Delaware passing a 12-week paid parental leave policy. Montigney describes this change as a game-changer, saying, “It refocuses your attention on what it should be – raising a child. When you don’t have to worry about paying your mortgage or grocery shopping, it makes a huge difference.”
The advantages of paid leave extend far beyond peace of mind. Dr. Tamika Auguste, an OB-GYN in Washington, D.C., and chair of the foundation for the American College of Obstetrics and Gynecology, points out that postpartum, a woman’s body undergoes significant physiological and mental changes. Paid maternity leave has been shown to improve worker morale and retention, lower infant mortality rates, and promote better physical and mental health outcomes for both mothers and children. Improved maternal mental health has also been linked to lower maternal mortality rates. Considering the disproportionately high rates of maternal mortality among Black women, paid leave can make a tangible difference for teachers of color.
Abigail Swisher, the director of policy and programs at the National Council on Teacher Quality, emphasizes the impact of teachers’ mental health on student learning and well-being. She explains how students are affected when teachers show depressive symptoms, both emotionally and academically. Paid leave, therefore, plays a critical role in ensuring that teachers have access to necessary support. Moreover, research suggests paid leave can serve as a valuable recruitment tool, particularly for teachers of color. A whopping 65% of teachers of color ranked family support, including maternity leave, among their top three financial incentives for recruiting and retaining teachers.
While guaranteeing paid leave for teachers is an important step, it does present logistical challenges. Kristin Dwyer, an advocate for Delaware’s teacher association, recalls the struggle she faced while negotiating the 12-week paid parental leave policy. Lawmakers ignorant about basic biology posed questions such as, “Can’t women just plan their pregnancies around summer break?” Dwyer firmly countered, stating, “Because our bodies don’t work that way.” While Dwyer supports guaranteed parental leave, she acknowledges the logistical problems it entails. Offering leave to non-birthing parents across the country would result in more teachers being absent from classrooms. This raises concerns about finding and compensating long-term substitutes and the potential impact on instructional days.
Dwyer believes these challenges have solutions. In Delaware, the state shares the cost of providing paid parental leave with districts. Additionally, Dwyer suggests reevaluating the way substitute teachers are employed. She proposes changing the funding model, suggesting substitutes be treated as regular employees rather than relying on per diem payments. By keeping substitutes on staff and deploying them when needed, the issue of securing capable and experienced substitutes can be addressed.
For Karli Myers, who gave birth to Luke before Oklahoma implemented its new paid leave policy for teachers, not having access to leave made her feel undervalued and dehumanized. Leaving her newborn to spend the day with other people’s children was an incredibly difficult experience for her. Myers explains, “It was really hard. You know, you’re not supposed to take a puppy away from its mother…”
In conclusion, providing paid parental leave for teachers is not only a matter of respecting and supporting their professional and personal lives, but it also yields countless benefits for students, mothers, and overall educational outcomes. While logistical challenges exist, innovative solutions and a change in perspective can help alleviate these concerns. With the implementation of these policies, teachers can fulfill their valued role as educators while also experiencing the joys of parenthood.
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Rohit Malhotra is a medical expert and health journalist who offers evidence-based advice on fitness, nutrition, and mental well-being. His articles aim to help readers lead healthier lives.