Karli Myers had her son, Luke, in November while working as a high school English teacher outside of Tulsa, Okla. Her district didn’t offer parental leave, so she used her sick leave to stay more than two months at home with Luke-sick of her let her spent years collectingwith a child in mind.
“So we rack up 10 sick days a year, so I basically never took a sick day in seven years of teaching to be able to account for all of that,” Myers said.
According to a survey by the National Council on Teacher Quality, fewer than one-fifth of the nation’s largest school districts offer paid parental leave for teachers. And only a handful of states guarantee it, including Delaware, Oregon AND Georgia.
In many places, this leaves a teacher who wants to have a baby with few options: take limited unpaid leave, save up sick leave, hope colleagues share their sick leave, pay their substitute teacher, or try to code leaving for the summer break.
But timing a pregnancy isn’t an exact science. Jennifer Williams taught high school English in northeastern Oklahoma for several years. During that time, she and her husband decided to try for a second child. That meant getting pregnant in September, for a summer delivery, or not at all.
« We had a really tight window, because we said, ‘I need to have this baby as close to summer as possible,' » Williams explained.
When she didn’t get pregnant after two Septembers came and went, they called it quits. She said the lack of a paid leave policy ultimately drove her family size.
Now, Oklahoma, where Williams and Myers live, yes a new law which pays for six weeks of maternity leave for teachers. Maternity leave can only be used by the giving birth parent, while parental leave can be used by both parents.
Oklahoma isn’t the only state to overhaul its teacher leave policies. At least three other state legislatures – in South Carolina, Tennessee AND Arkansas – also adopted some form of paid maternity or parental leave this year.
The case of paid parental leave for teachers
In Newark, Del., middle school teacher Casey Montigney recalls the stress of having her first child, Emerson, in the middle of the school year without guaranteed permission. She was determined to spend the first 12 weeks with her baby, so she scraped together her sick time and short-term disability and FMLA leave, but this only added up to five weeks. Montigney said she went without pay for seven weeks.
When she had her second son, Sullivan, Delaware had passed a 12-week paid parental leave policy. She said it was a game changer.
« It just refocuses attention on what the attention should be focused on. You’re learning how to raise a human being. Like, when you know you can pay the mortgage and, you know, you can go grocery shopping and not have to worry too much on that budget and everything, it just makes a huge difference. »
And the benefits of paid leave go beyond peace of mind.
« After giving birth, there’s a lot going on with the mother’s body, both physiologically and mentally, » said Dr. Tamika Auguste, an OB-GYN in Washington, DC, and foundation president of the American College of Obstetrics and Gynecology.
« Even though childbirth is natural and has been going on since the beginning of time, we also need to recognize the effect it has on a woman’s body. »
Overall, the benefit data of paid maternity leave certify: improvements in worker morale and retention, lower infant mortality rates, and improved physical and mental health outcomes for mothers and babies. Better mental health for mothers has also been linked to a decrease maternal mortality rates.
And with Black maternal mortality rates more than double like white mortality rates, paid leave can make a real difference to teachers of color.
“We see a large number of maternal mortality in the postpartum period,” Auguste explained. « And if these women don’t have … leave, we’re contributing to worsening Black maternal mortality, maternal mortality in this country. »
The benefits also extend into the classroom.
« Certainly, teacher mental health has a clear impact on student learning and well-being, » said Abigail Swisher, director of policies and programs at the National Council on Teacher Quality. “We know that in classrooms where teachers exhibit depressive symptoms, their students are impacted both in terms of social-emotional well-being and learning, actually. And I think this is an important reason why we should be concerned about teachers who lack access to paid leave ».
And while paid leave is a benefit it won’t necessarily have an impact All teachers, Swisher said research indicates it could be an important recruiting tool, especially for certain populations of educators.
« If you’re thinking about the shortages, particularly of teachers of color, who we know are so needed in our workforce given their positive impact on students, 65% of black teachers classified [family support, including maternity leave] as one of their top three financial incentives to hire and retain teachers. And I think that’s a good reason to consider this policy. »
Logistical challenges are not unsolvable
Kristin Dwyer lobbied for the Delaware Teachers Association in 2018 when the 12 weeks paid parental leave was being negotiated. She said it wasn’t an easy win: She found herself educating lawmakers on basic biology to get her point across.
« We had a lawmaker who said — oh God — he said, ‘Why can’t women just plan their pregnancies over the summer holidays?' » Dwyer recalled. « And I [respectfully] stated, on the record, at a committee hearing, ‘Why don’t our bodies work that way.' »
While Dwyer supports guaranteed parental leave, he also acknowledges the big logistical problems it can create. For one thing, offering time off to non-childbirth parents across the country means more teachers out of the classroom.
« If we offered it to dads, if we offered it to parents of adopted children, how many more teachers would be on leave? » said Dwyer. « And how many more substitutes would we need? You know, how many more school days would be affected? »
Find and pay for long-term substitutes it’s a concern not just for districts struggling to fill seats in the face of teacher shortages, but also for teachers, who fear their students will regress without a consistent and experienced replacement.
Dwyer says these aren’t problems without solutions. In Delaware, the state shares the cost of paid parental leave with districts. He also says it’s time to change the way schools employ substitute teachers.
« Changing the way we fund replacements. Rather than a day’s work, you know, turn it into a job category and hire them as you would any other type of employee, right? You keep them on staff and employ them when needed. »
For an Oklahoma teacher, six weeks of vacation is a start
Karli Myers, of Oklahoma, had her son, Luke, before her state passed its new paid leave policy for teachers. She said that, at the time, the lack of a leave policy didn’t make her feel valued as a professional by her status—in fact, she felt dehumanized.
« It was really hard to leave him and then spend the day with other people’s kids, » Myers explained. « You know, you shouldn’t take a mother puppy away from her before six weeks old, yet so many moms have to do just that. »
Myers says six weeks off is a step in the right direction. But Oklahoma bill has begun to 12 weeks and was reduced during the legislative process.
“The thought of that 12-week maternity leave — I can’t even describe to you how miraculous that would be,” Myers said.
He hopes the fight for more holidays will continue.
Beth Wallis covers education for StateImpact Oklahoma.
Edited by: Nicole Cohen
Visual design and development by: LA Johnson
Audio story produced by: Lauren Migaki