“I have 130 children.” After seeing the endless pictures of my goldendoodle and husband hung in my classroom, curious sophomores will invariably ask how many children I have. The number varies depending on the year. Last year I had 124; this year, the number and my teaching roster is larger.
“That’s not possible,” an outspoken sophomore always retorts.
“You are my children this year,” I always reply.
I wish they asked me when I plan to begin my Ph.D. program, or about my research interests or career aspirations beyond grading homework. But I have been asked the same question throughout my tenure.
If I were being truthful, I’d say that I can’t afford kids.
Of course, like most in my profession, I did not become an educator for the pay or benefits. Heck, I didn’t even know what a salary schedule or contract negotiations were until seven lesson plan submissions later. Having always been involved in urban development, I just wanted to guide students to develop the language skills to effect change in the world.
But while the issue of low teacher salaries is well known to the general public, not everyone is aware of another big issue that makes starting a family prohibitive for those of us in this profession: lack of paid leave.
Even though I work with children, I do not get three-months’ paid maternity leave. Instead, I have to use my sick days, and afterward can take unpaid, job-protected leave for 12 weeks under the Family and Medical Leave Act. During such leave, the internal coding for giving birth is the same as for influenza, colon cancer or a hip replacement. I have the option to purchase wage continuation, which is short-term disability insurance ― but that only pays up to 50% of my salary after my sick days are used.
So, on top of questions like, “How do I feed an infant?” “What crib won’t kill my child?” and “What the hell is a booger aspirator?” I have to figure out how to financially afford bringing a new life into the world. On top of the terror of pushing a baby out of a very delicate place, I must be back in 89 workdays so I don’t lose our family insurance.
Our plan was to have children in 2022. The only way that I won’t lose close to three months of income is to plan for delivery at the beginning of the summer. According to our “couple calendar,” I need to conceive ... like two months ago.
The problem is, I was not physically well enough to conceive in time for a summer delivery. This year, I had numerous health mishaps, which I am only now recovering from.
But if the youngster is born in spring or fall, I am certain to lose months of wages — which equates to boxes of diapers and wipes. Keep in mind, I am a professional with a graduate degree, publications and years of professional experience.
I had hoped that the new teaching contract in Philadelphia would allow for maternity leave. However, my fingers have been crossed for the last two contracts. Only nine states ― California, Colorado, New Jersey, Massachusetts, Rhode Island, New York, Washington, Connecticut and Oregon ― currently have paid family leave. Georgia recently passed family leave for state workers in 2021. In Pennsylvania, subsidized leave for teachers is left to the governing school board ― and the disparities in school funding across the state.
This is despite economic studies that have shown that family leave increases the likelihood that individuals will not leave the labor force, important at a time when experienced teachers are at an all-time low.
Just like infant sleep theories, teachers navigate the policy differently. The brave ones return to the classroom early. Many take second jobs to pay for the financial losses and, later, child care costs. Other experienced teachers leave the classroom in anticipation of child rearing and work in the private sector. Many are numb to the policy and return to pump in dangerous buildings with asbestos and defunct ventilation systems.
Folks often ask why I stay. Sure, I care about my students, a lot. But I am also a professional who has spent years and money cultivating my craft and my career trajectory ― why should I give that up? It’s the policy that needs to change.
So this year, as I choose between my physical well-being and financial security, I will continue to hang pictures of my family ― just my husband and dog. When students ask how many kids I have, I just plan to shrug and say, “None.” There’s always next year…