Teachers want families, too: Why it’s time for paid family leave

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I spent more than a decade teaching in New York City public high schools in the South Bronx. In those ten years, I saw two different colleagues—both dynamic educators of color who brought incredible value to our school community—leave to have children, and never come back. Not because they could afford to stay home with their newborns but because the alternative, offered by New York City's paid family leave plan, was not a sustainable solution.

At the end of last school year, I made the difficult decision to leave for a suburban district for similar reasons. My wife—also a teacher in the South Bronx—and I were beginning to consider starting a family, and we knew doing so would not be possible within the context of New York City's paid family leave policies. While the district offers six weeks of paid leave, because we were both district employees, an inexplicable caveat would require us to split the six weeks, leaving us each only with three.

Even so, New York City's six weeks of paid leave—where the union covers a teacher's salary while the district covers health insurance—makes it a notable positive outlier among school systems. The vast majority of educators in the country's largest school districts receive none. Instead, if teachers want paid time off to welcome a child into their lives instead of relying on unpaid time via the Family and Medical Leave Act (assuming they are eligible), they are asked to hoard their sick days and use them as makeshift paid leave. These new parents return to the classroom having exhausted any flexibility to take an emergency day off at a time in their lives when the need for that flexibility is suddenly heightened.

District and union leaders in districts that still do not offer this benefit—or do not offer enough of it—must collaborate to do so. In a profession with a shrinking pipeline and dismally low retention rates, more must be done to improve quality of life for educators and keep them in the profession, especially in the districts and schools with students who need them most. Offering more paid family leave—or any paid family leave at all—is an important way to do that.

Districts like Wichita Public Schools in Kansas and Elk Grove Unified School District in California are frontrunners in this space, offering to new parents up to five or six months of leave with at least partial pay. District and union leaders across the country should work together to follow suit.

In a national survey of 1,000 teachers, 37% of all teachers and 65% of teachers of color chose improved family support, including maternity leave, as one of the top three most effective financial incentives for recruiting and retaining educators. Teachers of color and teachers under 50 were particularly drawn to this incentive; in fact, teachers of color were more likely to choose improved family support than they were to choose higher starting salary as the number one most effective incentive. Teachers are telling us what works—district and union leaders should listen.

Wanting to start a family should be something to celebrate, not something that forces an educator to leave the profession they have dedicated themselves to or, more tragically, to never enter the profession because they realize districts have shown little interest in supporting teachers who want to start families.

In the wake of pandemic school closures and evidence of massive learning loss for students, we must come together to realize the critical importance of teachers to our society. Yet while teachers bear some of our heaviest burdens, we continue to deprive them of basic benefits that can support their success and well-being, and assume that as long as we shower them with notes of appreciation each May, they will stay.

Notes of appreciation are not enough. Districts must compensate teachers in a way that reflects the value and difficulty of their work. They can start by making paid family leave the norm, rather than the exception.

Daniel Gannon is a 13 year veteran High School History Teacher who currently works at Ossining High School and is a member of Educators for Excellence's National Teacher Leader Council.