Parents trust teachers to take care of their children. It’s a relationship built on trust and mutual desire to provide the best for the younger generation.
But how are teachers expected to care for others’ children when they lack the resources to support their own family lives?
Dr. Sarah Jean Baker, childhood education and family studies assistant professor, studied this dynamic for her dissertation. Specifically, she studied women school leaders who were also mothers and the challenges they faced in these identities.
With her background and personal experience, she helps teacher candidates understand the complexities of their future role.
Teaching is often seen as a maternal, female role because of the historical conditions teaching developed within.
Prior to public education, most classrooms were led by men. After public education was established, however, there was an influx of students in the classroom. That meant a need for more teachers, which meant a need for a cheaper workforce.
“Instead of raising taxes to pay for more male teachers, single women were offered teaching positions, because they didn’t need the same income,” Baker said.
Women didn’t need a large salary, Baker added, since many communities also housed and fed their one-room schoolhouse teachers.
Later, once a woman married, she was expected to stay home and raise children, relying on her husband to make money.
“When we see that teachers’ salaries are low compared to other professions, that goes all the way back to the idea that an educator’s earnings were never intended to support a family,” Baker said.
Apart from teachers having low salaries, there are additional concerns when it comes to becoming a mother while being a teacher. Unpaid maternity leave, additional time commitments and finding substitutes while on leave are all real things teachers must navigate on their own.
Being a mother and a teacher
As a mother, former kindergarten and first-grade teacher and school leader, Baker understands the struggles that teachers encounter as they decide to start their own families.
“You see statistics that say women are anywhere between 75% or 85% of our nation’s teachers,” Baker said. “But there are not school policies and practices in place that support women in both roles of an educator and mother.”
“The ultimate goal of schools is to support child development in multiple ways,” Baker said. “Teachers want support in making sure they can give their own children quality time. They want support in raising their own children.”
Baker also wishes teachers received more support as qualified, valuable professionals.
“It’s all connected with how we raise up the profession,” Baker said. “Many teachers are already giving their all in their profession. Educators should feel dignified in the work that they’re doing.”
She believes teachers need to feel a higher value is placed on the work they do for their communities, like during the current pandemic, for example.
“It’s highlighted the important work they do for their communities. They should be paid more for their work,” Baker said. “It should be able to support their families.”
What’s being done
Baker strives to educate teacher candidates about the complexities and historical context of women as teachers.
The subject holds a special place for her, because it was her dissertation topic as she pursued her doctoral degree. Since then, she’s continued to see the field evolve and learned more about the system mothers must navigate.
“I’m trying to help my students understand how to be advocates against policies that disadvantage teachers and students, too,” Baker said. “It’s important to be proactive about those policies. My students may not be thinking about maternity leave now, but they may need it a few years down the road.”
Baker said her own experience in her undergraduate program didn’t touch on those topics.
“I think that’s why it’s so important to me to bring those perspectives to them,” Baker said. “It’s important for them to really think about what all this might mean for their future.”