Teachers often worry about time away from classrooms
I have a memory of when I was in first grade and my mom and I went to my teacher’s apartment on Superior Road, near Forest Hills, with a gift for her new baby. I do not recall my teacher being absent from school, so perhaps she gave birth at the beginning of summer.
I have heard negative comments from parents and students about teacher absences, largely because things are never the same with a substitute. As part of our union’s work in arranging leaves of absence for teachers for various reasons, I can tell you that most teachers are concerned about what happens when they are not in the classroom. In fact, just today I received an e-mail from a teacher who will be on an extended leave beginning at the start of the upcoming school year. She is concerned because she has not yet seen a job posting for her position.
This teacher is worried about her students. She wants to know that her teaching team will have someone who is qualified and is able to hold things together while she is out. I have counseled teachers who want to delay needed surgeries or medical treatments until summer or school holidays—times when their procedures will have the least impact on students (even though a delay might not be in the teacher’s own best interest).
One of the most common reasons for leave is maternity/child care. There is no paid time off for maternity leave/child care in our district, and a teacher must use part or, in some cases, all of her accumulated sick leave. If a teacher runs out of sick leave, she will not be paid until she returns to work and will have to cover the cost of health insurance if the absence exceeds the 12 weeks of the federal family medical leave provisions.
Because our local union is mostly female, women’s issues are important to us. When a teacher leaves or returns to work during the school year, it is difficult for everyone. In the end, teachers have to think about the welfare of their own children and families when considering how long to be away from their classrooms.
Unfortunately, for many teachers family finances dictate how long they can afford to stay home with their babies. Many women lack the protection of a union contract, and many women must work several part-time jobs to pay for their own medical insurance.
It seems unfathomable that in one of the richest nations in the world maternity and child-care leaves of absence, as well as health care, is not a right for everyone. I believe that at least one parent should be able to stay home after the birth of a child. I know that it is not always financially possible for our teachers to take an extended leave, but at least in our contract, it is an option.
The next time you are critical of a teacher’s extended absence, please consider the reason. In most instances—maternity leave or illness—our teachers remain concerned about what happens in the classroom during their absence. It is certainly a disruption, even with the best substitute, but teachers are people and, like the rest of us, occasionally have needs that necessitate an absence.
I hope that we have the will as a nation to expand basic rights for family leave to more working people. It is the right thing to do.
Ari Klein is a lifelong community member, math teacher at Cleveland Heights High School, and president of the Cleveland Heights Teachers Union.