Many of us enter into the field of education because we love children. We work hard to support and grow the students placed in our classrooms each year. We carefully craft lessons, create beautiful, safe learning environments, and aim to meet the unique needs of each child. It’s a job that requires much from us to care for and educate the children of others, but unfortunately for many of us working in the field, that care isn’t guaranteed to be returned when we have our own children.
Back in December of 2020, I was filled with so much optimism. The new year was just around the corner, COVID-19 vaccines were on the horizon, and my husband and I found out we were expecting our first child after a decade-long battle with infertility.
The immense joy we felt was quickly dashed when I dug out my copy of our teacher handbook to re-read the district’s maternity policies. I knew that under the federal Family and Medical Leave Act, I could take up to 12 weeks off following the birth of a child, but I was shocked to find out that my school district, which is located in rural West Tennessee, didn’t pay for any of that time off. And our district is hardly alone: Many U.S. school systems offer no paid parental leave; only a small number of states guarantee that teachers can take paid leave after welcoming a child.
In my district, teachers could use banked sick days to patch together their own “paid” leave for up to six weeks post-birth, but after teaching through the first year of a pandemic with all the quarantines and illness, I had depleted a good portion of the sick days I had accrued after teaching for 15 years.
Terrified of going without pay after the birth of my child, I took an after-school job managing a car wash.
Terrified of going without pay after the birth of my child, I took an after-school job managing a car wash, and my combat veteran husband took his first job outside of the home in years. I worked my teaching and car wash jobs until 72 hours before going into labor.
I was lucky. My labor was quick and easy; we named our son Wyn. We loved becoming parents, and my husband loved his new role as a full-time, stay-at-home dad. I, on the other hand, returned to my classroom just three short weeks after giving birth. My body was still healing, and I had a hard time finding space in my busy schedule to pump breast milk for my son.
When Wyn was nine months old, in the summer of 2022, we found out we were expecting again. We were elated, but we also knew that I would have even fewer sick days for maternity leave this time around.
On the first day of school, I knew something was wrong with my pregnancy. I waited till the end of the school day and made an emergency appointment with my medical team. When the ultrasound technician scanned my belly, I was relieved to hear a steady heartbeat, but then she and the doctor told me that my baby was not growing properly and that I was experiencing a miscarriage. My heart sank and tears flooded my eyes. I was sent home to wait for my baby’s heart to naturally stop and for my body to process it all.
My husband and I knew immediately that we wanted to try again, so I was placed in the impossible position of returning to work the next day so that I could preserve any sick days in case I was able to conceive again and carry that baby to term.
Over the next several days, I taught while miscarrying my child.
I smiled at the children in my classroom while I could feel my own child slipping away.
In my pain, I looked for community online. I tweeted about my experience, my grief, and the need for paid parental leave. I didn’t want other teachers to find themselves in this position. I connected with an advocacy group, A Better Balance, which was in the process of finding sponsors for a bill that would give all public school teachers and certified school employees in my state 12 weeks of paid parental leave, separate from their sick leave, and that leave would cover the birthing and non-birthing partner. We knew this bill was a long shot, but a similar bill had recently passed in Georgia and had granted three weeks of paid leave, so we had hope.
The bill found sponsors, and I wrote an impact statement to read in front of legislators. I shared my experience and the predicament I found myself in after giving birth to my son and after suffering a miscarriage. I spoke about the need for paid leave. I listened live, while on my lunch break at school, as my statement was read to a crowded committee room in our state legislature.
Getting a bill passed is a roller coaster. It went through various committees, rewrites, and votes. It looked as if it was about to get tabled until the next session when on the last day of the legislative session, the revised bill came to a floor vote. The legislature voted unanimously to pass six weeks of paid parental leave for all Tennessee teachers and qualifying school staff, for birthing and non-birthing partners following the birth, adoption, or stillbirth of a child, beginning with the 2023-24 school year. Lawmakers also allotted $15 million for districts across the state to hire substitute teachers during parental leaves.
Advocating for change to my state’s parental leave policies was how I healed from my loss. I feel empowered knowing that I will be able to leave the teaching profession a little better than when I found it.
Kathryn Vaughn is an elementary art teacher from rural West Tennessee. She has been teaching for 17 years, having graduated with a master’s in education from the College of Saint Rose, in Albany, New York. She was the 2021 Tennessee Education Association’s Distinguished Educator of the Year. She is also a published author with work appearing in School Arts Magazine, Ed Weekly, and The Tennessean.