While it’s your right to take time off to have a new child, care for, and bond with it… the government here in the good ol’ US of A definitely doesn’t make it easy. Taking maternity leave as a teacher in America is an unfortunate adventure into lots of red tape! This is especially true if you’re seeking any sort of compensation during your absence. So you’ll want to be in-the-know as early as possible, this way you can get started on all the paperwork that will be required. Yes, paperwork. Lots of it.
The laws regarding maternity leave are typically governed by the state you work in, but also determined in part by your individual school district’s policies. So get ready to put on your detective hat, as you’re going to have to do some serious investigating into these matters if you want to maximize your benefits while you’re out. And this should be a priority sooner rather than later!
As a point of reference, I’m a teacher for a K-8 public school district in the state of California. So while my personal situation may not mirror yours exactly, there are some general tips and guidelines that will apply to most teachers seeking maternity leave, no matter what state or district you work in.
1.) If you want any sort of compensation, sign up for short-term disability insurance IN ADVANCE.
Yes, you can still get paid a portion of your salary while you’re out on maternity leave, even if your district is willing to pay nothing other than what you have left of sick/vacation time. But you have to have “short term disability insurance” for this to happen!
And don’t wait on this one… in many cases, you have to sign up WAY IN ADVANCE of getting pregnant. Some companies have a ridiculous 9-month waiting period before the benefits will even become available for you to use (gee, I wonder where that number came from?!)… so as soon as you know you’re planning to get pregnant, sign yourself up! I signed up for disability a year in advance, just to be on the safe side.
To get started on this, take a look at your most recent pay stub. Is any of your pay being deducted for “SDI” (state disability insurance)? Most teachers do NOT pay into this system! If that’s the case for you (as it was for me), then you do not qualify for the disability insurance or paid family leave offered by your state. This means you’ll need to sign up for private disability insurance, which is hopefully an option offered by your school district (otherwise you’ll have to go out and purchase it on your own).
Check with your HR department right away to find out what your situation looks like. I know my district offered private insurance through two different companies, The Standard and American Fidelity, from which I had a chance to choose based on their rates and plans. Some companies offer to pay you a higher percentage of your salary than others, but their monthly salary deductions will vary accordingly, so do your digging before deciding.
2.) Find out what paperwork is required by your district’s HR department.
I know I dreaded the idea of contacting my district’s Human Resources department, but it’s a task that’s got to be done. Suck it up, buttercup. Go into it knowing that they’ll likely have several unnecessarily tedious forms that need to be filled out. One or two of the forms will even require your OB/Gyn’s official sign-off (like the one that states your official “last day” of work before taking leave, and the one that states when you’re medically able to return).
So do yourself a favor and call them, email them, drop in to visit them after work one day… just do whatever you need to do to get a hold of the paperwork they want from you. And do it as soon as possible after you have confirmed your pregnancy! By checking this item off your to-do list, you can at least start figuring out a timeline for yourself regarding when you’re going to get everything completed before officially leaving.
3.) Determine how long you intend to be out on maternity leave.
Your job is legally protected for 12 weeks based on FMLA laws. However, the length of maternity leave that will be signed off on by most doctors for a normal, uncomplicated pregnancy and delivery is typically somewhere between 6 to 8 weeks (it will be on the longer end of the spectrum if you’re recovering from a C-section).
So what do I mean by figuring out how long you “intend” to be out? You still have a choice in the matter, as most districts will allow you to take an extended unpaid leave of absence (if you choose to do so), even after your maternity leave has ended. Just remember that it’s UNPAID. And no, short-term disability insurance will not cover you anymore during this time period. Be sure to ask about how long they will let you take while still having a job to return to, if this is the route you decide to take.
So when you’re figuring out how long you want to be out of work to care for and bond with your new baby, the best place to start is by taking a realistic look at your family’s personal finances. Be honest with yourself (and your spouse, if you have one). Assuming you’re not planning to quit your job and do the stay-at-home-mom thing for a while, then how long can you actually afford to be out of work? This will depend on a few factors, such as:
- whether or not you’re receiving short-term disability benefits compensation
- how much sick/vacation time you have available to use (most districts will require you to use up all of this as soon as your maternity leave begins)
- if your district offers “differential pay” (this is what they would pay you during your medically-determined length of maternity leave if/when you’ve run out of sick/vacation time, and is typically equivalent to your normal salary minus the cost of the substitute in your classroom)
- if your spouse will be taking any time off, too, then what will their income situation look like and for how long?
- and, after all of this runs out, whether or not you have the financial ability to take any unpaid time off
4.) Begin arrangements for your long-term substitute.
Once you know exactly when and how long you’ll be out, you can start the task of figuring out who is going to take your place. If you know already know of someone who is qualified for the job and available, then great! Pass their name along to your district ASAP and get the ball rolling as soon as they’ll allow.
If, however, you’re like me… and you knew of NO ONE… then your district will usually step in to hire someone for the job. Ask if they will be conducting any interviews, and if they are, find out if you can be part of the interview panel. By doing so, you can have at least some measure of control over who will be taking directives from you and sharing your personal space. Obviously, you’ll want to get someone you’re comfortable with, if at all possible. And even though you may not be working with them face-to-face, it would be helpful if this person’s teaching philosophy aligns with yours, and at the minimum that they’re flexible enough to follow whatever guidelines you set in place for them about how your classroom is run.
You’ll also want to get a head start on making your sub plans. What those plans look like will be different depending on your school’s policies, so ask your principal and then decide what you’re comfortable doing. Some districts have no requirements about how much you need to plan for during your leave, per se, so you could theoretically plan nothing and leave it all up to the substitute.
But if you’re returning during the same school year and want things to feel business-as-usual when that time comes, then it would be wise to make more specific plans for your substitute to follow. This can be in the form of a general topic outline, weekly plans, or even daily plans. It’s up to you, mama! But be sure to get this done well ahead of time, because you’re likely not going to have the time to be working on lesson plans with a crying, hungry baby to contend with!
5.) Communicate with your students’ parents about your leave.
They don’t need to know every last detail, but DO let them know ahead of time when you’ll be out and for how long. If you know your substitute’s contact information ahead of time (name and email address should suffice), then you can easily provide parents with this information in a brief letter or email sent home before you officially take your leave. This way, if they have any questions, they have an opportunity to get them answered before you’re gone. This will go a long way to preserving their trust in you as their child’s teacher.
At the very least, turn on your “vacation responder” setting in your email and set it up with a message that includes your substitute’s contact information. The beauty of this technology is that, if a concerned parent emails you about their child and you don’t respond (because HELLO, you’re at home with your baby!), then they’ll receive an automated response that will redirect them to contact your sub instead. That’s a win-win for everyone!
6.) Coordinate with your colleagues about anything that needs coverage during your absence.
If you have any major responsibilities on campus (department chair, PTA leader, team leader, etc.), then make sure your duties are delegated accordingly while you are gone.
Who will attend any important meetings in your place? If you’re part of a “team” or “village”, who will take over coordinating the grade level field trip that you’ve been planning for your students? Who will help schedule or run the PTA meetings?
These are all the “little” things that could add up to A LOT at the end if they’re not taken care of in a timely fashion, so don’t forget to add them to your to-do list before you head out to have your baby!
7.) And finally, here are some other resources you can look into…
- Pregnancy and Parental Leave Rights (from the California Teachers Association)
- Family and Medical Leave Laws by State (from the National Conference of State Legislatures)
- How Does Your State Measure Up on Maternity Leave? (from Parents Magazine)
- It would also be wise to Google the phrase “maternity leave teachers in [your state’s name]” to find information that’s more specific to your situation!
Are you a teacher who has taken maternity leave before? Do you have any advice for new mothers who are about to embark on this arduous journey for this first time? Please share your experiences and tips in the comments below!