When AP Chemistry teacher Krista McClain found out she was pregnant, her greatest worry was not the prospect of becoming completely responsible for another person.
“My biggest concern wasn’t about becoming a mom, or how it was going to affect my finances or change my life. My biggest concern was how this is going to affect my students,” McClain said.
Maternity leave is an issue that has an impact on many Harvard-Westlake students at some point during their middle and high school careers. This year alone, seven teachers (four at the Middle School and three at the Upper School) will be on or have already taken leave, according to Director of Personnel Marty Greco.
McClain kept her pregnancy a secret for the first twelve weeks mostly because she was worried about a miscarriage, which she says is common for many women during their first pregnancy. She was also concerned about what the students and faculty would think about her going on maternity leave as a young teacher.
She said that when her “mom hormones,” kicked in she felt more confident, not only about becoming a mom, but also about her students’ ability to take care of themselves. She said that it was difficult to realize that the world will keep turning if she is gone for two months.
“I wanted to earn the respect of my new students and let them realize that I’d take care of them and that I will be there to answer questions before I told them I would be leaving them,” McClain said.
She will be going on leave after spring break, shortly before AP exams, though she says she will make herself as available as soon as possible to answer questions once she leaves. With slight adjustment to the curriculum, McClain has made sure her AP kids will have learned all the material for the exam.
“By the time I leave, I will have prepared them,” McClain said.
Math teacher Ashley Sattersthwaite gave birth to her son Jeht Sean last June and missed just two weeks of school. She said she didn’t feel slowed down by her pregnancy until just before she went on leave.
“I think I was trying to prepare for maternity leave and prepare to be gone,” she said. “I had to wrap up all my class work and prepare for the baby. It was the merging of those two things. It was just stressful since it was the merging of a lot of things at once.”
Upper school dean Tamar Adegbile struggled with sleep deprivation as she tried to keep up with her seniors who were submitting college applications.
“It was really important to me that my students, especially the seniors, feel supported and situated before the school year started,” Adegbile said.
Since she gave birth on Aug. 29, she did not start the school year, although she met with most of her senior students and their families at the end of summer break. She has been working with their surrogate deans to ensure each student gets the attention he or she needs.
“It has not been easy, but like I said, I really wanted to support my students,” Adegbile said. “The first few weeks were particularly hard because I was not getting much sleep.”
Adegbile said that the first few weeks after she gave birth were especially hard in terms of keeping up with her students’ questions.
“My students received emails from me at very odd hours,” Adegbile said.
Whether classes are redistributed to other teachers in the department or a substitute is hired, Greco said that in her experience the administration is accommodating about how much time teachers can have off.
“There’s times when we go, oh my gosh, how are we going to figure this out, but we always do,” Greco said.
On average, women get about four months off, unless a doctor recommends more time. Under state and federal law, maternity leave is treated like disability.
When a teacher takes time off she may get disability checks from the state. She cannot take off extra time to be the primary caretaker and have a guaranteed spot waiting for her the next year.
Men whose wives give birth are given five days off.
“With paternity leave, it’s a tough one because Dad wants to be there and that’s understandable,” Greco said. “The man doesn’t have to recover from delivery. That takes quite a while and especially a C-section is really hard to recover from. It sounds sexist and I don’t mean for it to. It’s what happens.”
Greco said the school has never dealt with a maternity or paternity question in a case of adoption when neither parent had given birth.
“We’ve only had two men who have wanted more time and we were able to accommodate,” Greco said.
Physics teacher Jesse Reiner and his wife, Rachel, have two sons, Sam, 6 and Joe, 4.
He did not take a full five days off for the birth of either of his sons.
“I went in as late as I could and left school as early as I could,” Reiner said of the weeks following the birth of Joe in February 2008. “I wasn’t really gone that long, only gone for five hours a day. Her parents came both times so I wasn’t leaving her alone. That helped.”
Greco noted that that strategic planning by teachers is very convenient for the school.
“We sort of tried to time it in a way,” Reiner said. “My first son was born right before summer vacation. [My wife, Rachel] stayed home till June 15,” Reiner said. “It was me and the little guy for most of the summer.”
Reiner says that while there is not much paternity leave, Harvard-Westlake is flexible in working with his schedule.
“I think on the whole the school is pretty supportive of family life,” Reiner said. “They understand that there are going to be times when you can’t work as hard because you have little kids.”
Since his children were born, Reiner said that he has requested to have a late schedule so that he can drop them off in the morning.
“That’s much more important to me than extra week off when they were born,” Reiner said. “I’m not sure I would have taken any more time off even if I could have.”
Reiner said that he was reluctant to take any time off.
“As a teacher when you leave it either means that you are putting a burden on your colleagues or you are getting a substitute who wouldn’t be able to do as much for your students,” Reiner said.
Satterthwaite also expressed discomfort with taking time off. She said that she was hesitant to let a substitute into her class. She worried her students would feel as though she was abandoning them.
“The world keeps turning whether we are here are not,” Satterthwaite said. “There are plenty of people who can help you guys learn this material. I think coming to that realization was important. We want to ‘raise’ you and take care of you. I don’t want to leave for this amount of time but [my son is] amazing and it’s worth it.”