Sunday, March 17, 2013

Schools: Work--Family Balance

There is a lot of talk today in the media about the role of women in the work place--a role that has been shifting throughout my life. In today's Boston Globe, Joan Vennochi and Joanna Weiss discuss Sheyrl Sandberg's ideas in her new book, Lean In. I'm happy that Sandberg has reignited this national debate as there's definitely room for growth in American society with regard to work-family balance, and our national focus on what's best for children and humanity as we grow a nation.

As a young child, it was unusual for women in my neighborhood to work outside of the home, yet when I became a teenager many women in my working class neighborhood had returned to work. Then as a new teacher, I found that most moms were at home when I first started teaching, and most teachers either had older children or did not have children--there were few teachers working with small children.

Now, where I teach, many moms work, and those moms and dads who are home are very, very busy doing all the jobs that the full force of at-home moms used to do including school volunteering, PTO, community service and more. Ideally, our whole society will look at laws and structures that support (or do not support) quality family life so that there is time for all of us to do what's right for our children and communities, but for now I'm focused on an educator's work environment.

As I read the stories and ponder my own experience as a working mom, I am wondering about how schools can best support both women and men in the work force as well as provide optimal models for the children we teach.

First, I think it's important for educational leadership to remember that a large percentage of their work force are working parents. Hence when making schedules, decisions and support, not only should the individual's work be considered, but the fact that he/she is a parent should be considered too. Consideration of educators' family lives will help to build a happy and invested work force. The following actions can help to support that climate:
  • Know your staff and know their preferences.  Through a yearly survey, find out about your staff's needs and preferences.  You'll never please everyone, but knowing their needs with regard to school culture, schedules, and supports will help serve many.  For example, in the system where I teach, they will pay for a professional development course once you complete the course.  When I was a young parent, I often didn't have the money to put up front to take the course so that delayed some of my professional development.  That would be a simple change for a school system.  On another occasion, when driving my children to daycare on a snowy, winter day, the path to the system-run daycare had not been plowed hence limiting my ability to drop off my children and get to school on time--another simple situation to remedy.  Finally, many new parents and staff live far away from our school community and drive old cars, hence the ability to get to work on time during a weather event can be challenging. Therefore a policy to delay opening on days like that would also serve staff well.
  • Be considerate of child-related events.  In my place of work, this consideration has increased over the years.  Parents have unlimited sick time to care for ill children as long as they make a commitment to share that responsibility with their spouse and others--this has served to actually limit the time off new parents take and support honest communication.  Also, if there's a last minute issue and a young child needs care, sometimes a teacher will bring that child to school.  That doesn't happen very often, but the fact that the system understands that it can happen and doesn't make it a big deal, again creates greater investment.
  • Consider on-site daycare options. School systems might be smart to consider on-site daycare.  I know as a young mother, my husband and I spent thousands of dollars on daycare. Perhaps on-site day care would leverage those dollars and time for both parent and school system gain.  
  • Make decisions with lead time.  While not every decision can be made with lead time, lead time can serve to foster a better, more effective work ethic particularly with educators who are balancing family and work.
  • Serve the working parent client base well.  Know the families you serve and in every way possible respond to their needs as working parents when it comes to the time for school events, homework, and parent responsibilities. Perhaps survey your parent population to best understand their preferences in this regard, and work to revise old constructs and events that no longer serve your populations' schedules and needs well.
  • Document family support protocols and options with transparency and clarity.  Make sure that every person who enters your organization understands the options related to financial, health care, scheduling and other supports in a responsive, accessible manner. Often these events are scheduled at times that young mothers and fathers are running out the door to pick up children at daycare. 
  • Allow educators' children to attend your schools.  The system I work for allows this and while an educator pays a small price of sharing his/her work life with his/her family life, the benefits for both the system and family are great.  The system benefits from increased investment and time on behalf of the educator who wants to see both his/her school system and children thrive, and the educator benefits from the fact that his/her work/family life is better focused, coordinated and streamlined.
  • Fair Salaries and Growth: Educators deserve fair salaries.  They deserve to make enough to support a family and a good life.  Some systems, like the one I work in, typically offer a fair salary, and some do not. In this regard, it is also important for school systems to analyze growth attitudes and actions related to both women and men to make sure that the policies do not favor one over the other. 
Education has always been thought of as a family-friendly work environment.  Summers give educators time to catch up with their children and family life--a factor I'd like to see repeated in other organizations throughout the country. Also the days off during the school year usually line up with children's days off.  A greater look at matters related to financial reward, protocols and structure, and direct family supports will help to make school environments even more family friendly and provide our children with models that demonstrate that a man or woman can both raise a family and be a professional and contributor to society at the same time. What constructs in your educational organization support family life, and what ideas do you have for positive change and growth in this regard?

I'm so happy that this once secret conversation is now a public debate as we look carefully to the ways we support families and children in American society. Women and men younger than me, like Sheryl Sandberg, are pushing this debate and conversation forward, and I hope that means we'll see better policy and protocols to support children and families well.