Expert: School closures put pressure on teachers who work second shift as mothers

Pandemic is opportunity for teacher-mothers to renegotiate policies in the classroom and expectations at home

Release Date: July 24, 2020

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Portrait of Julie Gorlewski.
“One positive outcome of this crisis is that respect for teachers has grown exponentially as parents and partners develop a greater understanding of teachers’ daily work. ”
Julie Gorlewski, chair of the Department of Learning and Instruction in the UB Graduate School of Education

BUFFALO, N.Y. – For the thousands of schools around the nation grappling with the decision to reopen, choosing to extend remote learning would place immense stress on teachers attempting to balance motherhood and rising expectations for educators, says University at Buffalo educational equity expert Julie Gorlewski.

During the COVID-19 pandemic, teachers who are also mothers have the added pressure of both educating children in their communities and homeschooling their own kids. These women often perform more household labor than their partners as well, says Gorlewski.

The pandemic presents the opportunity for the nation to rethink the norms in education and family systems, and for teacher-mothers to renegotiate policies in the classroom and expectations in the household, she says.

“As we face a worldwide health crisis, teachers in the United States are experiencing unprecedented challenges. The teacher demographic most affected by this event may well be teachers who are also mothers of school-age and preschool-age children,” says Gorlewski, PhD, chair of the Department of Learning and Instruction in the UB Graduate School of Education.

“This unanticipated and challenging global event has the potential to reveal some of the invisible work of mothers and educators. As we struggle, some more than others, to manage our lives during this crisis, it is critically important to ensure that principles of equity and justice undergird policies and practices.”

In a commentary published at the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic in Teachers College Record, Gorlewski along with co-author Mary Hermann, associate professor of counseling and special education at Virginia Commonwealth University, discussed the norms and conditions that impact teacher-mothers.

Many instructors were already stressed by evolving educational standards and technological advances that extended the teaching day and blurred work-life boundaries by making teachers more available to communicate with students and parents, says Gorlewski.

School closures during the pandemic added strain for teachers who had to race to redesign curriculums for distance learning, particularly teachers with limited resources and support to carry out remote instruction – a result of historical inequities in education – she says.

Parents, almost overnight, became responsible for homeschooling their children after schools shuttered. For teachers who have children, this responsibility in the household often fell on them as the parent better trained to provide instruction, she says.

Societal norms compounded these pressures for mothers, who face elevated expectations at home, says Gorlewski. According to research, U.S. mothers today spend more time with their children than moms did in the 1960s, a period when most mothers did not work outside the home, she says.

In a study conducted by Gorlewski, teacher-mothers reported performing more second shift activities (household labor such as cooking, cleaning and child care) than their partners. Even when partners contributed more equally toward household labor, mothers typically engaged in significantly more mental labor planning and managing tasks, she says.

Homemaking standards are exacerbated by portrayals of the perfect home on social media, and women are more likely to face judgement if their households do not match these heightened expectations, she says.

Gorlewski urges teacher-mothers to carve out time for daily self-care activities, to create and maintain a network of support people, and to abandon perfectionistic standards of child care and household maintenance on social media in favor of portrayals that show the messiness of authentic parenthood.

“One positive outcome of this crisis is that respect for teachers has grown exponentially as parents and partners develop a greater understanding of teachers’ daily work,” says Gorlewski. “This is an opportunity for teacher-mothers to renegotiate second shift activities and reconsider what is working and what is not in P-12 education.”

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