Published July 28, 2020
For the thousands of schools around the nation grappling with the decision to reopen, extending remote learning could place immense stress on teachers balancing motherhood and the rising expectations for educators, said UB GSE’s educational equity expert Julie Gorlewski.
During the COVID-19 period, teachers who are also mothers have extra pressure to educate students and their own kids. These women may also take on more household labor than their partners, said Gorlewski.
The pandemic is an opportunity for the nation to rethink the norms in education and family systems, she said. Teacher-mothers may need to renegotiate policies in the classroom and expectations in the household.
“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,” said Gorlewski, PhD, chair of the Department of Learning and Instruction.
“This unanticipated and challenging global event has the potential to reveal some of the invisible work of mothers and educators,” she said. “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 and co-author Mary Hermann, associate professor of counseling and special education at Virginia Commonwealth University, discussed the norms and conditions impacting teacher-mothers.
Many 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, said Gorlewski.
School closures added strain as teachers raced to redesign distance-learning curriculums. This was particularly true for teachers who had limited resources and support to carry out remote instruction—a result of historical inequities in education, she said.
Parents, almost overnight, became responsible for homeschooling their children. For teachers with children of their own, this household responsibility often fell on them, as the parent better trained to provide instruction, she said.
Societal norms compounded these pressures for mothers, who face elevated expectations at home, said Gorlewski. According to research, U.S. mothers now spend more time with their children than moms did in the 1960s, a period when most did not work outside the home.
In a study conducted by Gorlewski, teacher-mothers reported performing more “second-shift” activities, such as cooking, cleaning and childcare. Even when partners contributed more equally toward household labor, mothers typically engaged in significantly more mental labor planning and managing tasks, she said.
Homemaking standards are exacerbated by portrayals of the perfect home on social media. Women are more likely to face judgement if their households do not match these heightened expectations, she said.
Gorlewski urges teacher-mothers to:
“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,” said 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.”