From K-12 to Higher Ed: Pros and Cons of being a Teacher-Mama vs. a Professor-Mama (My Experience)
I started off writing this blog in a full narrative format. It was long, detailed, drawn-out and after reading it, I deleted it. The reason for deletion was because after reading it I quickly realized that if you are a “teacher-mama” and you are pondering transitioning to a “professor-mama”, there is a high chance that you already live a very hectic busy life. And if there is one thing I do know, mothers who live very hectic busy lives do not have time to read long, detailed, drawn-out blogs. In fact, you probably want information presented to you quickly, concisely, and preferably bulleted so that you can read it and move on with your day. I completely understand and that is what I will try my best to do for you below:
In 2005 I began my career as an elementary school teacher. I taught 1st and 2nd grade for seven years and then I transitioned to a middle school special education teacher for four years. My last two years as a teacher-mama in K-12 were spent working as a part-time special education consultant, edTpa scorer, and a graduate research project coordinator. That means I worked in K-12 for about thirteen years.
After graduating from my Ph.D. program, I decided to transition into higher education. This is my third year working as a full-time faculty member at a research institution. When adding it all up, I have worked 16 years in K-12 and higher education combined. My oldest child will be 15 this year (2021). So, I have pretty much managed my entire career and schooling with being pregnant and/or caring for multiple children.
The focus of this blog will be for me to give you my top three pros and cons of being a “teacher-mama” and then I will transition to my top three pros and cons of being a “professor-mama” (based on my experience) so that you can start to think about what may be best for YOU!
Let us start with the Pros of being a “Teacher-Mama”:
Transforming lives in K-12: “It is easier to build strong children than to repair broken men” (Frederick Douglass). This is a quote that I read a very long time ago and it has stuck with me for many years. I am a firm believer that great teachers can have a heavy impact on a child's life. If you strive to be a great teacher, one who is truly dedicated to improving the life of a child, then there is no better reward than that.
Teaching at the school your kids attend: This was never a real option for me; however, I have seen these perk benefit mothers who I have worked with in the past. Although it can be awkward in the beginning, when you can manage to teach at the same school where your child attends it eliminates several barriers such as childcare, travel time, and even increasing bonding opportunities with you and your child. Not only will you be aware of what your child is learning but you can also have a major input on how your child is being supported in the classroom, especially if you have a great connection with your child's teacher.
Summers off (and holiday breaks): Before having children I always taught summer school to make extra cash. However, after I began to have children of my own, I cherished my summers off and used my summers to spend time with my kids. In addition to getting summers off, extended holiday breaks are also an excellent perk for “teacher-mamas” that other professions do not offer.
Lack of flexibility in your daily schedule: Although there are breaks built into your yearly schedule, the day-to-day schedule for teachers is very routine and structured. When I taught in K-12 (even though my school day was 8am - 3:30pm) I worked a daily schedule of 7am - 5pm (because of preparation, grading, meetings.), with minimal breaks in between teaching classes. The problem with working a schedule such as this is as a mother your kids will need you sometimes during these hours, especially when they are very young. Doctor visits, children getting sick in school, and even attending field trips are very difficult to manage as a teacher-mama. (Possible solution: schedule doctor appointments well in advance or after school, find out at the beginning of the school year about field trips so that you can put them on your calendar and plan accordingly).
Heavy teacher workload: Teachers work very hard. If parents never realized this before they definitely realize it now that we are in a pandemic. From teaching, grading, meetings, the workload of a teacher is simply never-ending. If you work in special education, then in addition to the list above you are also writing and implementing Individualized Education Plans (IEP’s). (Possible solutions: Get organized as much as possible at the beginning of the school year, develop systems and routines such as collaborative activities that allow students to assess each other's work - exp. peer-writing/editing). Here is an article with some practical tips to support lightening the load a bit. https://www.edutopia.org/discussion/11-habits-effective-teacher)
Lack of support from the administration: As a former education consultant one of the biggest cons I hear from teachers is the lack of support they receive from their administrators. This was not my experience. Every administrator I worked with was great, but I do consider myself lucky in this aspect. Here are some great tips on how to get your administrator on board. (https://thecornerstoneforteachers.com/truth-for-teachers-podcast/deal-principal-just-doesnt-get/
Let us start with the Pros of being a “Professor-mama”!
Flexible Schedule - I believe that if you ask any “professor-mama" what they enjoy about working as a professor, a flexible schedule will be at the top of their list. Do not misunderstand this perk, there are some set meetings and teaching hours that professors are required to meet, however, that would be anywhere from five to fifteen hours (possibly more depending on the teaching load) in a week. The rest of the time is expected to be used for writing and research. For me, especially now (during a pandemic), I write late at night or very early in the morning. And although I am trying more and more to schedule set times to write, as a mother that is not always an option, so having a flexible schedule is a very nice perk for “professor-mamas”.
Family tuition benefit - Each university is different when it comes to the family tuition benefit, however, I know many professors at different universities that have taken full advantage of this perk. Although my kids are not of college-age yet and they have never mentioned attending a university where I work, it is nice to know that I have this option to support my kid’s college financial obligations. Here is an example of a family tuition benefit for a full-time faculty member at USC https://employees.usc.edu/tuition-assistance-family/
Teaching and Research opportunities: When you teach at the university level you are expected to teach in your area of expertise. This is a pro because usually, you are teaching something that you are passionate about. Professors also can create a course on a topic that they find important and offer it to students across campus. Research is very similar in the fact that you develop projects in your area of interest/expertise and create a team of people who you want to work with. Your team can consist of other faculty members, graduate students, community partners, government agencies, etc.
Highly competitive job market: Becoming a professor is not easy whether you plan to apply for tenure-track positions, clinical faculty, post-doc, etc. When I decided that I wanted to transition to a “professor-mama” I knew that I would probably have to relocate which meant I needed to prepare my family for this transition. I also had to begin applying for positions a year in advance. I applied to forty-seven positions of which I received mostly rejection letters or no responses at all. I was offered three positions and decided on the best position for my family and my career goals. Here is some basic information on landing a position in academia (however, please keep in mind that every field is different, and some fields are more competitive than others. If you are truly interested in learning specific details on your field, I would highly suggest researching your specific field). https://www.insidehighered.com/advice/2013/06/17/essay-how-land-first-academic-job
Pressure and Competition: Being a professor is not for the weak. You must develop some thick skin, or you will get torn to pieces. That does not mean you have to be a jerk or sleazeball. But you must develop a backbone and know your worth or you may find yourself in some uncomfortable situations. You may also feel the pressure to be “on” a lot. What I mean by this is that you will always need to be prepared and sometimes overly prepared for your daily task. There is no winging it in academia (and if it is, I have not figured it out yet).
Heavy Workload - Just like teaching K-12 you will also have a heavy workload of teaching, grading, and meetings. Also, you could have a very high expectation to write, publish, and obtain grant funding depending on your position. The biggest difference is that there is no one looking over your shoulder to see how well you are managing your workload (aka micromanaged)----which is a good thing and a bad thing at the same time. What I have come to find is that the most successful “professor-mamas” are disciplined. They maintain structure in their lives by creating schedules and sticking to them. Their children are very active in lots of different activities (both school and recreational) and “quality” family time is scheduled rather than organically popping up throughout each day.
So, the big question is…. Should you start to transition? For me, it was a simple yes because my life was screaming for more flexibility in my day-to-day schedule. Managing my responsibilities as a mother is much easier when I can schedule my time around my family. Also, as my children are getting older funding college has become a topic of conversation between my husband and I----let’s face it, college is not cheap. Knowing that there is a tuition benefit option that will help financially support my children is a major plus. Also, although I miss teaching children all the time, working with adults who are choosing to take my course because they are interested in the topic is a great feeling as well. Lastly, it has always been a goal for me to make a large impact in my field of study and conducting research that informs action is a great way to add impact on a larger scale.