How to Use Your Teacher Leave Wisely (and Legally)

We spend a lot of time discussing how to make money outside of the classroom, how to start a website, how to find jobs in other fields, how to set goals for yourself, and the list goes on.

But today I want to talk about something I’ve never talked about before…teacher leave. Now don’t tune me out because I want you to think about this.

Understanding what types of leave you can take (and when you can take those times of leave) could actually be the first step in your exit process.

However, for that to be the case, we need to dig into questions like…

  • How long do teachers get for maternity leave?
  • How does FMLA work for teachers?
  • Can I use FMLA even if I plan to leave the classroom permanently?
  • How much of a role do school districts play in personal leave, sick leave, and /or annual leave?
  • What does this information have to do with my exit strategy?

And what about the teacher with a chronic illness? What about the teacher who is ready to leave the classroom, can that teacher use leave?

Well, that’s exactly what we’re going to explore in this post!!

Different Types of Leave

It is essential that we have a basic understanding of the most common types of leave teachers can take before we dig into the specifics and how these might affect your exit strategy.

This information will give us the wisdom we need to make good decisions based on our specific set of circumstances.

Sick Leave

While we are all pretty familiar with what sick leave is, it is important that we know what the law states about sick leave.

According to attorney Steven E. Glink, “School districts are required to give full-time teachers…at least 10 days of sick leave each year. It may be used for personal illness or serious illness or death in the immediate family. The amount of sick leave may be increased by the collective bargaining agreement or by board policy.”

So basically this means that teachers are guaranteed 10 days, but could potentially be given more based on specific negotiations between the local school board and union representation as they come to a collective agreement.

Now I want to take just a quick moment to mention mental health within the context of sick leave.

It is completely appropriate to take a “mental health” day occasionally without any documentation. We all need some days where we just “get away” from the stress of our jobs.

But if you are being seen by a therapist, counselor, or psychiatrist for ongoing treatment, then state law (or your school district) may require documentation if you miss a lot of days due to your condition.

Think of it like this, taking your allotted sick days is completely acceptable, but just make sure you are using them for sickness or doctor appointments and not just as vacation days.

Now this all refers to traditional paid sick leave. But there is an additional option that is directly related to an individual with a chronic medical condition (including mental issues) that I am going to cover in just a moment under Family Medical Leave.

Maternity and Parental Leave

While the phrase “maternity leave” is still commonly used, this particular type of leave is now called Family Leave or Parental Leave because it covers more people than just biological birth mothers and new children.

Under the Family and Medical Leave Act, an individual can take unpaid leave for…

  • the birth and care of a biological newborn child,
  • the adoption of a child with the adoptive parents, or
  • the placement of a foster child into your care

This allows new parents time to bond with their child…regardless of whether that new child is biological or not. This has been such good news and an important addition for adoptive families, families who take on the placement of a child in foster care, and spouses.

According to the U.S. Department of Labor, the advent of new legislation called the Federal Employee Paid Leave Act (FEPLA) has provided a paid parental leave option for eligible employees “covered under Title 5 following in connection with a qualifying birth of a son or daughter or the placement of a son or daughter with an employee for adoption or foster care.” 

“As a result, the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) provisions were amended in Title 5, United States Code (U.S.C.) to provide up to 12 weeks of paid parental leave to covered Federal employees in connection with the birth or placement (for adoption or foster care) of a child occurring on or after October 1, 2020.” 

“Paid parental leave granted in connection with a qualifying birth or placement under FEPLA is substituted for unpaid FMLA leave and is available during the 12-month period following the birth or placement. In order to be eligible for paid parental leave under FEPLA, a Federal employee must be eligible for FMLA leave under 5 U.S.C. 6382(a)(1)(A) or (B), and must meet FMLA eligibility requirements.”

With the onset of this legislation, husbands, who are full-time employees, now have the option to take paid family leave often referred to as paternity leave. The key to this is that the spouse MUST be a federal employee.

Sabbatical Leave

Before this podcast episode, I wasn’t all that familiar with the idea of sabbatical leave. I knew that teachers took sabbaticals from the classroom from time to time, but I didn’t really understand what qualified as a sabbatical leave.

As I began researching, I found a helpful definition by Glink that stated a teacher could be granted sabbatical leave for “resident study, research, travel, or other activities determined by the board to benefit the district by improving the quality and level of experience of the teaching force. The length of the leave may be from four months to one year.”

A few other important components of sabbatical leave worth noting require that teachers must…

  • have at least six years of full-time teaching experience,
  • legally be returned to the same positions (or similar positions) the following school year,
  • retain all rights related to tenure.

Knowing this information is extremely helpful because even though states and districts vary in their approach to sabbatical leave, at least you have a starting point. Now you know whether or not you are even in the ballpark of being eligible for this particular type of leave and also whether it’s worth contacting your human resources office for more information.

If you would like to know more about sabbatical leave, I’ve added some links to interesting articles in the show notes and the transcript. And it you happen to be a New Jersey public school teacher, I found an especially enlightening article.

How does FMLA work for teachers?

Now that we’ve looked at the different types of leave, we need to unpack FMLA or the Family Medical Leave Act and how this legislation affects time for teachers. There are typically two reasons a teacher would qualify for FMLA and that is pregnancy/birth of a child/adoption or a chronic illness.

Click here for the PDF version of the images above by the Department of Labor.

Pregnancy and Birth of a Child

Let’s just go ahead and answer the main question every pregnant teacher wants to know…how long do teachers get for maternity leave?

The federal law and regulations state that “a mother can use 12 weeks of FMLA leave for the birth of a child, for prenatal care and incapacity related to pregnancy, and for her own serious health condition following the birth of a child. A father can use FMLA leave for the birth of a child and to care for his spouse who is incapacitated (due to pregnancy or child birth).”

Glink goes on to further explain, “A teacher may not be dismissed or have his or her tenure status affected by temporary physical or mental incapacity. Federal law requires that persons who are disabled because of pregnancy, childbirth, or related medical conditions must be treated the same as other employees.”

“Thus, a woman who is unable to work following childbirth is entitled to use accumulated sick leave for this purpose. Sick leave may not be used for an extended maternity leave unless provided for by a collective bargaining agreement, board policy, or allowed for other non-medical leaves.”

So, this means that you can…

  • use all of your personal days and banked sick time so you aren’t going the entire length of time without pay, and/or
  • look into short-term disability insurance to cover the days you will not be getting paid by your employer.

That brings us to the other main reason…

Chronic Illness

The U.S. Department of Labor indicates that employees “can use FMLA leave for any period of incapacity or treatment due to a chronic serious health condition.” The regulations continue to define a chronic serious health condition as one that…

  • “requires ‘periodic visits’ (at least twice a year) for treatment by a health care provider or nurse under the supervision of the health care provider,
  • continues over an extended period of time, and
  • may cause episodic rather than continuing periods of incapacity.”

Of course, that leads us to the obvious question of what qualifies as a serious health condition?

Based on my research, I discovered that outside of pregnancy, health conditions were categorized as serious when the condition…

  • “required an overnight stay in a hospital or medical facility,
  • kept you or a close family member from working or attending school for more than three days in a row with ongoing medical treatment in the form of appointments and/or prescriptions, or
  • was chronic in that it required treatment by a health care professional at least two times per year.”

If you want to know more specific information than I am able to share here, be sure to check out the U.S. Department of Labor’s frequently asked questions page. It is filled with tons of in-depth information.

But what does all of this information mean for me?

Well, if you are pregnant, adopting, or part of the foster care system, I think you already have a pretty clear understanding of how this information is meaningful for you.

But what if you simply want to leave the classroom and the maternity part doesn’t apply to your situation.

Let’s look a little more closely at the chronic illness description.

If you are struggling mentally with anxiety, depression, or extreme levels of stress due to a toxic work environment, you might actually qualify for FMLA or potentially a sabbatical while you determine your next best steps.

While I would never suggest you take advantage of a situation or lie about your condition, as instructional employees we do have access to weeks of unpaid leave if needed.

I’ve been working with a client in my coaching program for a year who was in the midst of a sabbatical at the beginning of 2022. The stress from her teaching position had taken a huge toll on her physically and mentally, and her doctor told her she needed to take some time away from the classroom.

On the one hand, she hated leaving at the end of the term in December and not being able to make it to the end of the school year.

But she also realized that her school district would be able to find a suitable replacement for her while she dealt with the medical reasons that caused her to leave and processed what the future would look like during her leave of absence.

She made the decision to begin working with me during this period of leave in order to set herself up for success. We created a very specific course of action to help her leave the classroom with grace and begin a new career as an entrepreneur.

While she did return for a few weeks at the end of the school term, she ultimately left her teaching position…but not the teaching profession.

She loved the actual teaching, but she knew continuing in the classroom wasn’t a sustainable option for her. So she pivoted and now teaches others in a variety of ways!

Want a Free one-on-one
Discovery Call?

Understanding where you are currently and how to get to the next level is crucial if you plan to leave the classroom. Let me give you personalized insight into your next best steps!

Now she spends so much time creating a life and a business that she loves and she has told me over and over how glad she is that she left the classroom.

I have shared her situation (with her permission) as an example of how someone took a sabbatical in order to determine what she needed to do next. It wasn’t an attempt to “stick it to the man,” it was a way for her to open up some space in her schedule to reflect on whether her career choice was sustainable long term.

I know I’ve share TONS of information with you today, but my goal is always to make sure you are informed. So while most of us have always considered extended leaves of absence as directly related to maternity or pregnancy leave, now you know more about additional medical leave program(s) including sabbatical leave.

And with the inception of the Family Medical Leave Act (FMLA), your job is protected by specific guidelines and legal safeguards whether that is for maternity leave, parental leave, or serious chronic illness.

So the only question that remains (now that you understand your employment rights) is are you going to pursue taking a leave of absence to give yourself the space to FINALLY decide whether or not to leave the classroom?

I would love to know! Please join me on IG @classroom_exit_strategies and share your thoughts.