Supporting Teachers as Parents: The Family Cooperative at BB&N


Gates Foundation
Many people become teachers hoping the schedule is flexible enough to raise a family. In fact, teachers face long, demanding schedules that often force a choice between their job and children.

“I don’t know what to do.” Silence filled the room as the two parents sat over the pile of day care applications and nanny-search services.

“We’ll have to sign up for early drop-off if you’re going to get to work and late pickup if we’re going to be able to get him in time.” They looked anxiously into the nursery where their two-month-old slept.

“How much will that cost? And do you really think he’ll be okay in day care for almost 10 hours? He’s so little,” the mother said, her voice catching.

“It’s going to be at least $2,500 a month, and that’s if we even get in. But a nanny is going to be just as much. Maybe more,” the father replied.

The room filled with silence, neither one wanting to admit the reality that was becoming more and more obvious. Finally, the mother spoke.

“So that’s it. Maybe I just can’t go back to my classroom,” she sighed, “I don’t want to quit, but what else can we do? And really, he’s the most important thing.”

The two sat quietly contemplating the challenge before them.

“I never thought I’d have to leave my classroom,” she said with resignation.
* * *

There has been much conversation in the United States lately regarding the complex art of balancing (and not balancing) work and family life. Amidst the discussions about flextime, quotas, and maternity leave, there has been little voice given to one of the biggest problems for parents: finding quality day care for an affordable price in a convenient location. I wish that the above story were just a fabricated example, but this is just one of the many conversations my husband and I had upon the birth of our son. These stories are real, and they are happening in homes across the United States as we seek to achieve the impossible goal: to care for our children while caring for our careers.

Many parents confront long commutes and logistical challenges in finding high-quality child care that coordinates with a wide range of work schedules. The challenges no doubt lead many workers—primarily women—to drop out of the workplace altogether. This problem has long been present at Buckingham Browne and Nichols, a mid-sized private school, not far from Harvard University amidst the leafy neighborhoods of Cambridge, Massachusetts. BB&N was founded in 1974 with the merger of Browne and Nichols (founded in 1883) and Buckingham (founded in 1889). Our school serves 1,009 children, ages four through eighteen. Many of our 147 teachers are also parents, who juggle complex family lives with their commitment to teaching.

Many who choose to go into teaching hope that it is a career that lends itself to family life. However, what seems like an ideal work environment for creating a balance between home and work life, often does not live up to its promise. The early start of the school day, after school meetings, classroom preparation, and commitments to extracurricular activities often mean that teachers are faced with an even longer working day than the average 9-to-5 job. This reality, combined with the rising costs of early childhood care mean that, year after year, more teachers regretfully leave the classroom, citing the need to care for their families as the cause for their departure.

This fall, Buckingham Browne and Nichols School is confronting this challenge with the creation of their own early learning center, the Family Cooperative, for the children of teachers, created by teachers. Infants, toddlers, and preschool-age children will have the opportunity to learn and grow in a nurturing, stimulating, educational space, close to their parents’ employment. In providing this resource to families, BB&N is responding to this overwhelming need in our teaching community, providing a high-quality learning environment for young children that is affordable and reasonable for their parents. By investing in the Family Cooperative, BB&N is also investing in teachers and their commitment to our school. We are embracing our teachers’ identities as loving parents, as well as educators. By meeting the needs of the teachers as parents, BB&N is allowing educators to commit more fully to their teaching practice, safe in the knowledge that their children are being nurtured and educated in an environment of their own creation. We hope that the Family Cooperative will serve as a model for other workplaces seeking to invest in and support employees as parents as well as workers.

Per_Bentley_Figure2.jpg

Michael Bentley/Flickr
The Buckingham Browne and Nichols School in Cambridge, Massachusetts is starting an on-campus, cooperative child care center to accommodate teachers and staff who are also parents.

Of course BB&N did not invent the model of in-house day care. In-house day care facilities are often found in university settings, as well as government and corporate offices. Many of these work environments offer subsidized child care to faculty, staff, and employees. But not enough companies offer it—and why not? Beyond being a real attraction to draw and sustain talent, it has the potential to improve worker focus and reduce the times workers have to arrive late or leave early to pick up children who are far away. Most importantly, parents are able to monitor and participate in their children’s care when day care centers are located in the vicinity of their workplaces.

The children of BB&N faculty and staff will have priority admission to the Family Cooperative and will receive a discounted tuition. Any other space at the cooperative will be made available to the children of faculty in neighboring schools, ensuring that the school’s income enables it to be as self-sustaining as possible.

As we work on this project as a community, we hope to serve as a model to other U.S. employers seeking to respond to the very real needs of working parents. As costs of living rise and family structures shift, the need for solutions for early education and care become more pressing. The collaboration between Buckingham Browne and Nichols School and the faculty of the school exemplifies the incredible changes that can be brought about when parenting needs are confronted and addressed. We would suggest that this model might be an approach that could be taken by businesses or other organizations that seek to create sustainable resources for employees with families.

The challenges in this process are very real. To begin, the employer must be willing to invest in its employees as whole people whose lives extend beyond the workplace. In recognizing the whole person, the employer positions itself to both support employees and to maximize their productivity in the workplace. When we ignore the families, and the lives outside of the workplace, we limit the engagement of employees, the time they can spend at work, their focus on their jobs, and the longevity of their commitment to their employment.

It is also important to be realistic about the commitment and work required of the employees using these resources. The cooperative model we are developing at BB&N requires a great deal of work and time from each family. The Family Cooperative has come into being through long hours, combined efforts, and shared skills from every resource available at the school. However, as a member of the board, I would say that this effort is worth every minute of time and labor. When I know that every effort goes toward creating a safe, nurturing educational environment for my son, it becomes easy to find time for another meeting, an extra assignment, or yet another fundraising plan. Solutions such as these require a great deal of commitment from both employers and employees to see a broader vision for work and family. When, as in the Family Cooperative, we look to the whole person, employers and employees are able to collaborate in order to create inclusive, effective, sustainable working environments for employees.

Fundraising will always be a part of the Family Cooperative. While we have received great support from our community, the financial realities of creating and maintaining a high-quality early-education center will always be challenging. We see this fundraising work as an opportunity for us to come together as a cooperative community, and for the greater BB&N community to support our efforts. As it stands, our lovely classroom spaces are empty of educators, supplies, and learning materials. It is up to us to make the most of this incredible gift the school has given us and to fill the space with wonderful teachers, creative materials, and learning tools.

As a faculty, we are grateful for the vision and perspective of our school. The debate over home, work, family, family leave, and worker retention rages around us. Too often parents are faced with the unfortunate necessity of abandoning their professions for the good of the family. As teachers, we are faced with particular challenges in caring for our families. Our highly structured hours and total inability to work from home make for a rigid reality when caring for young children. In supporting the creation of the Family Cooperative, Buckingham Browne and Nichols School has supported us as parents as well as educators. They have allowed us to commit more fully to our work as teachers by supporting us as families. We hope that this collaboration will serve as an example of a more inclusive vision of work and family, of effective teaching and parenting within a professional community.