It started with insomnia. Then skin changes. Then hot flashes, followed by anxiety for no particular reason.
“It’s miserable,” said Pilar Vazquez-Vialva, an assistant superintendent of educational services in the Morgan Hill school district, near San Jose, Calif.
“I feel like my body is never regulated,” she said. “I go from being hot to cold within a two-minute period. Outside of the body regulation, it’s been the memory—just the foggy memory. Not being able to complete a sentence.”
Vazquez-Vialva, 48, who is two years into menopause, has a fan on her desk and a small heater on the floor, which she puts on several times a day. “They switch,” she said.
She is among the hundreds of thousands of women working in K-12 schools who are experiencing the menopausal transition. The teaching profession is dominated by women in their 40s and 50s. Yet—as in the private sector—the word menopause is rarely mentioned publicly.
“The aging process itself is very hard for some people, and so this idea of you sharing this information with your colleagues and your supervisor is kind of an awkward situation,” said Nicole Carter, the principal of Novi High School in Novi, Mich., who has been an administrator for 16 years. “The fact that you are having hot flashes, the fact that you may be gaining weight as a result of something ... I don’t think it’s necessarily one of those topics that people feel comfortable talking about.”
But some advocates say that school and district leaders should be talking about menopause. Accommodations and support systems can make women’s working lives easier—which could keep them in the profession longer at a time when administrators are grappling with higher principal and teacher turnover.
The average U.S. teacher is 43 years old. Perimenopause, the yearslong transitional period before menopause, tends to begin in women who are in their early- or mid-40s. The average American woman will experience menopause at age 51—several years before many teachers retire.
Most women school leaders will also likely go through menopause during their tenure: Nearly 70 percent of public school principals are older than 45. Female superintendents and central office staff are affected, too, because women tend to get to these positions later in their careers.
Common symptoms include hot flashes, trouble sleeping, and difficulty concentrating. These symptoms can make it harder for teachers and principals to do their jobs. Often, teachers who are struggling with symptoms will take more sick days, reduce their hours so they’re part-time, or even retire earlier than planned, said Helen Clare, a menopause educator for schools in England.
“These are experienced teachers who have a great deal of value when it comes to the role model that they offer younger staff, and the support they very often offer the whole school,” she said. “It’s quite a significant loss.”
As a menopause educator, Clare facilitates workshops and support groups for menopausal staff and helps school leaders design policies and supports. Her role is indicative of a growing movement in Great Britain for schools to better support educators who are experiencing menopause—part of a larger trend to create “menopause-friendly workplaces” for an aging population.
That effort hasn’t caught on to the same extent in the United States yet or specifically in schools, but the U.S. corporate world is starting to pay attention.
Half of peri- and post-menopausal women say that menopause has negatively impacted their work life, according to a report released this month by Bank of America, which surveyed 2,000 female workers in the United States. Only 14 percent said their employers recognize the need for menopause-specific benefits.
But when menopause-specific benefits are offered, most women say that they have had a positive impact on their work.
Making it a conversation
The best way to support menopausal educators, the experts say, is to start an open conversation. Teachers should know that management is sympathetic and aware of potential symptoms. And they should feel empowered to ask for the support they need.
However, that will require a significant culture shift.
“It’s just not a regular part of society. It’s not normal to be like, ‘Oh, let’s have a menopause group,’” said Kory Graham, a longtime elementary teacher who left the classroom in 2019. “If it was advertised, it would become the butt of jokes, or people would feel awkward, but it would be great for schools to do that. Maybe if they did get started, there would be more acceptance of it.”
During the pandemic, Graham, 54, started a virtual book club with other female educators in their 40s and 50s. The women, who called their group Menoposse, read the book The Menopause Manifesto by Jen Gunter and met a handful of times over Zoom to discuss the book and their own experiences.
“There was a lot of, ‘I didn’t think anybody else went through something like this,’ or a lot of, ‘That’s great to hear that; that’s going to help me just to feel supported and encouraged by others,’” Graham said.
Even if a menopause group at school only meets once or twice and has a handful of participants, she said, it’s still helpful to connect with other educators who are going through the same thing.
To foster these types of conversation, menopause support could be incorporated into school wellness committees. Districts could provide information and resources about navigating menopause to staff through their employee assistance programs—and by publicizing wellness programs they already offer.
“We have programming that, by design, would help with some of the changes folks are experiencing in their bodies, but we don’t specifically advertise that to women, specifically, who are perimenopausal, menopausal, or post-menopausal,” said Jacqueline Broderick Patton, the wellness coordinator in Columbus City Schools in Columbus, Ohio.
The district also offers wellness initiatives, like a mindfulness and movement course, designed to address changes in the body; yoga and other behavior modification classes; and health coaching to set smart goals around nutrition and physical activities. All can help women manage some of the symptoms of menopause.
“People might not make the connection,” she said, but participation data show that employees over 40 are taking advantage of the movement and mindfulness classes.
Sabbaticals, which are available to all employees experiencing individual challenges that significantly impact their work life, can also be used by women who are experiencing severe symptoms that may disrupt their jobs, Patton said.
Thinking through these supports starts with a basic commitment. Sarah Alex Carter, a well-being coach and consultant for schools in South Wales in the United Kingdom, tells administrators to create a “menopause charter”—an official policy specifying the supports available for menopausal educators.
“It becomes embedded in the culture,” she said. “This is who we are, this is what we represent. These are our values, and the value we place on our female workers.”
From there, school leaders can make individualized accommodations for teachers who need them.
For example, one of the hallmark traits of perimenopause is irregular periods. Yet most teachers don’t have reliable access to the restroom during the school day. School leaders might consider rearranging the schedule or arranging for teachers to call in someone to cover their class for a few minutes if they need to run out, Clare said. And they should make sure bathrooms are stocked with menstrual products, she added.
Another accommodation might be providing a fan to teachers who are having hot flashes and need one, Clare said. Anywhere between one third and one half of U.S. classrooms don’t have adequate—or any—air conditioning, and the school year is getting hotter.
Acknowledgment is key
Vazquez-Vialva recognizes that even though it’s been a difficult journey, she’s in a more privileged position as a district leader.
She took a sabbatical last year, from November through January. She can shut her office door if she’s experiencing menopause-related symptoms and needs privacy. She can also cancel meetings if she’s not feeling well. Most teachers, by contrast, can’t do those things.
“If I am a teacher and I am having a hot flash in a class of 36 [students] or I feel shaken, for whatever the reason is, to my core, what do I do if I am in the middle of engaging young minds?”
She has been open about her experience, but she thinks districts generally need to attend to spaces in which women can discuss the changes they go through as they age.
“It’s just the recognition that women biologically have different needs because they experience different things than biological men,” Vazquez-Vialva said. “It’s not to compare at all, to say we should just have this extra [support]; it’s not that. It’s just saying this is the reality for women.”
Manuela Haberer, a veteran educator who is now the head of school at a San Antonio, Texas-run pre-K-4 program, said she has made it clear to her teachers that they can come to her about anything they’d like her to know about. Some women have talked to her about needing time to go to medical appointments and about various therapy treatments they were trying to ease menopause-related symptoms.
But has she ever used the term menopause openly in school, not behind closed doors? “No,” said Haberer, who is 45.
Teachers may have felt more comfortable talking about their experiences with a female supervisor, said Haberer, but many don’t have one. While women make up the bulk of the teaching force—about three-quarters—they account for only 56 percent of principals. Superintendents are mostly men.
With female principals, “at least I would feel like if I did ever have a situation where I had to say to her, ‘You know, I’m having these hot flashes; I’m really hot. Do you think we can get a fan?,’ they would be very welcoming and receptive to that,” said Graham, the former teacher. “[I] would never feel comfortable talking to any of the men principals that I have had with something like that.”
Haberer has also offered flexibility for staffers to keep their medical appointments and other practical accommodations, allowing one to use a classroom fan despite the district’s energy-conservation efforts, for instance.
Such off-the-books support for and from female educators is not uncommon, Carter said. When her secretary was going through menopause, she gave Carter a heads-up on the symptoms to look out for, as she, too, was getting older. Older teachers have also shared their experiences—and wisdom.
Still, advocates say it’s time to have these conversations publicly.
“We’ve come through a generation of women who’ve been told to just get on with it and not make too much of a fuss about it—we’ve just got to grin and bear it. We’re coming out of that now thankfully into more of an awareness of what actually happens through perimenopause and menopause,” said Carter, the U.K. well-being coach. (She is not related to Carter, the Michigan principal.)
“It shouldn’t be a political issue and it shouldn’t be a feminist issue,” she added. “I firmly believe that it should be something we talk about as part of our lives rather than something we feel we ought to fight for.”