Why does our society expect so much sacrifice from teachers?
Rebecca Kolins Givans argues the impetus for scapegoating teachers is corporate. Teachers unions are one of the few remaining bastions of labor power left. There’s a lot of money to be made if more public ed dollars could be funneled to charter schools.
Schools have struggled with staffing during the Great Resignation. This is a particular, immediate crisis, especially since omicron is the giant heavy refrigerator that broke the camel’s back. But it’s also a long-term problem caused by decades of underpaying and demonizing educators. How much abuse can you heap on before they leave the profession? We’re finding out that the answer is a lot — but not infinite amounts.
Schools were facing ominous numbers even in October. An Education Week survey that month found that 77 percent of administrators said their schools were facing staffing shortages. Twenty-five percent said shortages were severe. And 15 percent said they were very severe.
Districts were especially short on substitute teachers, but there were also shortfalls of bus drivers (68 percent) and full-time teachers (48 percent). As of November, NBC News estimated school employment numbers were 400,000 people below where they should have been.
Things have only gotten work since the omicron hit.
Staff have been ill. Teachers and substitute teachers are afraid to go into school. Some have looked at their school’s poor mitigation efforts and resigned. As a result, principals have been called in to teach classes. So have (completely unqualified) members of the police and national guard. Ohio schools cut degree requirements for substitute teachers. The US Department of Transportation allowed states to waive some license requirements for bus drivers.
Teachers and staff are being told to put their health at risk for students. They’re also being told to do it for the economy.
As the Rockefeller Foundation, which advised the Biden administration explained, “tens of millions of adults cannot work effectively, or at all, until their children are back in the classroom consistently.”
Some teachers have unvaccinated children or immuno-compromised loved ones at home or are immunocompromised themselves. We’re asking a lot. You’d think administrators and officials would ask nicely.
But instead, the pandemic shortages and heightened risk for teachers have led to an outpouring of vitriol directed at educators.
Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot was particularly incensed when the teacher’s union voted to shift to remote learning until the district could put in better mitigation protocols. She locked teachers out and said they had “abandoned their posts and and they abandoned kids and their families,” as if teachers are soldiers who should expect to die.
Public health professor Leana Wen represented the more-in-sorrow-than-in-anger approach. She sympathized with teachers, but scolded them for their “extremist” positions.
Condescension and anger directed at teachers is nothing new. For decades, politicians and pundits have blamed the failure of public schools not on ongoing segregation and immoral and egregious inequities in funding, but on teachers and their unions.
Rebecca Kolins Givans, a scholar of labor relations, reported in 2014 that bashing teachers unions had been popular with Republicans for many election cycles. Leading Democrats like Obama Education Secretary Arne Duncan and Washington, DC, high schools chancellor Michelle Rhee also made a name for themselves by targeting teachers.
Givans argues the impetus for scapegoating teachers is corporate. Teachers unions are one of the few remaining bastions of labor power left. There’s a lot of money to be made if more public ed dollars could be funneled to charter schools.
Givans points out that reliance on property taxes means voters see themselves as directly paying for teacher salaries. The funding structure makes them feel like teachers are taking money from them, which incentivizes them to identify with bosses and against educators.
Taxpayers feel gouged because taxpayers always feel gouged. The truth is, though, teachers in the US are not paid especially well, and inequitable funding means some are paid even worse than that.
Recent studies found that teacher salaries are 14 to 25 percent lower than salaries for other professions available to college graduates. Many teachers, especially in states without strong unions, like Florida, make less than the living wage. Colorado teacher average salaries were a full 25 percent below that state’s living wage.
Because teachers are relatively well-educated, and because they work with children, they have also been a target of right-wing moral panics.
The most recent is the attack on “critical race theory.” CRT has become a right-wing euphemism for any suggestion that racism has had an influence on the culture or policy of the United States in the past or the present. Nine states have passed laws banning CRT; at least some teachers have already been fired for attempting to address issues of racism. Books by Black authors have been banned. Teachers are afraid to run afoul of the law in addressing subjects like the J6 insurrection.
So, to sum up, teachers in many parts of the country are poorly paid political punching bags expected to risk their lives in unsafe working conditions and are excoriated when they protest.
Why would anyone want to take this job again?
There are obviously upsides to teaching too. Teaching can be rewarding. Many teachers like working with children. Many are passionate about their subject matter. For teachers who have school-age children, the job means they’re free to provide child care in the summer. And in places where there are union protections, teaching can be a decent, relatively stable income.
But covid and the ensuing Great Resignation is reminding us that at some point even for teachers the bad outweighs the good.
If we want intelligent, energetic, passionate, caring people to go into teaching, we need to provide them with just compensation, even when (or especially when) they are in poor schools or anti-union states.
Otherwise, our schools, children and society will continue to suffer.