Teachers, much like individuals in other professions, have been greatly affected by the current COVID-19 pandemic. Along with facing the challenge of how to best educate students from their living rooms using technology with which many are unfamiliar and many more are just now discovering, teachers nationwide are facing something far grimmer ― the possibility of losing their jobs.
One of the countless consequences of this crisis will be districts across the country slashing their budgets to make up for the lack of local, state and federal funding. This is no secret, nor is it unexpected, or unique to teachers. Millions of Americans are without work and may find out that the jobs they have lost will never return.
The reason, therefore, that I write about teachers in particular (other than the fact that I am one), is that teachers, not unlike nurses, experience an exorbitant level of lip service, not just from lawmakers, candidates and even friends, but also from celebrities. It’s not that we don’t appreciate the praise, the videos, the songs, the shoutouts and the calls for us to be billionaires, we just wish we could get some real change to go along with it.
Even outside of the current crisis, teachers frequently hear that we deserve to be recognized, honored, thanked, celebrated and, most often, paid better. Ask any teacher who has had to divulge their profession at a dinner party and I’m sure they have heard some sort of glowing praise, gratitude or astonishment that they have the patience for such work. This phenomenon has always rubbed me the wrong way, especially since school aid is continually cut, campaign promises are magically forgotten about after politicians take office, and many teachers resort to crowdfunding services, or even paying for them out of their own shallow pockets, to make sure their students have supplies.
It’s difficult to square the celebrity shoutouts with the realities teachers face. The first day I walked into my classroom, for example, the only furniture inside was two filing cabinets. The district I taught in that year was wildly underfunded, part of a vicious cycle of tying school budgets to surrounding income taxes —neighborhoods with failing schools don’t exactly attract wealthy homeowners or business investment, sending these areas into a downward spiral.
Why is it that teachers hear such an outpouring of support from the public, especially powerful voices in the public, yet see little to no action when it comes to better funding and higher salaries?
I’ve taught in schools where some classes took place in trailers, as the budgets didn’t allow additions to the building, and I’ve taught in schools whose art, music, and drama programs could only continue with massive fundraising efforts each year. I, like many others, have sacrificed my livelihood to march in picket lines for pay increases in line with cost-of-living hikes, and I, like many others across the country, have been unable to afford housing within my district at different points in my career.
There’s a disconnect here. Why is it that teachers hear such an outpouring of support from the public, especially powerful voices in the public, yet see little to no action when it comes to better funding and higher salaries?
And it’s not as if teaching is getting any easier. Despite the glowing feedback teachers receive on a regular basis, our jobs are more demanding than ever. We must navigate, along with administrators, an ever-changing barrage of new proposals, initiatives, curriculums, expectations, and responsibilities, often swinging dramatically back and forth with each new Washington regime change. We endure painstaking evaluation processes, some that even tie our salaries to the success of our students.
All of these added expectations have come with few concessions. Federal and state guidelines demand more but offer less ― less planning time, shorter lunch breaks, less time for collaboration and professional development. The praise teachers receive does little to make up for any of this, and rarely matches the reality we see in the classroom.
Despite the fact that many parents are tremendously supportive, teachers are still often the target of undeserved scorn. Some parents feel empowered to demean and threaten us (I, myself, had a mother threaten to go to the school board during quarantine because her child was “bored”). This can leave teachers feeling more scapegoated than supported. The outside pressure can be crushing and demoralizing, even when our principals and colleagues offer assistance and encouragement.
It may seem obvious, then, that many teachers, even before the current crisis, were experiencing higher rates of anxiety and depression. All of this weighs on teachers, who dedicate themselves to doing the best they can in normal times, and have gone above and beyond during this extraordinary time.
So teachers’ plates are spilling over, with less time to steady them, and even less to show in their bank accounts. Teacher salaries, like many other professions, are stagnant, hardly keeping up with increases to the cost of living. Heck, many of us still purchase our own classroom supplies.
According to the Economic Policy Institute data, teachers now receive less money when adjusted for inflation than they received in the ’90s. On top of that, they are now outearned by their similarly educated peers by 18.7%, the largest such gap on record. To make up for this salary stagnation, teachers are going to extreme lengths, including working multiple jobs to get by and even donating plasma to pay their bills. Before this crisis was even on the horizon, teachers all over the country were on strike, not asking for the millions that celebrities suggest they make, but for wages that simply keep up with the cost of living.
Teachers are going to extreme lengths, including working multiple jobs to get by and even donating plasma to pay their bills.
Are there perks to being a teacher? Yes. We know we get the summers off, but we don’t think we should have to donate our bodily fluids to keep our heads above water ― or to ensure our students have the resources they need.
Nor would we like to be laid off, though layoffs are surely coming. Even recent history proves that. During the Great Recession, Nevada’s Clark County School District had to cut 500 positions alone. This time around, it will most likely be more, since the U.S. has already seen the worst rate of unemployment since the Great Depression.
And just like the virus itself, which affects Black and brown communities at a higher rate than others, it’s reasonable to expect layoffs and budget cuts will disproportionately affect these communities as well. School districts serving lower-income neighborhoods, most of which are disproportionately made up of people of color and who already struggle to get their fair share of aid, are likely to be the hardest hit.
Perhaps this is all illustrative of an economic system that props up huge corporations, allows them to buy back their own stocks rather than hire more workers or offer better benefits, feeds off the back-breaking work of the poor and working class, and then continues to funnel more and more revenue to the already absurdly rich. But absent enormous, systemic change, there is a fairly easy solution out there, at least for the short term.
As for those celebrities who post about their love for teachers, suggest seven-figure salaries for them, and offer their undying praise and gratitude ― maybe they could donate some of their own seven-figure salaries to the slew of teachers who are about to be laid off. While we’re at it, what about the Googles and the Facebooks, the Apples and the Amazons (whose CEO’s net worth would be enough to pay the salary of 3.4 million teachers) who provide teachers with discounts, doodles and viral posts? Couldn’t they do (much, much) more?
The average teacher salary nationwide is around $40,000 (though some teachers living in some areas would need more just to pay their rent). So maybe put off buying that next Bugati, keep the private yacht in the marina for the season, stop flying in your sushi from Japan, and maybe just eat cake with your child rather than throwing six-figure birthday parties. Take $40,000 ― or whatever amount you like ― and donate it to your local school district so that these teachers you think should be millionaires can pay their rent, feed their kids and, ultimately, get some peace of mind.
In other words, put up or shut up.
Dustin Connors is an upstate New York native who has been teaching elementary school for 10 years in New York, North Carolina and Washington. He is passionate about reforming curriculum to better address topics like American slavery and Native history. He also directs documentary films, several of which have been screened and awarded in film festivals across the country. He is currently teaching in New York and developing the Children’s Film Institute, a summer and after-school program for students ages 9-12.
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