I didn’t become a teacher with the intention of going deep undercover and spying on the U.S. education system. But for better or worse, that’s what I did for the last 11-plus years. I’ve taught in charter and traditional public schools, in wealthy districts and desperately poor ones. I know teachers all over the country, and despite our different experiences, we all agree that it’s not working.
Some of us still have enough optimism and/or masochism to keep trying, but after last year, I had to walk away. Despite the unprecedented strain caused by the pandemic, for so many teachers, there has been no abatement of professional development, evaluation, or pleas to sub for other teachers from district leaders who choose to gaslight teachers with toxic positivity rather than address their concerns. In my last district, there was no mask mandate and I went home every day to children who were still too young to get vaccinated.
I knew when I decided to pursue teaching that it would be an extremely difficult and mostly thankless job. Former aerospace engineer Ryan Fuller puts it brilliantly in his essay, “Teaching Isn’t Rocket Science. It’s Harder”: “To solve engineering problems, you use your brain. Solving classroom problems uses your whole being.” I gave my whole being for a long time, because I really believed I could make enough of a difference in the classroom that it would be worth the stress. For a while, it was. But the last few years have made it clear that no single teacher can ever make a big enough difference, because she is a cog in a broken machine that wears her down more and more with each year it grinds on. It will never be enough until the people who rely on the machine and take it for granted start giving it the care and maintenance it needs.
Let’s be clear: Educators are not the problem. They are, in fact, the duct tape that holds the whole janky thing together. Duct tape is probably the best analogy ever for a teacher: durable, endlessly versatile, and unbelievably cheap in proportion to its utility. It should be a no-brainer that schools can’t function without teachers, and that they are fundamental to student success. And yet, more and more districts don’t have enough teachers, qualified or otherwise. Google “teacher burnout” and you’ll start to understand why: “‘Exhausted and underpaid’: teachers across the US are leaving their jobs in numbers.” It’s not a new problem, but it’s gotten worse.
Unquestionably, Covid has made teaching more difficult, but in many ways, it has simply exacerbated preexisting issues. For example, the perennial cycle of praising teachers one minute and throwing them under the bus the next was put in comically stark relief by the pandemic. We were heroes for five minutes, when school suddenly went remote and teachers bent over backwards to make it work. But then came the backlash: Pandemic fatigue set in and we had to be the (exhausted) voices of reason about logistics and safety. Even in the “hero” phase, nobody except Will Ferrell wanted to put their money where their mouth is.
Teacher pay is abysmal compared to other professions, and has actually gone down since 2010. And the average teacher more than makes up for “summers off” with hours worked during the school year. According to The Rand Corporation’s 2020 survey, “Among teachers who left primarily because of the pandemic, 64 percent said they weren’t paid enough to merit the risks or stress of teaching.”
One such risk that keeps increasing senselessly is school violence. We’ve all been horrified by the systemic ineptitude revealed by the Uvalde massacre, but if you don’t regularly simulate hiding from an active shooter by crouching silently in a dark corner, you can’t really understand the psychological impact this threat has on students and educators.
I lived through a real lockdown in 2019 with a class of ninth-graders. Rumors swirled that morning about a threatening video on social media. Then, mid-morning, there was an announcement over the intercom that the school was in lockdown. After students helped me barricade the door with a couch and desks, we huddled in my classroom for almost an hour, straining our ears for the sound of gunshots or sirens. I eventually found out police had arrived by crawling to my classroom window and catching a glimpse of officers in bullet-proof vests. Once they had swept the building, another announcement was made dismissing students for the day. My husband was waiting anxiously for me outside, so I went and hugged him before going back into the building to have a staff meeting, where we learned a student had been detained. A week later, I found out I had been pregnant with my second child during the lockdown. Shortly thereafter, when the full force of the trauma finally hit me, I landed in the ER with a massive panic attack, terrified I was miscarrying. (I wasn’t – blessedly, my youngest just turned 2.)
Another huge stress for many teachers? Sucky parents. Don’t get me wrong: Most parents don’t suck. My estimate is that about half of parents are neutral, and another quarter are actively wonderful. But then there’s that last quarter of parents, who are just plain difficult. They seem determined not to allow their children to ever experience anything unpleasant, resulting in some less-than-gracious behavior toward educators striving to prepare students for the real world. Increasingly, this behavior is not only abusive but relentless, sapping the time and energy educators need to do their jobs well for all students.
My most common encounters with these parents were in situations that involved cheating, which has exploded with increased internet accessibility. Teachers know making dumb choices is part of being a kid: our students’ brains aren’t fully developed, and this is the time for them to learn important lessons with relatively low stakes. But this type of parent either refuses to believe their child is capable of doing anything wrong or simply doesn’t want them to face consequences.
I had many experiences like this throughout my teaching career. I never even brought up the specter of plagiarism unless an instance was blatant, and still, many parents would side with their child who denied any wrongdoing, despite all evidence to the contrary. (It’s standard for teachers to require students to submit written assessments to TurnItIn.com, a program that uses sophisticated software to detect matching text from other student submissions and the internet.) This inevitably meant they directed their anger at me, and even at administration, for trying to hold the student accountable. My worst experience was when I was freshly back from my first maternity leave and had just learned that my son might have a life-threatening medical condition. I had parents sending me angry emails and demanding meetings with administration while I was juggling my newborn’s specialist appointments and still pumping during my prep period, lunch break and commute. This was the last thing I wanted to deal with, but they preferred to believe I was malicious rather than dealing with their child’s mistake.
Every time something like this happened, I wondered why it’s so hard for some people to remember that teachers are human beings with feelings and families, too. To ask a question instead of making an accusation. To assume best intentions and come to the table with us as partners rather than adversaries. To realize your child’s version of events may be biased, and that most teachers didn’t get into education to bully kids! Teachers are just so tired of being treated like the enemy.
There’s a reason this kind of behavior has gotten worse in recent years. One teacher reflected recently, “born during the added pressures of a pandemic and divisive political climate, jackhammer parents take their intensive parenting to new heights. [...] They’re not just interested in getting their way; they need anyone who gets in their way obliterated.” Sound familiar? Parental behavior is mirroring broader political attitudes. As such, it has become increasingly common for non-educators to demonize teachers and unions, “diagnose” all the wrong problems, and oversimplify education to justify treating teachers like glorified babysitters.
One example is the troubling trend of increasing class sizes in order to save on teacher salaries. This may seem like simple math, but the reality is more complicated: larger classes come at the expense of educator effectiveness and student success. A well-regarded study from the 1980s found that a “large” class-size reduction “increase[d] student achievement by an amount equivalent to about 3 additional months of schooling four years later.” The study defined a “regular” class as having 22 students, and a “reduced” class as having 15. During this last year teaching high school English, I regularly taught classes between 28 and 35 students. Recent research shows how class size affects teachers’ ability to form relationships with students. In huge classes, it’s impossible to give the individual support students need, and a higher number of students with special academic and behavioral needs means many other students fly below the radar, including the increasing number battling mental health issues.
Recently, a former student of mine who struggled academically and emotionally told me, “Yeah, there was no way I was reading those books [you assigned], sorry. [But] I think the most valuable part of my education was good teachers. Teachers who care [...] The actual curriculum did not stick one bit, even when I tried, but I learned how to learn from teachers who were motivated to teach and help.” For context, this student tried to die by suicide as a sophomore. I’m the person she confided in the next day, the one who called her mom and the school counselor. She hadn’t even been in my class since the year before; she just hung out in my room after school because she felt safe. Many teachers have similar stories; it’s one reason Minneapolis teachers recently went on strike. Most of us believe it takes a village to raise a child, and with good reason. Teachers are not only education experts, but also serve as mentors, role models, coaches and advisers, unofficial therapists, occasionally surrogate parents, and — all too often — first responders. Those are some pretty crucial members of a child’s village.
And yet, there is currently a full-blown cultural war against teachers (and counselors and school board members). It’s not a coincidence that the anti-teacher narrative has grown in tandem with the push for “universal school choice.” The corporate education reform movement is far from organic. The people pulling the strings (and providing the dark money) have a very specific ulterior motive: to discredit the public school system so they can completely privatize education. Ironically, their “indoctrination” accusations and efforts to restrict educators’ professional autonomy are actually in service of their own goals to censor what students learn and gradually eliminate the separation of church and state. If you think I’m exaggerating, read this.
This movement is not democratic. Proponents want to consolidate power over the education system among an even smaller group of decision-makers with different priorities from most Americans. Currently, decisions about how to operate schools are made by school boards composed of district residents — usually elected by other district residents — who, at least in theory, have students’ and communities’ best interests at heart. But when public institutions become vehicles for profit and political influence, shareholders do not historically prioritize the common good.
Public education is in crisis. However, the answer is not privatization but the opposite: Regular citizens need to invest more time and energy in their school districts. An investment could be as small as voting in local elections or as large as running for school board, with lots of options in between. Vote in elections at the state and national levels: Politicians can have an outsize effect on the direction education takes. Attend school board meetings (preferably in-person, since some districts turn off streaming during the public comment section). Talk to teachers about how things are going in the district. (If you gain their trust, you’ll be shocked at the issues they bring up.) Speak up supportively in your community and at your child’s school.
The bottom line is, there is no quick fix here. As a society, we have failed to pay enough attention to public education, and now it’s failing us. Like anything in democracy, the only real, long-term solution for the American education system is for people to care enough to do the hard, sustained work. The truth is, the system has been broken since it began, and teachers have limped it along, martyring themselves for the cause of uplifting children — our nation’s professed “most precious resource” — while making themselves complicit in the process. But now we’re hitting a crisis point; the broken system is breaking teachers faster than they can be replaced. This country needs to start taking them seriously, before it’s too late. I am not exaggerating when I say our future depends on this.
My relationship with teaching has always been complicated. In spring 2016, in what we might call a simpler time, I wrote, “Sometimes I think about quitting teaching and getting a nice, boring desk job. The kind where you can have adult conversations by the water cooler, take longer than 25 minutes to eat your lunch, and don’t feel bone-tired and brain-fried by the end of the day. Being a teacher is grueling. It is so easy to feel inadequate, despite what my Master’s degree, countless hours of professional development, and the Department of Education say. But the truth is, I don’t stay just for what I can teach them. I also stay for what they teach me. About human resilience, and about what I take for granted. I bring them anguish from literature, history, and the news, and they come back to me with hope that things will be better when they are in charge.”
None of that changed in the last six years; the world outside my classroom did. This world has eroded my love of teaching beyond repair. It feels strange not to be in the classroom with school starting again, but when I think about going back, I just feel so, so tired. That breaks my heart and it makes me angry, because I thought I would always be a teacher. But I did not sign up for what teaching has become. And while I’m now in the private sector, I’m not done fighting, and it’s for the very reason I got into teaching in the first place: the kids. They still give me hope, but we can’t expect them to fix this. They deserve better. Now.
Katie Niemczyk is a freelance writer and former teacher who lives in the Twin Cities with her husband and two children. She has a BA in English from Wake Forest University and a Master’s of Education from Teachers College, Columbia University. You can find more from her at her website, on Twitter,TikTok, Instagram and Facebook.