I was nervous when contract negotiations stalled in Washington state this summer. Sure enough, my fears came true: our school start date was pushed back until teachers could negotiate much-needed raises. Their complaints ring true for teachers around the country – a post-pandemic school year has left them exhausted, underpaid as ever, with expectations from all fronts at an all-time high. They wanted more support, not just salaried resources, but also more social workers and mental health and support staff to better address students’ needs. It made sense to me, and yet, I still didn’t understand how we got to this point of starting negotiations the day before school started when teacher contracts ended in May. To get a better look at the bigger picture, I went outward.
I chatted with teachers from around the US: Kansas, Virginia, and Chicago. While their individual situations are unique, many of the same frustrations ring true.
Note: to protect teacher’s anonymity, names have been changed.
Cameron Richards is a biology teacher in Central Virginia. He teaches eighth grade.
Tina Josephe is a first-grade teacher in the suburbs outside Chicago.
Cristina Armen is a 5th Grade teacher who specializes in reading and ELL (English Language Learning Students)
What are the main three issues impacting your school district right now?
Cameron: The teacher shortage is big in my district. It’s a bit of a misnomer, though. All of our seats are filled in my district, but many of the people filling them are unqualified. I find it very frustrating as a veteran teacher who has had extensive training to be held to the same standard as a random adult from off the street. We have an absolute shortage of support staff as well. There has also been a tremendous learning loss in the pandemic – students are much father behind in their academic progress than in years past, and far behind in personal development – it’s been a historically bad year so far for student misbehavior, and there is no clear or quick path out. Finally, overcrowding. In our district there has been a massive population increase but no new schools have been added. I think the source of the problem is that there are many outside investors interested in building new housing options but the board of supervisors approves them without taking into consideration the school system.
Tina: Our administrators don’t seem to listen to our curriculum needs – they keep adding things to our plate but not taking anything away. We are given requirements beyond what is possible. Next, we are not respected by parents. Finally, right now kids are emotionally and academically behind where they need to be after remote learning, but the standards on the report cards and benchmarks have not been lowered accordingly.
Cristina: First, support staff shortages with paras, bus drivers, aides, kitchen staff, and custodial crew. Schools don’t function well without these support staff members. When Walmart is paying more to push carts, it’s easy to understand why these type of jobs remain unfilled. Next, unrealistic expectations from admin teachers are being told to do things to “check boxes” it takes away from actual planning and instructional time. The sense that teachers have to do it all, but are continued to ask to do more and more is a prime reason why a lot of good teachers in my building are no longer teaching. Finally, teacher pay.I know teacher pay is always an easy thing to throw around, but when my district pays $13,000 less for someone with my experience, it’s hard to find reasons to stay in smaller districts. Compared to someone who has a master’s degree +30 additional hours, I’m making significantly less than I could be in a career outside of education. Combine this with the public sentiment about teachers and it is becoming increasingly difficult to find reasons for veteran teachers to stay.
Has your district or region seen delays in the start of the school season?
Cameron: Thankfully this year there have not been any delays in my district or really any of the surrounding districts. Some of the surrounding areas have had some issues with bathroom policies but mine specifically have not.
Tina: We did not experience delays.
Cristina: No delays this year or last.
How well do you think parents and your community at large understand the struggle of local teachers right now?
Cameron: I think parents/community members are sympathetic to our issues but also don’t realize they are able to help fix some of the issues or at least could help address them. A specific example I can think of is an extended deadline for an assignment. Prior to the pandemic, deadlines were taken seriously and taking points off for late work was a legitimate policy. Now parents demand that all deadlines are flexible and no points should be taken off for late assignments. Since deadlines are a thing of the past many students are unmotivated to do work at the moment which the parents then get upset about.
Tina: Some parents understand, but others seem to think I only have their child. The community views us as hired help, as does our district.
Cristina: I believe that most people have the best of intentions, but most people outside of education have the idea that since they went to schools, they know what’s going on. There is a TON that goes on behind the scenes that parents, kids, and community members don’t see/know. Unfortunately a lot of that “hidden” work is hidden due to student confidentiality issues, so it’s hard to actually share some of this work with the general public.
Are there any school systems domestically or internationally you wish yours would better model?
Cameron: My favorite model of school has always been the public school system in Germany. I think the key difference is that primary education ends two years sooner than the US system and the German system provides more options overall. I think one of the biggest problems in the American education system is its rigidity. The German school system allows for students to make choices earlier in their academic career so they can get prepared for their future sooner. Students are given a wide range of career path options starting in what would be 8th/9th grade compared to my school district where they don’t happen until 11th grade at the earliest. Additionally, it makes it so students don’t have to spend as much time learning material and developing skills they will not use in their future. There are some downsides to the German model but I’ve always liked the basic structure of it compared to ours.
Cristina: I don’t know of any that are doing public schooling better. A lot of countries or private schools have better “return on investments”. But a majority of these schools are also able to say, sorry, your child can’t attend here because of disability, behavior, home language, finances, etc.
Give us your pie in the sky teacher wishlist: what could overhaul the profession for the better?
Cameron: The first thing I would do is have a massive pay increase because the root cause of the teacher shortage is the lack of pay. My other overhaul to the profession would be to create more options for students sooner and make the required amount of school shorter. I think large parts of middle and high school could be condensed to shorten the amount of time in school so that students end school by age 16. As a former middle school teacher a constant problem I had was that students were so far removed from their end goal of graduating that they had a hard time staying motivated but if the finish line was moved up I think they would have greater sense of motivation.
Tina: I wish our professional opinions mattered more to administrators and to our school board. Teachers deserve to be treated with respect. And, we only get $50 to spend in our classrooms. That amount has been the same for over 15 years.
Cristina: Better teacher pay, make teaching profession respected again (I think this would require removing education from the political sphere). I do think we have to be careful to not treat education like a business. It’s not going to ever make financial sense because of the cost of meeting the needs of all learners. I truly believe that using property taxes to pay for education leaves some districts with many more options than others. I know this is an issue, but I don’t have a solution.
Some final thoughts
After watching the overwhelming support from parents during the Seattle teachers strike, the question I come back to is how can we help? How can parents support the educators and administrators that are truly making a difference. I posed that question to another of my Kansas teacher friends to get her take.
I expected her to say “help us out with our Amazon Wish List.” I mean, it is what all of the popular social media influencer moms are posting so that teachers can get the resources they need.
Her answer: advocate for us on the state level.
In many cases around the nation, small education bills are being passed that limit teacher’s autonomy to do what is proven to be best for their students. These bills are not original to any specific part of the country and are nuanced in ways that limit teacher’s effectiveness by restricting if they can survey the students, limiting critical conversations, and more.
These legislative priorities are being shared by a very vocal small section of parents, and yet, are getting the most airplay. A majority of these bills go against research based best-practices, and yet, they’re not getting flagged as detrimental. It’s death by 1,000 papercuts. “I’d ask parents to pay attention to state legislation and ask themselves which kids will benefit from these bills and who isn’t included, because the bills are being more exclusionary than inclusive,” she said.
“It’s exhausting as a teacher to continue to correct others about what is truly taught in our classrooms, and to not be trusted to have conversations that could be messy but a learning experience. I didn’t go into teaching thinking that we needed to fight for our rights as teachers. There is value in teachers fighting for better working conditions, but we’re also worn out.”