Despite the challenges school districts faced over the past few years caused by the pandemic, it’s the time of year when students and educators are excited about what the school year has to offer.
Yet, “made-up” political controversies continue to creep into America’s education systems only to place a wedge between teachers and parents, a relationship that was traditionally cherished and sought after. Now, a small minority of political actors are driving what seems to be a significant movement influencing education policies that dictate what educators can and can not discuss in the classroom.
“You have a profession now that has never been well paid, the conditions have always been hard, but the politics and the real needs have made it much, much, much harder,” said American Federation of Teachers President Randi Weingarten during a webinar addressing what parents and teachers care about most in ensuring student success.
In addition, lingering inequities in the education profession continue to drive teachers out of the classroom. Heidi Shierholz, president of the Economic Policy Institute and host of the webinar, attributes the teacher shortage largely to the pay penalty.
Since the pandemic, jobs in both the private and public sectors saw shortages, yet local and state education jobs are recovering at a much slower rate.
“Right now, by and large, there is money to hire and school districts are trying to hire,” she said. “In the latest numbers, there were almost 300,000 job postings nationally in state and local government education, but they are going unfilled.”
Why? Shierholz explains that it’s becoming much more difficult to find people who are willing to take these jobs under current conditions and wages.
“The level of pay in these jobs means an ongoing struggle for these workers to provide for themselves and their families,” she said.
According to the EPI’s latest report addressing the spike in the teacher pay penalty, the lack of incentive to enter the education profession is quite clear. On average, teachers make upwards of 23% less than their nonteaching peers with the same characteristics and qualifications.
“It’s a wonder we have any,” said Becky Pringle, president of the National Education Association. But the teacher shortage is nothing new, she explains, and neither is the fight for competitive pay.
“It’s a chronic problem,” she said. “We’ve been battling it out forever, it seems. We have far too many of our new teachers leaving in those first three to five years, especially in our schools that need qualified, caring and committed educators the most.”
The solution to these issues, she notes, is right in front of us: respect. But no matter how loudly they shout, teachers’ voices aren’t being listened to, even if they are heard. Instead, Pringle said, educators are being told how to teach by people in power who haven’t set foot in a classroom since they were students themselves.
“We’ve got to think about those solutions from an overarching place of elevating the education profession in a way that demonstrates the respect our educators need and deserve,” she said.
Without hope, Weingarten adds, there will be no progress. And one of the best catalysts for hope is action.
For example, as part of the AFT’s “Reading Opens the World” initiative, the organization has distributed more than 750,000 free books to students in an effort to fight against those who are actively working to ban “controversial” books from libraries.
“You see the joy when kids have a book where they see themselves,” she said. “So instead of social media, shaming, blaming on Instagram with these confession false accounts, they have books at home that they can read.”
“As others are doing rhetoric, we are trying to do this kind of very concrete, tangible action on the ground to restore hope and a sense of belonging and rebuild relationships.”
What’s important for teachers in helping students succeed has been clear for some time now: let teachers teach. But what do parents want from their schools?
Ailen Arreaza, co-director of Parents Together, has asked parents across the country what their children need to thrive academically. She confidently explains that banning books is not on their radar.
“Parents are really concerned about adequate funding, and they’re concerned about safety and security in school,” Arreaza said. “You’ll notice that I didn’t say anything about banning books or censoring what teachers are talking about in the classroom. That’s really not what parents care about.”
She believes these are simply strategies used to “divide and distract” parents at a time when they’re coming out of the pandemic feeling anxious and stressed.
Arreaza is a parent herself who is seeing the effects of the teacher shortage unfold in her son’s school. “I have an 8th grader. He doesn’t have a math teacher this year,” she said. “I am much more worried about that than about him reading a couple of curse words in a book about history.”
According to a recent report from PEN America, an anti-censorship organization, over 1,500 books have been banned in school libraries by political advocacy groups such as Moms for Liberty, US Parents Involved in Education and more.
However, Arreaza cited polling done by Parents Together that reveals 82% of parents believe teachers should talk about race, gender and sexual orientation in school. She spoke with one parent who would rather schools focus on student safety. “What I am really afraid of is gun violence in school,” she said, quoting the parent. “A book about a gay penguin has never caused a child to not come home from school that day.”
Ultimately, strengthening the bond between parents and teachers will set students up to succeed. But first, teachers’ voices must be heard and responded to. Districts should focus on placing their teachers at the center of the conversation. One way they can do this, Shierholz believes, is by focusing on their satisfaction by utilizing federal funding.
“In the short run, COVID relief can and should be used right now to raise pay for teachers and other education staff so that schools can attract and retain the staff they need,” she said.