When not a college student, I work part-time as a summer teacher at an elementary school in the Washington, D.C. Metropolitan area. In my experience working with rising first-grade students, I have witnessed the systemic problems schools face amidst the Great Resignation and return to a “normal” school year. Teachers and students face a challenging school year as schools struggle to staff their classrooms and support their workers.
Long-term failure to recognize serious needs
For decades, the American education system has disregarded the needs of teachers. Once tolerating meager pay, demanding work, and constant threats and criticism to their safety and curriculum, teachers are now quitting in droves, leaving a large hole in the education labor force.
As the fall semester begins, schools nationwide brace for severe staffing shortages. An estimated 2.6 million teachers left their jobs in the early months of the labor movement, the “Great Resignation.” That number will continue to rise as unsatisfactory pay and labor conditions fail to change. In a woman-dominated education sector, we can expect that women teachers will be left to manage the extra work their colleagues have left behind.
I draw from my own teaching experiences as a self-identifying woman and research the current problems schools across the country face when planning for the upcoming school year. Most of my colleagues were women of various ages, racial identities, and socioeconomic backgrounds. We commiserated over the hard work and meager pay of maintaining the safety and positivity of elementary schoolers. The main problem we worked through was understaffing. Even our school, a private institution with a wealth of resources compared to most schools in the country, struggled to recruit teachers and administrative staff. Occasionally, my supervisors have asked me to take on administrative duties, including managing supply orders for kindergarten classes. Other times, the school heads asked colleagues in administrative roles to teach classrooms without assigned teachers and run carpools. Nearly everyone I knew took on additional work, but no one received additional pay for it.
Low pay, lack of support are demoralizing teachers
Teachers who identify as women carry an unequal share of the work. Since the 19th century, women have dominated the education sector. Along with nursing, homemaking, and secretarial work, teaching was once one of the few socially accepted jobs a woman could pursue. Job categories where women dominate are traditionally low paid and contribute to the persistent gender pay gap.
Today, women make up 76% of teachers in the United States. Yet, most are overlooked for career-advancement opportunities, i.e., becoming administrative heads who receive a higher income. Not only are women assuming some of the most challenging teaching roles, but they also, on average, receive the lowest pay. Most women teachers also teach primary education in a sector which correlates younger student ages with a smaller payment. Indeed, middle and high school teachers receive higher wages than elementary school teachers, even though older children typically do not require the same level of monitoring, bathroom clean-up, and communication facilitation as young children.
The understanding of teaching as a low-paying job dissuades people from entering the education sector. The pandemic, which forced teachers to transform their classrooms into remote and hybrid settings, further aggravated the education system’s tense relationship with its labor force. Teachers responded to the lack of support and polarization of in-person teaching during the pandemic by resigning or retiring early. Since then, schools have struggled to recruit. Schools around the country are attempting to recover from the problems the pandemic deepened, with schools in low-income districts suffering the most. Unable to offer basic resources, much less a wage increase, schools in impoverished neighborhoods struggle to fill teacher vacancies. As a result, teachers in underprivileged schools will be the most unsupported this school year as stagnant wages continue to repel new recruits. To many educators, school administrations have long neglected them, with the pandemic serving as the final insult to overburdened and underpaid teachers.
Fortunately, wages increased with inflation at my elementary school, ensuring that the value of our modest income had not decreased further than elevated the cost of living. But we also had to work more than in other years since many of our classrooms lacked teachers. Indeed, I was in charge of one of the largest classes in a compressed classroom, often working over 40 hours a week to develop and prepare for the week’s lessons on my own. Without the necessary assistance from their colleagues, teachers across the country can also expect to be working more hours this year. The presence of women in the teaching workforce continues to be constant and at a greater proportion than men, suggesting that the teachers picking up the extra work this school year will primarily be women. As a result, the value of their already-low salary will drop while teachers take on even more work that their paychecks will not reflect.
Unrealistic demands of teachers
Although child development experts agree that primary school education is central to children’s healthy psychological and social development, primary school teachers are among the poorest compensated workers in the U.S. labor force.
What is more, most teachers have or are pursuing advanced degrees, particularly master’s degrees. Many teachers also require a second job to pay for basic necessities. Usually, career choices that require advanced degrees ensure a higher salary. Yet, teaching is unique: it is a job that demands individuals enter debt to obtain the educational requirements necessary to pursue their careers in the field, but will not pay them enough to repay said debt. If the sentence is difficult to read, it is because the thought behind it — that the cost of teachers’ degrees is worth more than their salaries – is illogical and ludicrous.
Given teachers’ financial sacrifices, do we genuinely expect overworked teachers to take on more duties without adequate compensation?
In my experience, teaching can be a thankless, exhausting, and stressful job. The mere understanding that I was responsible for the wellbeing and safety of over fifteen kindergarteners who are their own energetic, often stubborn people provoked my anxiety. But it is vital work. And knowing that the majority of teachers are women, a historically underpaid group, fuels the need to address the current hiring problems impacting education. If we cannot support teachers, how can we expect them to provide support, education, and compassion to children?
Fundamental problems must be addressed
Supporting public schools and programs is critical for ensuring that teachers and students can teach and learn. School districts in New York and Iowa are investing in teacher wellbeing by reallocating funds for wage increases and retirement benefits. Not every school district will be able to provide additional monetary compensation to their teachers. But even showing compassion is a meaningful way to demonstrate appreciation for a teacher’s work.
While people can show support on a local level, we must also strive for larger, systemic changes to the American education system. Educators face multiple problems, including school safety from gun violence, Florida’s recent legislation targeting LGBTQ+ teachers and students, and the pandemic’s impact on student learning. Understanding that the majority of teachers are women reinforces how the political problems facing schools today fall unfairly on women. Therefore, advocates for gender equality must consider implementing safeguards for teachers as a feminist issue. Acknowledging how teacher shortages particularly impact women workers forces schools and the public to consider the gender-based economic disparities in education. How can teachers face or attempt to address the current problems impacting schooling without greater political or economic support?
I admit that not everyone is qualified or prepared to be a teacher. But we must do more to support the workers contributing to children’s development and education. Despite its challenges, teaching has been a fulfilling and reflective experience for me. Watching my colleagues do the most to ensure a positive, educational experience for their students compelled me to acknowledge the problems impeding their work. There are many problems impacting schools that have recently dominated the political battlefield. But regardless of what they are or where you stand on them, the current state of our education in the U.S. is unsustainable, especially for teachers.
Sonia Hernandez, Accounting Intern