Photo courtesy of Louis Hansel
Some of my most cherished childhood memories stem from the classroom. In the first grade, Ms. Medina transformed our classroom into a tropical rainforest so we could learn about animals, environmental diversity, and weather patterns. In fifth grade, Ms. Moser organized “SQUIRT” (super quiet uninterrupted reading time) days once a month, where we trekked to school with our coziest armor (sleeping bags, pillows, blankets) and tastiest snacks, and set up shop underneath tables and chair forts to read our little hearts out. It’s these fun, memorable activities that made learning engaging for me. In addition to preparing lesson plans, catering to different learning capabilities, and grading endless quizzes, teachers constantly take extra time out of their schedules to go the extra creative mile. They’re our modern-day superheroes.
Our superhero teachers have always had to add extra responsibilities to their to-do list in order to stay on top of trends and ever changing technologies. Many teachers have turned to social media and now have Twitter, Instagram, or even TikTok accounts to communicate with their kids inside and outside the classroom. This isn’t required in their job description; they’re going above and beyond to engage children in new ways and keep up with evolving education needs. As if curating creative, functional social accounts wasn’t already enough to add to their taxing schedules—social media is, as we all know, a full-time job in many workplaces—teachers are now tasked with mastering distance learning in the face of COVID-19.
We’ve always asked too much of teachers, especially given what they're paid, but have we finally piled on the last straw?
Distance learning, a method of teaching remotely online that, because of its spanse, is unprecedented, is a step beyond what was already a step too far. Teachers have had a whole new array of challenges thrown at them—tech troubleshooting, adjusting curriculum to be interactive and exciting online, encouraging student participation from home, helping families get access to WiFi, etc—causing more time to be eaten out of their personal lives as they try to learn and cope. In New York alone, 40 percent of parents are struggling to help their kids participate in home learning due to a lack of devices, and across the U.S., teachers have been struggling to stay in contact with their students due to a lack of sufficient internet access or designated learning platforms sending late messages.
This disconnect has led many teachers to make house calls to encourage their students to remain proactive and complete their assignments on time. Many teachers feel emotionally drained, and I’m sure they’re wishing they could corral all their students back under one roof and get through this together. But that’s not an option, and these teachers are dealing with the effects of being thrown into remote teaching with no previous training or instruction on how to do so effectively. We’re asking a lot of them to teach from a distance, without providing them the proper tools, guidance, or support to do so.
The truth is, it’s difficult for us to even begin to comprehend the depth of teachers’ workload and lack of resources. The vast majority of U.S. teachers (91 percent) take their workload home with them due to a lack of time in their regular work days, and an equal percentage use their own money to pay for professional development and classroom supplies. Some schools even share counselors, which limits the amount of emotional support kids receive—at least until a teacher steps in to wear that hat as well.
All of this, the spending, the schooling, the guidance, is done with markedly low salaries, especially given how many hours teachers are working. Most starting salaries for teachers are below $40,000, and the average salary of all teachers across the U.S. just exceeds $60,000. Teachers have already got 99 problems, and being paid less than other industries is definitely one.
The problem is worse for women teachers than for men, though, again, everyone barely scrapes by. Although teaching is a female-dominated industry, women in education still can’t expect equal pay. A study conducted in Illinois showed that female educators statewide earn on average $7,775 per year less than men in similar roles and notes that there are similar trends nationwide. These frustrations leave teachers feeling like their needs are unrecognized and undervalued—and even led to a nationwide effort to win higher pay and demand increased budgets for public education in 2018. “Although teaching is a profession, the way that teachers are paid looks a lot more like the way we pay blue-collar workers in the United States,” said Jacob Vigdor, a professor at the University of Washington.
Then there’s the stress of managing a virtual classroom, which asks teachers to deal with many of the same challenges as real classrooms, but without as much authority and control. My friend works as a Data and Assessment Manager at a middle school in New York City. As teachers have transitioned to teaching over video calls, my friend has detailed many of the minor mishaps that have arisen. Several kids have set up their “classroom” in the busiest part of their home, subjecting the rest of their classmates to unintended virtual accidents like their mother passing behind them in a sports bra. Or other kids (being kids) aren’t taking online learning seriously and change their names to things like “poop” on Zoom calls. Or when called on to answer a question, other kids will pretend their microphone is broken so they don’t have to answer (as a former extremely shy kid, I couldn’t help but chuckle at that ingenuity). These seemingly small setbacks can start to feel like full-on disasters for already emotionally taxed teachers.
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Is this what teachers signed on for? In some ways, maybe, but in any other industry, we’d be up in arms about the lack of support and lack of increased pay to go so, so far above and beyond what's expected. Why is it okay for us to expect teachers to do so, no problem? Our teachers have always deserved better, but they especially do right now. The end of this school year won’t be marked by fun field trips, bear hugs, and teary waves goodbye through school bus windows. Silly virtual giggles, thank-you cards, and words of encouragement might do for now, but what our teachers really need is benefits and higher pay—not just recognition.