Issue #5: Parent Who Wants to Help

What is it that teachers really want, when everything feels bad?

Dear Kristin,

I know that teachers are dealing with a lot these days.  The pay scale has not kept up with inflation, which means they are being paid less.  Despite this, they are being asked (neigh, demanded) to take on more.  And somehow it's popular to blame schools and teachers on social media.  It's no surprise the profession is struggling to attract and keep teachers. 

What can I do to help show my kids' teachers that I recognize their struggles and that I appreciate them? We have found ourselves in a bad position with education. It feels overwhelming, but I want to help. I know I am not the only parent who must feel this way.

– Big Time Appreciator

Dear Big Time,

How to show appreciation? Your kids’ teachers would love it if you would pay their mortgages. Just for a school year, while your kid is in their class. Would be a major help to them. Can you handle that? No, you were thinking of something less expensive but still effective? Fine.

You may be looking for gift ideas for your kids’ teachers, or prompts for nice e-mails, expressing your admiration for them. Those things are great to receive, however, when I think about what teachers really want, what they really need, well, it’s more along the lines of systemic change. I am going to ask you to dig a little deeper. Especially, if you want to affect teacher retention rates, like you said. We are beyond gift cards and kudos. (But also keep those coming, it never hurts to brighten someone’s day.)

 Respect. Here’s what they want: Respect. If the profession were respected, we would not have the problems you outlined. 

There used to be a time when teaching was a respected career choice. When a call home from a teacher didn’t result in the teacher being yelled at. (I had this happen to me during my first year of teaching and let me tell you, it always stuck with me. I never made a parent call after that when I first didn’t recall the being yelled at scenario.)

You know I love a study and a graph to back up my opinion. Well, I have one, out of Brown University. Girl, look at this title:  The Rise and Fall of the Teaching Profession: Prestige, Interest, Preparation, and Satisfaction over the Last Half Century. And they have graphs! Here’s what they found, in terms of who perceives the profession as prestigious, as well as how many parents want their children to go into education:

As you can see, both have trended downward, steadily, since 2010. Today, not a lot of prestige in the job and no one wants to send their kid off to college to get an education degree. The only good news is that you can see the profession was also pretty low in the ‘80s, but then climbed upwards for the next 20 years.* We are due for a climb back up out of this pit, aren’t we?

And because I can’t have this whole thing be doom and gloom, I want to share how the researchers wrapped up their study with a bit of promise:

“In a recent nationally representative survey, two out of three adults viewed teachers as undervalued, suggesting a broadly held interest in reversing the present trends (Ed Choice, 2022). Placing the current state of the teaching profession within context helps us to see the gravity of the current moment and gives us hope that change is possible.”

—Kraft, M. & Arnold Lyon, M.

More on that hope and how you can be a part of that change in my advice section. Before I get there, back to how the profession is currently perceived.

Big Time, you mentioned it’s become popular to bash teachers online. The disrespect is so pervasive, it’s also happening in person, over the phone, and over email. Yelling at teachers, threatening them has as though they are faceless, interchangeable customer service agents is now commonplace. Teachers are expected to take it and then return to class, continue their work day, caring for and educating kids. Often times, with the kids mirroring their parents’ attitudes, right back at the teacher.

The disrespect can also come from administration, from central office. It can come from every angle, the attitude that teachers are nothing, as though they aren’t highly trained professionals.

In a district I used to teach in, it even comes from their school board members.

This board member is currently holding his position as VP. The school board responded by putting out a statement that they publicly censured him. (It’s as worthless of a statement as it sounds. Basically, they don’t like his actions. They sure wish he wouldn’t have done that.) 

That’s quite a message, coming out of that school district, to its teaching staff. Imagine how the teachers in that district feel, knowing a school board member can behave in that way and still hold his position. It’s a powerful message of complete and utter disrespect.

Pay. Big Time, you also mentioned teacher pay. If our society respected the profession, they would pay teachers better wages. Many teachers have to take on extra duties to subsidize their teaching income. For some reason, our society has decided that this is acceptable. We view it as a choice teachers make, when they go into the profession. Our logic must be, Well, teachers must really love teaching! And since they love it so much, and since it must be so fulfilling and fun for them, it probably doesn’t even feel like work. So, let’s get them at a discount rate and they can take on extra duties to cover their bills.

Why are we okay with this? Teachers need to recover on their time off. They need downtime so they can recharge and show up the next day for their students. They don't need to be putting in dinner shifts as servers or making drinks for tips at local bars, after completing a full day's work. Imagine, going to college, then continuing on to earn an advanced degree, only to constantly have to chase financial security.

Low wages have always plagued education, but what’s the history? Why has it always been this way? According to the same Time article, it’s sexism:

“Teaching has long been dominated by women, and experts say the roots of its relatively low pay lie in sexism. “The ‘hidden subsidy of public education’ is the fact that teachers for many years were necessarily working at suppressed wage levels because they really had no options other than teaching,” says Susan Moore Johnson, a professor of education at Harvard and an expert in teacher policy.

—Reilly, K.

Of course, now women have more options, but teaching wages remain the same. The article goes on to explain that another female-dominated profession, nursing, has figured out how to pay its professionals. Nurses averaged a salary of $89,010 per year in 2023, according to NursingProcess.org. Teachers? They are averaging a salary of $68,469 per year in 2023, according to Education Week. The healthcare system, with its many problems, has figured out how to support the staff it relies the most on:

“Nursing shortages in some parts of the U.S. have led to signing bonuses, free housing, tuition reimbursement and other perks, while teacher shortages have contributed to some states increasing class sizes, shortening school weeks and enacting emergency certification for people who aren’t trained as educators.”

—Reilly, K.

Demands. We are going in the wrong direction, at an alarming rate. As you said, Big Time, the demands for teachers have increased. The profession relies on free labor. School districts expect dedicated employees to stay past their contract times to get their work done. The profession exists in a climate of overwork. Teachers have to push themselves, often past the point of burnout, to keep up with their work. No one is stepping in, no savior, no gatekeeper, to take anything off of teachers' plates. 

Advice. Big Time, I know you are respectful. I know that if you could pay teachers more, you would. You would also happily cut down their workloads, if you could. 

What can someone like you do? Whose heart is with educators? Well, I have two things. And, bonus, they are much cheaper than covering your kids' teachers’ mortgages. BUT, it’s more work than dropping your kids’ teachers an email.

Step 1: You can be a climate changer in your community. Teachers need community members outside of the profession, who are willing to stand with the profession, to speak out.  

As a teacher, I used to hate when I would choose to attend a professional development meeting on a "touchy" topic -- something like equity or race. I would hate it, not because of the subject matter, but because I knew what would come next. My superiors would encourage me to have difficult conversations with my co-workers. They would push me to try to change peoples' way of thinking, explaining what I learned. They wanted to enact change in the building, one conversation at a time. They understood that being told by your boss, hey, you need a perspective change, is quite different than having a meaningful (but hard) conversation with a peer.

Well, I am here to ask you to do the same. I know you have people in your circle who denigrate their kids’ teachers, who rip apart their kids’ schools. Speak up. Don’t be afraid to engage in some conflict. Teachers do not have enough people speaking up for them. If you appreciate them, if you value the profession, you need to go to bat for them.  

Please understand, it’s not about blindly supporting every teacher. As I have said, there are some real duds out there. It’s about standing up in circumstances you believe to be unfair, when teachers are wrongly targeted and mistreated.

Small conversations are not likely to set off a tidal wave of change. But, you might help with changes in perspectives within a small group of people. Push others you know who feel the same as you to do the same. The profession needs all of the positive PR it can get. Individuals supporting schools can turn into small groups, which will hopefully turn into larger groups.

Step 2: Pay attention and vote in your local elections. These raises teachers need? They require votes. You need to get informed. Which bills, which legislatures are going to support your schools, support your teachers? Local elections are crucial for education measures. Read up on what’s at stake for your elections. Vote for your school board members, vote for your local representatives. Not sure who to vote for? Ask an informed teacher. They will tell you who is supporting educators.

You can also help by holding people in power accountable. Reach out to your representatives, let them know what issues are important to you, as a voter. Remind others to contact their reps as well. Show your solidarity. If you live in a state where teachers can strike, support that strike.

As I said, Big Time, I know you aren’t part of the problem. It's encouraging that there are people like you in the world, people who are willing to be a part of the solution. Your kids’ teachers may not know that you are out there, having hard conversations, contacting your local representatives to vote in favor of schools, but they need changes to be made, to be able to continue on in the profession. (You can include a note about your good deeds, along with that Starbucks gift card, if you want.)

—Kristin

*The perception of education was at its lowest in the '80s. It rebounded to its highest levels in the early 2000s. The researchers found:

“Across all the factors we examined, teacher compensation stands out as a primary candidate for explaining the rapid fall and rise in the state of the teaching profession across the 1970s and 1980s. Of course, many other substantial changes to the U.S. education system were also happening during this time. For example, the number of states that adopted mandatory collective bargaining laws tripled in the 1970s, rising from nine to 30 (Lovenheim & Willén, 2019). Districts across the country were also developing and implementing court-ordered school desegregation plans (Johnson, 2019). In the 1980s, prominent reports such as A Nation at Risk sparked national concern about the quality of the U.S. teacher workforce and galvanized a range of reform efforts. Disentangling the role of teacher pay from these other changes is challenging, but the simple time-series evidence we present would certainly suggest that pay represents a possible policy lever for shaping the overall state of the profession.”

—Kraft, M. & Arnold Lyon, M.

Please share Ask a Teacher right here. Or, go ahead and sign someone up to remind them how to support teachers. Get the ball rolling now, don’t wait!

Also, I would love to respond to your questions! Give them to me! 

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