The pandemic sparked more appreciation for teachers, but will it give them a voice in education and their working conditions?
This year’s National Teacher Appreciation Week is happening under the unprecedented hardships that the COVID-19 pandemic has imposed on us. The health emergency forced the closing of schools all over the country, sending over 55 million K-12 students and about four million teachers home for the remainder of the school year.
But amidst the pain so many are enduring is a bright spot: Some teachers feel the appreciation is deeper than ever before.
With so much at stakes in the aftermath of this crisis, this can be an opportunity to turn that appreciation into the fuel that will finally restore the prestige of the teaching profession and improve teachers’ working conditions.
Overnight, the pandemic imposed a radical switch to remote teaching and learning that many hoped would be temporary. We soon learned, however, the school closings would last indefinitely as the country coped with the most severe worldwide public health crisis of our lifetimes complete with dramatic economic consequences.
With the support from parents and communities, teachers and students are carrying on with their respective endeavors as well as they can. In watching them, we’re all reminded of what learning and teaching entails: the mysteries embedded in each of the subjects, the lectures, the assignments, the projects, the questions, among so many others. But we’ve also realized that teaching goes beyond these day-in-and-day-out activities in the countless moments when we saw teachers go beyond the call of duty.
The pandemic has opened many parents’ eyes to the role that teachers play as part of the basic fabric of the safety net—through the provision of school-based supports like meals, health clinics, counseling, and even housing. The results of a recent online survey of about 2,000 parents from OnePoll and Osmo show an increase in appreciation for teachers’ work. The poll found that, “80% have newfound respect for teachers; 77% believe that teachers should be paid more; 69% believe being a teacher is harder than their current job; and 53% will take a greater interest in their child’s education after the stay-at-home mandate concludes.”
Of course, even before the pandemic, Americans gave high ratings to their local public schools and had positive memories about their own teachers’ influence on their lives. But, nevertheless, over half (54%) of respondents to the 2018 PDK poll on the public’s attitudes toward schools said they wouldn’t want their child to become a teacher (a record high since the question was initially asked in 1969).
This crisis, however, may provide a serious opportunity to bridge the gap between the strong appreciation, in theory, and the challenging working conditions for teachers, in practice.
To do that, we all need to understand the reality of what teachers have faced on the job. Here’s a summary of research on these issues from EPI and other sources that describe the real working conditions and also how their jobs and education overall are affected by recessions.
- experience a significant pay penalty relative to other college graduates: teachers earned, on average, 21.4% less than their comparable peers in 2018, a gap that has grown nonstop for more than 20 years
- moonlight at high rates: 18.2% performed extra work for pay outside of the school system to supplement their salaries in the 2015–2016 school year
- face substantial barriers to teaching and tough school climates: between two and three in 10 teachers believe that students coming to school unprepared to learn (27.3%) or that parents struggle to be involved (21.5%) are serious problems for the school
- lack influence and see that their knowledge and judgment is not taken into consideration for daily aspects in their classrooms: more than two-thirds of teachers report that they have less than a great deal of influence over what they teach in the classroom (71.3%) or what instructional materials they use (74.5%)
- don’t feel that the relationships between teachers, administrators, colleagues, and parents are fully supportive: fewer than one in three teachers affirm that they are recognized for a job well done (32.4%), and only 13.3% of teachers affirm that they receive a great deal of support from parents for the work they do
- lack the supports that help teachers adapt to changing conditions, continue their professional education, and collaborate with one another: small shares of teachers the types of professional development that are highly valued and more effective, such as university courses related to teaching (26.6%), or present at workshops (23.1%).
Based on our experience of the Great Recession, here’s what we can expect in coming months—and likely years:
- the severe budget cuts in the aftermath of the Great Recession led to the loss of thousands of jobs in education, and to a growing teacher shortage
- about half of the states were spending less per student than prior to the recession, suggesting that many states will be entering this recession in a more difficult position than they entered the previous on. This wasn’t good news for outcomes for students, or for teachers
- it will be unavoidable that education experiences some downturns as we get through and over the pandemic. There are already estimates that alert us about the forthcoming decrease in education funding for districts and in teaching positions to be expected in the aftermath of the pandemic
- cuts will challenge that the critical investments needed to provide teachers and students with the supports required (including having a highly qualified and respected teaching workforce) are made. Teachers showed how these mattered in their decided collectivism and protests these years.
Experience tells us that teachers will be there to ensure that students are taught and schools reopen, which is essential to allow for an economic recovery. Policymakers and educational leaders will need to work to provide teachers with the working conditions and resources they need to fulfill their important mission as educators, which will certainly have a special meaning in the aftermath of the pandemic. This may be a unique occasion to act on this newfound appreciation for teachers to grant them more standing status at the table discussing education, working conditions, and their own role in the epidemic’s aftermath.
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