Do Your Homework – Why We Need to Value Teachers More in the US
Dominating the news cycles these past few months have been stories of teachers striking or threatening to strike. In Pittsburgh, a teachers’ strike was averted with the help of intense negotiations at the eleventh-hour. All across West Virginia, teachers went on strike all throughout the state, shutting down schools for nine days before state lawmakers finally acquiesced to their demands. Galvanized by West Virginia teachers’ success, educators in Oklahoma have voted to authorize a strike beginning on April 2nd if their pay is not increased, and Arizona may not be far behind.
While a large issue in these strikes has been meager pay increases that fail to keep up with inflation and growing costs of living as well as cuts to benefits, these issues are reflective of a deeper problem. In a capitalistic society where wages denote a perception of value, the hesitancy to invest in our teachers and our education represents a devaluing of both. Increasing the pay of our teachers immediately improves their ability to live and work and benefit their students, but it must be accompanied by a fundamental shift in how we perceive the profession of teaching itself.
Teaching is not afforded much social status in the US compared to other countries. While teachers are held in same high regard as doctors in China; as nurses in France, Portugal, and Turkey; and as local government officials in Japan, we in the US tend to view our teachers as similar to librarians at best, and as replaceable cogs in an education-factory at worst. No value is placed on the expertise, the long hours, or indeed the crucial influence of teachers, even as we ask them to dedicate their lives to our children and our future.
The low social status of teachers in the US also reflects a lack of value placed on a quality education. The US has a strange and paradoxical view of education where we push overpriced secondary education on our children as compulsory, but view expertise and knowledge with skepticism. We then wonder why it is that the US consistently falls behind in education compared to other countries. We sneer at educators, repeat the maxim: “Those who can’t do, teach” and wonder why our best and brightest aren’t taking on positions to pass down their knowledge. We wonder why our children don’t respect their teachers or take a more active role in their education when we utterly fail to teach them how to make the most of their education.
Teachers in the US are often placed in a no-win situation where they are blamed for the failures of our education system but also denied power to effect any changes. Teachers are given little autonomy, often are unable to teach the subjects they specialize in, and rarely compensated for investing their time in extracurricular activities. The credibility of our educators is constantly in question, and we fail to see them as what they truly are: professionals and experts in the field of education. Even when we recognize that educators may have valuable suggestions for education reform, we fail to prioritize these changes as investments in the future of our country.
This is most clearly realized in policies regarding public education. While the media largely focused on the issue of wages and health insurance, teachers in West Virginia were also fighting against other bills that reduced their job security and weakened the efficacy of public education in the state. These include expanding charter schools (which have dubious success as alternatives to public education), weakening their unions, and eliminating job security based on seniority. Teachers in Oklahoma similarly are fighting not just for their dues, but also for better educational policies and smaller classrooms. 95 school districts in Oklahoma have a shortened school week due to lack of funding, and the state continues to lose teachers as their class sizes grow. The Pittsburgh Federation of Teachers, in their negotiations with the Pittsburgh Board of Education, were seeking to guarantee more resources for early education and to maintain the autonomy of educators.
By seeking to frame the narrative only as a struggle for higher pay, opponents of greater education justice attempt to portray teachers as self-centered and entitled. They accuse teachers of being selfish and harming their students when they strike, ignoring the fact that it is usually teachers who work with local organizations to secure accommodations for the vulnerable. This rhetoric can be clearly seen in Governor Jim Justice’s response to the West Virginia strike, where he emphasizes “All the focus should have always been on fairness and getting the kids back in school.” This wording is insidious as it implies that the teachers were not acting in the best interest of their students, that they were not combating policies that harmed the education of the kids. The focus should not be on just “getting the kids back in school,” but on revitalizing their schools and making sure that they are getting the most out of their education.
There is still an issue in the US of appreciating the value of a quality education. We seem to be merely content to put children through a learning factory filled with interchangeable machines that dispense knowledge in regular, regimented parcels. Contrast this with the South Korean view of teachers as “nation builders,” or the UN’s recognition of education as crucial in eradicating poverty and hunger, as well as establishing ideals of non-violence, equality, and mutual respect. One of the fundamental aspects of a good education system are good teachers, but in order to have good teachers, we have to first show that we respect and value their profession. We have to be willing to listen to our educators and support them as allies in our struggle for a better country and a better future.
Stephen Lin is a poet and currently attending the University of Pittsburgh. As a Pittsburgh native and first generation American citizen, he has always been drawn to questions of the role of communication in the cause for social justice. He is a writing intern for Three Rivers Community Foundation.