Remember when New Jersey Governor Chris Christie loved yelling at teachers? Long before he orchestrated traffic jams on bridges and became Donald Trump’s lapdog, Chris Christie was a darling of the conservative movement because he loved talking down public school (and largely female) teachers. One clip in particular always stuck out to me.
Rita Wilson (Teacher): You’re not compensating me for my education and you’re not compensating me for my experience.
Chris Christie: Well you know what? Then you don’t have to do it.
In the clip, Christie offered no defense for abysmal teacher salaries- instead, he actually blamed the teachers themselves for signing up for the poor pay and inadequate benefits. In Christie’s world, if you want to complain, step away and someone else will take your job.
In fact, this is the Republican process on destroying government services.
- Decimate funding for a public service
- Watch the crumbling of that public service
- Blame workers of that public service for that failing public service
- Work with corporations/special interests to privatize or eliminate that public service.
With his unceremonious fall from public life (now, he’s reduced to confronting fans at sports games), Christie’s posturing looks ridiculous in hindsight. Yet, it reveals something deep about America’s view about teachers. There is this myth of the virtuous and self-sacrificing teacher who cares nothing of personal gain nor money; this is reinforced by films that show teachers experiencing school-related trauma, getting divorced and getting fired in pursuit of their love for teaching. However, when we teachers ask questions about our own livelihood and needs, suddenly society does not love us so much.
Teachers in 2018 say that enough is enough. We see an upward economy that has record corporate profits and sky-high stock market gains, yet the wages of teachers seem stuck in 1980. Teachers in West Virginia, Oklahoma, Kentucky, Arizona, and North Carolina have yelled “Enough is enough” with marches, protests, and social media campaigns. These protests have worked because they have stripped away the romantic notion of the self-sacrificing teacher and replaced it with a professional vision for what teachers are worth. If this strategy can work in “red-state America,” it can work anywhere.
There are a few statistics that explain what is going on with teachers in America:
- In 2015, American public school teachers were paid 17 percent lower than similarly educated workers. In 1994, this gap was just 1.8 percent.
- Most industrialized countries pay public school teachers more than the United States . As of 2013, 26 of those countries pay teachers more (when compared to similarly educated workers); just 5 pay less.
- In 35 of 50 states, teacher salaries have dropped over the last 15 years (when adjusted for inflation) .
It is clear that teachers have a raw deal. As a young public school teacher myself, this is obvious to me. There is, however, a question that I cannot seem to answer: why are teachers in America paid so poorly?
Teachers are Paid like S*** Because of Sexism
In the excellent book “The Teacher Wars,” Dana Goldstein recounts the history of the teaching profession in America. In the mid-19th century, just 10 percent of American women worked jobs outside their homes . When Catherine Beecher first pitched the idea of women teaching in American schools, she argued that schools could save money by paying female teachers less, saying,
“A woman needs support only for herself” while a man “requires support for himself and a family” .
This idea played into the assumption that women deserve less money for equal labor, and set forth a path for teachers to be underpaid.
Horace Mann, the father of the American public school system, noted that replacing male teachers with female teachers saved the state of Massachusetts $11,000 in one year alone . In 1842, a manual for creating local schools said female teachers were an essential part of a “cheap system” of education and that women would be willing to work for half of what men of the “poorest capacity” would require .
In New York, by 1850, 4/5 of teachers were women, and by 1873, a majority of teachers in nearly all northern states were women . As America increasingly turned to women to teach its children, it simultaneously ‘saved money’ by lowering the pay of teachers. The foundation for horrendous teacher salaries was set.
Goldstein admits in her book that during this era of American history, “teaching became understood less as a career than as a philanthropic vocation or romantic calling” .
This is why Chris Christie told Rita Wilson that she could either accept abysmal teacher pay or give up her job to someone else. Chris Christie did not show Rita Wilson the respect of a worker who was trying to get by on a meager salary in a time of increased cost of living. He treated her as someone who should unflinchingly accept awful conditions because that’s what teachers should do.
We teachers are sacred and romanticized until we ask for reasonable livelihoods and job security. Financial prosperity is not part of the romanticized notion of the selfless teacher. In 2018, teachers must fight together against this notion.
A Nation at Risk…of Having Inadequate Educators
The famous “A Nation at Risk” report released in the 1980s told America that it needed to get its act together on education or else trouble was ahead. Some of the recommendations for getting more professional teachers included “higher base salaries, merit pay to reward effective teachers, and stricter teacher evaluation systems that made it more difficult to earn and keep tenure” .
The “higher base salaries” part was conveniently ignored as evidenced by the fact that average teacher salaries have barely budged since the 1980s. What has proliferated instead has been intensive evaluation systems that tie student test scores to teacher evaluations as well as foolish merit pay experiments. Without higher base salaries, however, the other solutions fall apart.
Things have largely gotten worse for teachers since the 1980s.
Teach for America and other “quick-to-certify” programs de-professionalize the teaching profession and treat teaching as a stop in life towards more important work (Wall Street/law school/corporate ed reform). Many schools and corporations have dedicated themselves to “blended learning” schemes and overuse of technology that intentionally seek to lower the importance of teachers. Flipped lessons occur where students learn on their own at home and do self-guided homework in class…teachers in many American classroom are sadly no more than babysitters/disciplinarians. With decreasing pay and benefits as well as decreasing prestige, is it any wonder that America has a teacher shortage?
And yet, there is so much hope right now because of courageous teachers in Arizona, Oklahoma, West Virginia, Arizona, North Carolina, and Kentucky. Finally, educators are clinging together and fighting back against years of mistreatment and disrespect. There are Facebook groups and Unions and teacher friend groups that are talking. Now is the time for us to unite together- 50 states- and assert ourselves as a force that will not sit back as corporate reformers, big-tech peddlers, and government stooges further de-legitimize our noble profession into a charitable calling stripped of all humanity and dignity.
We must rise up in Michigan, where we teachers sacrificed when times were hard in the mid-2000s. But now that the economy is humming along again and Governor Rick Snyder has made sure to keep taxes on the rich nice and low, it is time to fight for our livelihood so that we can do what we love: teach kids (and cut down on our side-hustles). We will use this time as an opportunity to have an honest conversation about the sexism and disrespect that has led to the de-professionalization of teaching, we will use this time to reclaim our 12.1% pay cut over 15 years, and we will fight the idea that worthless test scores be tied to 40% of teacher evaluations starting in 2018-2019. It is our time in Michigan to take to the streets, to tell our stories and of our hardships, and to march on Lansing and tell Rick Snyder and the legislature to hear our cries for school funding and personal livelihood. As much as Donald Trump, Chris Christie, or believers of the sexist ‘charitable calling’ conception of teachers would disagree, we have earned our right to be respected professionals. Now, we must band together to claim that right.