It’s been almost a decade since I left the education frontlines. While I loved teaching, I don’t think I could go back today. It’s not the classroom or kids, it’s the working conditions.
For years, teachers have organized to make lovable work livable. They have fought for higher wages so second jobs aren’t needed, bills get paid, and vacations are possible. But today, teaching doesn’t seem livable or lovable. Since the pandemic started, teaching has gotten progressively harder and the working conditions more harmful.
Today, education faces an unprecedented workforce crisis—one that includes and extends beyond the need for better pay and benefits. Core issues of job quality, safety, recruitment, and retention have been created or intensified by the pandemic. More than half of America’s teachers think about or plan to quit. Many say the work has become life-sucking and life-threatening.
Educators everywhere are burning out, getting sick and not even able to take time off, because there’s no more left. They are constantly hammered by parents and community groups, with their professional expertise called into question by those without teaching experience. Now politicians are trying to censor, monitor, and report teachers—filing bills and executive orders that require microphones and cameras in classrooms, and lesson plans available for public review and approval.
This is not a professional development issue, it’s a workforce issue. Educators are a workforce operating in a toxic work environment.
As we enter long-COVID recovery, the educator workforce must be prioritized in discussions about the economy and jobs. Here is why: The educator workforce makes local economies work; the educator workforce makes families work; and the educator workforce prepares the future workforce.
The Educator Workforce Makes Local Economies Work
Where I live, most families have at least one parent or caretaker working for the local schools. These families depend on the school district for their children’s education and their own employment. In many of America’s small towns and rural areas, the school district can be the largest local employer. This makes the health of the local economy dependent on the health of the public schools.
When politicians and policymakers talk about jobs, they often focus on “high growth” industries. These are fields like advanced manufacturing or biotechnology that predict more jobs over time. While education may not be considered high growth, it is high value. It is also durable. Teachers will not be replaced by robots anytime soon. Education work still requires a human touch. For local economies to work, this durable work must become endurable.
The Educator Workforce Makes Families Work
Parents and caretakers need their kids in school. Not only for the kids’ benefit, but for their own. When my children are home, they need my time and attention, making it hard and sometimes impossible to get work done. At certain points during the pandemic, I had to take off work to take care of my kids. Parents and caretakers rely on schools as childcare. With kids in school, parents can work.
When politicians talk about jobs, they promise residents good work that allows people to take care of their families. For parents and caretakers, this requires dependable childcare. For school-aged kids, that childcare is school.
Keeping schools open requires that they are fully staffed. Omicron brought a temporary spike in school staffing shortages and many schools had to shut down. This left parents and caretakers in a scramble for childcare and alternate work plans. Imagine what happens if shortages become permanent.
The Educator Workforce Prepares the Future Workforce
Today’s educators are preparing tomorrow’s workers. Students go to school to learn the knowledge and skills they will need in the future of work. If teachers can’t work under current conditions, students will suffer the most. Educator workforce issues are also student learning issues.
Anyone who cares about America’s jobs, the economy, and COVID recovery needs to care about America’s teachers. Politicians and policymakers need to commit resources and strategies that will improve educator job quality, working conditions, and ensure that schools can recruit and retain excellent educators for our children. An investment in the educator workforce is an investment in everyone’s local economy, community, family and future.