Educators are expected to carry the burdens of the Covid-19 pandemic. But they’re not the ones at blame. The rhetoric is ramping up as the beginning of the school year draws near, and we are seeing the tired method of society bending teachers to meet its needs through guilt.
Public officials and some parents seem anxious to move past the Covid-19 pandemic and reopen schools. For anything that stands in their way, people are looking for someone to blame. And once again, the burden is on teachers.
In my time teaching in public schools and now working with educators, I’ve seen how social guilt is deployed to demand more from teachers. Guilt is used to cajole teachers into working extra hours to craft lesson plans, complete grading, or act as private tutors during breaks or after school.
All of this is free of charge. Society undervalues teachers with entry-level salaries that are painfully low compared to peers entering the workforce at similar education levels, only to couple it with pay raises that do not meet the rising cost of living. Instead of providing the correct resources of classroom material, society relies on guilt to drive teachers to use their salaries to provide materials for their classrooms. Teachers do this because it is the right thing to do. Still, it appears this reliance on teachers to do “what society needs them to do” is finally hitting a breaking point.
When I was a student in the College of Education at the University of Northern Iowa, I had a professor who told us that one of the primary functions of public education was “child storage.” To some, this description may sound like an uncouth pronouncement of our education system. But in March, this truth became apparent. The nation’s economy relies on public schools not only to create human capital but also to provide a place where children are cared for while parents work. To get schools back up and running for the fall, society had only one job to do. Slow the spread of Covid-19. Instead, we chose to go maskless, eat out at our favorite restaurants or grab drinks at our favorite bars, send our children off to birthday parties and club sports, and go out to find our new favorite hazy IPA.
We as a society will face a severe loss of human capital in our teaching force, which could devastate the education system for years to come.
Society put itself in a precarious position where we now have higher Covid-19 diagnoses than we did in April. Teachers now have a 30-day window to report back to school for the fall semester. Instead of watching people get ready to button-down and buckle-up, I am witnessing more of the same: guilt toward teachers. Critics want to shame educators for worrying about their own health, saying teachers need more courage and grit. And though children face unprecedented hardships at this moment — socialization is vital to their mental health, and online learning is not ideal — teachers are not to blame. Society is to blame, along with the total lack of central national leadership in this process.
Teachers are now at a breaking point in which many view returning to work as a potential detriment to their lives and the lives of their family members. Though there is always a chance for a national teacher strike, we should expect to watch five scenarios play out this fall if classroom teaching returns in August:
Anyone at or near retirement will probably take early retirement if we try to start school in the fall. Given the number of comorbidities that plague Americans’ health, this shouldn’t come as a surprise.
Those teachers with spouses who can afford to be a stay-at-home parent will stay at home.
Teachers who are pregnant and those intending to get pregnant will take a year off and potentially never return.
Teacher’s education graduates and those in their first five years without the “golden handcuffs” of a pension plan will leave the teaching career path.
There will be a minimum number of substitutes. Most substitutes are retirees looking for extra income or recent graduates who couldn’t find a teaching job. But in this current climate, retirees are not likely to come back to sub for online classrooms. The recent graduates willing to teach will be snatched up in a heartbeat to replace scenarios one through four. Teachers will be pushed into substitute teaching within their buildings for other teachers during their free periods. The situation will hasten the exit from the classroom for those who were already likely to leave.
In any of the cases, we as a society will face a severe loss of human capital in our teaching force, which could devastate the education system for years to come. Teachers should not feel guilty for refusing to show up in order to protect their health and the health of their loved ones. It is not their fault, and they should not feel guilty about any choice they make in the upcoming months.