Monday, May 9, 2022

Can we stop the exodus of teachers? -- May 5, 2022 column


If you’ve ever wondered, as I have, what former presidents chat about when they’re sitting together, waiting for an event to start, President Joe Biden gave us a glimpse.

Before the funeral of former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright April 27 at the National Cathedral, Biden told former Presidents Barack Obama and Bill Clinton he would be welcoming the Teacher of the Year to the White House that afternoon.

“And they all talked about how much they enjoyed the years they were here with the Teacher of the Year event,” Biden said told the teachers later.

I can almost hear some readers snickering that teachers are a big Democratic constituency, so it’s no wonder Democratic presidents welcome them. That may be true, but it’s offpoint. 

Teachers are among the professionals -- along with first responders, health care workers and military personnel -- who deserve support and respect from all of us, regardless of our politics, especially during the pandemic.

But surveys suggest educators – everyone from teachers to bus drivers to cafeteria ladies -- are fed up, and many are considering quitting.

Fifty-five percent of educators say they’re thinking of leaving the field, according to a National Education Association member survey released in February. That includes 62% of Black and 59% of Hispanic NEA members.

Heavier workloads to cover for absent employees, pay that fails to keep up with inflation and lack of respect from students and parents are among the factors.

The average teacher salary nationwide is $66,397 for the 2021-22 school year, which, when adjusted for inflation, means pay is down 3.9% over the last decade, the NEA reported.

The average budgeted classroom teacher salary in Virginia for fiscal year 2022 is $62,101, less than a 1% increase from the previous fiscal year, the Virginia Department of Education reported in January. Virginia ranked 28th in teacher salaries in the nation in 2019-2000, according to NEA calculations.

Contributing to burnout is the fact schools and teachers have become pawns in our culture wars.

In Virginia, candidate Glenn Youngkin campaigned on restoring educational excellence but as governor launched a “Help Education” tip line so parents can report – call it what it is: snitch on – school officials who teach “divisive” lessons. That’s not supporting schools and teachers; that’s intimidation.  

Worse, he refused to release records related to the tip line under the Freedom of Information Act, claiming they are “working papers and correspondence.” So much for transparency. The Washington Post and a dozen other news organizations filed suit April 13, seeking the records.

At the Teacher of the Year celebration, Biden decried the politicization of education, saying: “Today, there are too many politicians trying to score political points, trying to ban books, even math books . . . Did you ever think, when you’d be teaching, that you’d be worried about book burnings and banning books, all because it doesn’t fit somebody’s political agenda?”

Teachers have enough to worry about, with staying healthy and helping their students who have fallen seven to nine months behind in their learning during COVID-19.

The activism of conservative-leaning parents, ginned up by closed schools and mask mandates, is probably here to stay for the foreseeable future, but other parents also need to step up to support teachers and make their voices heard. 

Biden touted the American Rescue Plan, which he signed in March 2021, that included $122 billion in emergency relief funds for elementary and secondary schools as well as an additional $8 billion to states and school districts to meet needs of students with disabilities and $800 million for students experiencing homelessness.

All 50 states submitted plans for spending the money and are implementing them. Localities added about 279,000 education jobs in 2021 and 46,000 more in the first two months of 2022. But more needs to be done to help teachers.

“American teachers have dedicated their lives to teaching our children and lifting them up. We’ve got to stop making them the target of the culture wars,” Biden said.

And he added, “It’s not enough to give teachers praise. We ought to give you a raise.”

© 2022 Marsha Mercer. All rights reserved.

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