We’re a long way from the early days of the pandemic when the nurses, grocery store clerks, and pharmacists who kept society running were praised as heroes (Newsweek). Instead of celebrating essential workers, some now focus on punishing those workers “too lazy” to return to what are often menial, low-paying jobs (Jacobin).
Teachers fall into both categories. They’re celebrated and considered essential while at the same time scorned if they don’t want to return to dangerous work conditions. Educators can provide the next generation with the skills and knowledge they’ll need for the rest of their lives. Nearly all of us were raised in part by teachers. Those who have or plan to have children will see them spend a majority of their waking lives under the supervision of teachers. Almost everyone would agree that teachers are crucially important.
That sentiment is a far cry from actually supporting educators. In March, Los Angeles’ largest teachers union decried plans to reopen schools as “a recipe for propagating structural racism” (Politico). According to the United Teachers of Los Angeles, it was largely wealthy white parents who pushed for school reopenings. This put both education workers and working-class students of color at risk, given that poorer neighborhoods have much higher rates of COVID and school staff were not yet fully vaccinated.
Right before Philadelphia schools reopened, the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers’ Caucus of Working Educators shared photos of classrooms with mouse droppings and mold. This was despite previous assurances by the school district that schools were clean and ready for students (Chalkbeat). “We feel lied to and betrayed seeing the condition of our school,” said one educator. The rush to reopen clearly put both teachers and students at risk in a school district where most students are students of color (National Center for Education Statistics).
In May 2020, 7 out of 10 teachers reported their lower morale due to the pandemic, though at that point stay-at-home orders in most states were less than two months old (EdSurge). Now, teachers are even closer to the breaking point (NPR). One said the past year was harder than teaching in New York City after 9/11. Another, a Black teacher in Virginia, said that the combination of COVID and ongoing police murders have left her at “points of lowness [she] hadn’t experienced before.”
At the beginning of this school year, a quarter of teachers said they intended to leave before its end (Rand Corporation). And even before the pandemic, Black teachers in poor work environments were dramatically more likely to leave than their white coworkers (Chalkbeat).
Teachers are under pressure from parents and administrators alike. They were already dealing with poor salaries and working conditions, resulting in teachers–especially teachers of color–being squeezed out of the profession. This is an outrage for racial justice and a shameful way to treat educators, who are lauded in the abstract but ignored in real life.
Right-wing propaganda has long claimed that teachers’ unions are bad for students and society writ large. And it’s true that there are bad teachers in teachers’ unions. There are bad bus drivers in bus driver unions and bad nurses unions and bad flight attendants in flight attendant unions because that’s how people are. Of course, we should vigorously oppose racist, queerphobic, and patriarchal behavior by those in positions of power in schools, just as we should struggle against their existence in any institution.
But at a time where teachers are pushed out of the field and schools are reopening in dangerous ways, groups of educators in progressive teachers unions are leading the fight for the wellbeing of their colleagues and students. Organized, progressive teachers are demanding safe, well-resourced classrooms and living wages for those who teach them. Supporting these struggles is how we ensure working-class students of color can succeed academically and educators of color can succeed professionally.