I’m grateful for the sudden appreciation of teachers, but what I really want is higher pay and improved conditions

Parents are more appreciative of teachers now during the pandemic. Educators want that momentum to evolve into measurable change. REUTERS/Sergio Perez
  • Due to the coronavirus pandemic, at least 55 million US students are out of school – and many parents have been tasked with homeschooling.
  • During Teacher Appreciation Week, many parents have expressed overwhelming gratitude for educators, now that they know what’s involved in the profession.
  • Emily James, a public school teacher in New York City, writes about how she’s grateful for the accolades, but wants to see it evolve into more.
  • The English teacher advocates for higher pay, improved conditions in buildings, and a return to school only when it’s safe for staff and students.
  • Visit Insider’s homepage for more stories.

It’s Teacher Appreciation Week. I’ve gotten my requisite thank you note from my administrator, a few heartwarming texts from former students, and my 15% discounts from LOFT and Michaels. But this year, the vibe is a little different.

I’m a ninth grade English teacher with 14 years of experience educating public school students in Brooklyn, New York. Now, of course, I’m giving lessons, doling out assignments, and grading papers remotely. I’m also homeschooling my 7-year-old. In case you were wondering, that doesn’t mean I have much of a leg up over parents without a teaching degree.

I’m writing this after my daughter’s fifth tantrum of the week. We have argued over line breaks in a poem, how to add two-digit numbers, and what reading for 30 minutes without distraction looks like.

She leaves the kitchen table in a huff, retreats to her room and slams the door.

I may be a pedagogue by training, but all the individual invisible work that teachers do – routine building and fostering a conducive learning environment – I’ve only done with my own classes. I haven’t done it with my daughter. She needs her own teacher now more than ever, just like my students need me.

Parents are more appreciative of teachers now that they know what it entails

Kids homeschool
At least 55 million US students are out of school and learning from home. Max Mumby/Indigo/Getty Images

In recent weeks, the internet seems to have exploded with appreciation for teachers, now that part of our jobs has been assigned to people who have never done it before. Because of the COVID-19 crisis, at least 55 million students in the US are out of school, and parents everywhere have suddenly had to take on the task of teaching and overseeing their children’s work.

A quick scroll through my social media feed and I find friends posting funny memes about how they don’t know how we do it (and they have resorted to day drinking after one day of instruction). Celebrities are praising educators, while commiserating about having to do lessons with their kids. Companies like Draper James are offering free dresses for teachers. Late night host Trevor Noah is giving away laptops to educators who are teaching remotely.

It feels nice to be seen in a new light, and thanked a bit more genuinely.

Yet still, I can’t help but ask: Why did it take a global pandemic for people to appreciate teachers? And should the cries of “Oh wow, I didn’t realise how difficult your job was!” really suffice?

Remote teaching
Joanne Collins Brock , a second grade teacher at St Francis School (Goshen) , teaches online in her empty classroom on April 15, 2020 in Goshen, Kentucky. Getty

They shouldn’t. I hope that when this virus passes, and school resumes, we don’t forget the lesson there is to learn. Teachers deserve something more than appreciation, they deserve to be valued.

For too long, we have undervalued teachers. We have been shoved into overcrowded rooms, been paid too little, have had our curriculums changed without our input. (Think of all the complaining we do as parents about “this new maths stuff” and imagine being a teacher who is given a different way to teach every couple of years.) Up until June of 2017, educators in New York City didn’t get any paid parental leave at all.

Valuing teachers means giving us better wages. The US consistently ranks seventh in the world for average teacher pay.

The average teacher in the US makes about $US60,000, and many first year teachers start at wages below $US40,000. Almost one-third of teachers hold second jobs in order to make ends meet. (Parents can now attest to how difficult it is to teach while having another job). While the average school day is about seven hours, the average teacher works about 12 to 16 hours a day.

Teachers are notoriously underpaid, and still often use their own funds to stock a classroom

Classroom supplies
The average teacher spends $US480 a year on classroom supplies. Getty

Even still, teachers – on average – spend about $US480 a year of their own funds on classroom supplies and necessities for students. Valuing teachers means ensuring there’s money in the school budget for snacks for hungry students, cleaning sprays and Clorox wipes (especially in the coming months) and crayons and markers.

(But budget cuts are already happening. Teachers can’t help but fear that we are going to be required to do even more with even less).

Valuing teachers means giving us fewer tedious responsibilities. Instead of just focusing on our students, our days are filled to the brim with data reporting and curriculum re-design and long, intensely narrated lesson plans.

It also means taking a good hard look at class sizes, and asking if we can truly teach “the whole child” – 34 students at a time.

It means enabling us to do our jobs in clean, bug- and rodent-free buildings. We need access to working copiers and printers and other resources.

Teachers can only do their jobs well if students have access to housing, food, and healthcare

School lunch
Emily James, a public high school teacher, argues that students need basic rights in order to thrive and for teachers to do their jobs. Getty

It also means giving our students access to basic human rights: housing, food, and healthcare. It’s the only way children can come prepared to learn, and teachers will have a shot at educating them. Think about being home with your own kids now, and how hard it is for them to focus if they are exhausted, or are hungry for their lunch.

How can we expect students to learn when they are starving? When their clothes haven’t been washed in a week? When their parents are sick and can’t afford to get treatment?

So many of these issues are what makes teachers burn out – causing them to flee the profession during their best years. The last thing we want as a country is for someone who has finally become an expert in their field to leave.

Lastly, truly valuing our teachers means, as the pandemic winds down, not sending us back to the classroom until we can guarantee a safe environment for teaching and learning. Schools in New York City closed too late in March when the pandemic hit, and many of our educators lost their lives as a result.

Public school NYC

Before we reopen, we need to identify how to safely practice social distancing, provide personal protective equipment to students and educators, and conduct testing and tracing.

Back in the kitchen, to help my daughter recover from her despair, I organised a video chat with her teacher. They talked privately for 15 minutes and she emerged with a lifted mood, a pencil in her hand, ready to write an adorably creative poem about “A Warm Hug” from her little sister.

Seeing her little fingers scrawl across the page, I was reminded again about the power of our teachers, everything we do, and everything we mean to so many kids day after day after day.