West Virginia highlights disrespect plaguing teachers

Annie Hancock, a teacher from Jackson County, holds her sign outside of the capitol building after WVEA President Dale Lee outlined the terms for ending the walkout on the fourth day of statewide walkouts in Charleston, W.Va., on Tuesday, Feb. 27, 2018. (Craig Hudson/Charleston Gazette-Mail via AP)

The difference in respect that teachers and professors get has always been shocking to me. I completely understand that professors often go through more specialized schooling, have more responsibilities (like research) and work for institutions with deeper pockets than their lower-year counterparts, but I am nonetheless awed by the amount America has discounted the role of teachers. As West Virginia goes a full week without school due to teacher strike, it is important to understand why educators there and elsewhere have reason to be upset.

For West Virginia specifically, this strike comes in the wake of a bill signed by the state’s governor giving teachers only a 2 percent raise at the end of this school year, followed by a 1 percent raise in 2020 and 2021. This “raise” is abysmal, especially for a state with the third worst paid teachers (on average) in the country. It does not keep up with the rate of inflation, and that is not even the end of it. Health insurance for the teachers is also in a sorry state, as premiums and copays rise. Deeper than this, though, the issues that West Virginian and generally American teachers face are more varied and cut deeper than just financially.

Respect is a vague and ethereal term, so let’s explore what it means in terms of professions. Of course, salary is a large part, as a good wage can sweeten the deal on any job. Impact on others can improve job fulfillment, as can the quality of life aspects. More directly, we can look at how society regards certain professions and how we as a culture view people in those fields. This is where teachers fall behind.

When the topic of low teacher pay gets brought up, the first rebuttal often comes back to the significant benefit of a free summer. Granted, this discounts the extra time that good teachers must put in for “homework” - grading, lesson-planning and reflecting on curriculum - but it is fair to say that many teachers, especially parents, appreciate being able to spend time on leisure in the summers. Teachers, at least in a romanticized sense, also have great job fulfillment; they can see the impact they have on their students throughout the year, sometimes with returns years later. Most jobs do not foster a kind of client-employee relationship quite like those formed between students and their mentors. Neither of these benefits make up for the lack of respect that teachers face in stature or pay, however.

For whatever reason, the place of teachers in American society has fallen significantly over time. Now, educators are beholden to the administrative powers-that-be, the entitlement of students and parents and the dreaded Common Core. The power dynamic has taken a hard turn away from teachers, to the point where they are expected to adapt to whatever situations they are put through. Of course, this disrespect manifests itself differently based on rural vs. urban settings, rich vs. poor areas and other such demographics, but it still permeates through the treatment of all primary and secondary instructors. Coupled with low pay, it is clear how this can lead to a sense of ostracization among teachers by both governance and the public.

This exploitation is terrible regardless of position, but it is especially tragic given the amount of specialized training that teachers must receive. Interpersonally, lower-level instructors must learn and abide by patience, empathy, accessibility, understanding and a host of other virtues. Educators in grade school receive training on how to teach and convey information, unlike some of their university-level counterparts. For some college courses commonly offered in high schools, in-field graduate school experience is even requested or required. There is little reason for people so highly trained to be paid and treated so poorly.

The West Virginia strikes seem to be nearing their conclusion as governor Jim Justice announces plans to increase teacher pay by a total of 5 percent this year. Regardless, there are tensions bubbling under the surface across the country, and until teachers get the respect they deserve, eruptions like this will happen again. So, reach out to a past teacher and thank them; society sure isn’t going to!

Peter Fenteany is a weekly columnist  for The Daily Campus. He can be reached via email at peter.fenteany@uconn.edu.