Teachers are important, and a simple google search or Pinterest exploration will churn up millions of inspirational quotes explaining this importance in clever metaphors. Thus, you would assume that as a society, we would appreciate the people that do such a vital job. Teacher Appreciation Week dates back to 1953, thanks to the efforts of Eleanor Roosevelt. After receiving letters from actual teachers, she persuaded Congress to proclaim a specific day honoring the work they do. National Teacher Day was born as a result, and many schools around the country extend the celebration for an entire week.
All of this would make it seem that we are very appreciative of teachers, but actions speak louder than words. We can say we’re grateful for educators all day long, but none of our current practices actually reflect this.
Possibly the clearest evidence pointing to our lack of respect for teachers is the fact that we do not pay them well. In a simple comparison of weekly wages (thus accounting for summers off), the Economic Policy Institute found that, between 2013 and 2017 in the U.S., a public school teacher with a bachelor’s degree earned a weekly average of $980, whereas a comparable non-teaching college graduate earned an average of $1,326 per week. There is clearly a disparity here, especially considering a teacher’s workday is often longer than the typical school day. Additionally, annual wages are extremely dependent on location. In 2020, the Bureau of Labor Statistics reported that the highest average elementary school teacher salary was in New York, at $82,830 annually. However, the lowest average elementary school teacher salary was in Mississippi, at $44,060. Again, this is an extremely large difference; teacher wages vary widely by state. But even the seemingly high annual salaries in states like New York often do not equate to the local cost of living.
While teachers do the immensely important job of educating our youth, the literal future of America, we do not compensate them fairly for it. If this is isn’t underappreciating enough, nowadays in the era of COVID-19 we’re asking even more of our teachers without giving them any compensation in return.
Recently, there has been an extra push to reopen schools to in-person learning. And as a college freshman at UConn who hasn’t been on campus since touring it while still in high school, I genuinely understand the desire to have children in the classroom. However, safety should absolutely come first. Teachers are not eligible for the COVID-19 vaccine in every state. And even in states where teachers are an eligible group for the vaccine, each teacher requires two doses, with time in between each shot, not even mentioning the vaccine rollout issues many states are facing. Forcing teachers to return to the classroom without proper protection is dangerous. Assuming that social distancing protocols are perfectly effective, or that most teachers are young and therefore have “nothing to worry about,” is very dangerous; educators have died from COVID-19. How is asking teachers to risk their lives in a school every day appreciation for all they do?
And even if we aren’t forcing teachers to return to in-person learning, zoom school is no better. Teachers experience the same screen fatigue students are going through, and nobody seems to care about their well-being. Theoretically, these professionals pursued a career in education for the good of the students, and now they cannot make the same hands-on connections as before.
Education cannot stop entirely in the midst of a pandemic. But rushing to reopen schools will only endanger people, creating a cycle of surging COVID-19 cases and subsequent closures. If we really appreciated the work our teachers do, we’d pay them more and adequately protect them from harm. If we really valued the education of our youth, we’d put an emphasis on the challenges of school during “unprecedented times,” rather than attempting to continue on as normal. But since we haven’t done these things on any large scale, I’m not sure we really mean it as a country when we say “we love our teachers.”