Why do we shortchange teachers so badly?

The long history of females dominating the profession since the 1800s has more to do with the problem today than one may realize

By Eliza Brinkley, Guest Columnist
Posted 7/14/21

On June 21, state Senate leaders presented a budget spending proposal that would slash corporate taxes and invest heavily in infrastructure. Despite the state’s $6.5 billion surplus, public school …

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Why do we shortchange teachers so badly?

The long history of females dominating the profession since the 1800s has more to do with the problem today than one may realize

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Posted

On June 21, state Senate leaders presented a budget spending proposal that would slash corporate taxes and invest heavily in infrastructure. Despite the state’s $6.5 billion surplus, public school teachers, under the Senate’s proposal, would be awarded a mere 1.5% raise. For a state that’s 47th out of the 50 states in starting teacher pay and 33rd in average teacher pay, that raise hardly seems “reasonable,” as Senate Leader Phil Berger described it.

The earliest form of public schooling in American didn’t begin until the mid-19th century. Before then, families who wanted to send their children to school had to pay tuition and were often limited to very few choices. In the 1830s, the spread of more accessible, taxpayer-supported schooling called for a substantially higher demand for teachers in many states.

Despite the fact that, at the time, most women were not as highly educated as their male peers, communities nonetheless sought females to fill teaching positions at newly established “common schools.” It was thought that women, some of whom had experience providing informal teaching or daycare services out of their homes for local children, could teach students the basics of reading, writing and arithmetic effectively and at a bargain cost. A notable quote recorded from a Littleton, Massachusetts, school committee meeting in 1849: “...it seems...very poor policy to pay a man 20 or 22 dollars a month, for teaching children the ABCs, when a female could do the work more successfully at one third of the price.”

Despite a measly salary from the get-go, for many women of the time, teaching was an attractive option. Indeed, women were limited to highly specific gender roles well into the 20th century that often denied them access to a wider world of possibilities. Teaching was an opportunity to devote their minds to a greater purpose and to escape the restrictive confines of traditional womanhood.

The problem this history presents today is that, even in a post-second and third wave feminist era, teachers in the United States — male and female alike — suffer from a view of education that remains marred in part by the outdated, sexist ideology of the past.

Teaching is as much of an art and as much of a specialized practice as any other profession, including law and medicine. As a high school English teacher, I have to know how to craft an engaging curriculum that produces measurable mastery of literacy and writing benchmarks — arguably the two most critical skills for ensuring students’ academic and, later on, career, success. I often have to spend many hours grading outside of my 8-hour work day in order to give my students the valuable feedback they need and deserve. I have to obtain a certain number of professional development hours and keep myself up-to-date on the newest research on effective pedagogical practices. I have a master’s degree from a highly-ranked university. And yet, my colleagues and I earn, on average, “19% less than similarly skilled and educated professionals,” according to the Economic Policy Institute.

In 1840, Massachusetts education reformer Horace Mann wrote, “The school committee are sentinels stationed at the door of every school house in the State, to see that no teacher crosses its threshold, who is not clothed, from the crown of his head to the sole of his foot, in garments of virtue.” Although Mann uses the masculine pronoun, his belief that teachers should be models of morality, compassion and agents of nurturing as much as instructors of academic subjects was a view that helped further the argument that women in particular were eligible for teaching positions. The generally accepted belief at the time was that women were inherently maternal — they were naturally wired to care for children and to ensure their moral upbringing, even if, it seems, they received little reward for their work.

Fast-forward again to today, and there remains a clear legacy of the remnants of this narrow understanding of femininity in our expectations and treatment of teachers — a general attitude towards the profession that is sometimes referred to as teacher “martyrdom.”

Teacher martyrdom is characterized by the notion that teachers do what they do for the benefit of their students only. It doesn’t matter that the pay is minimal, the recognition rare or that they are often forced to take on extra, unpaid duties ­— teachers “do it for the kids,” and if they complain about that not being enough, they’re verging on selfishness. The assumption that teachers should be satisfied with their careers solely due to the fact that they get to care for and teach children is a clear vestige of the outmoded theory that women, with their moral purity and maternal instinct, will do anything and everything they can to “mother” the young. Since the feminization of the teaching profession was in part derived from this theory, it’s no wonder that society’s perspective on teachers today is still influenced by some of its underpinning tenets.

At some point, there are more cons than pros to staying in education, especially for those teachers with advanced degrees and years of experience. Many of them have already left teaching or are planning to leave. If we want the children of our state, of our country to have the quality education that is their right, if we want them to be taught by excellent teachers with high standards who will prepare them for adulthood, we must not only compensate teachers fairly, but we must work to rid ourselves of the deeply ingrained and deeply harmful view of educators as ‘lesser’ professionals.

Eliza Brinkley is a Pittsboro resident and high school English teacher at Northwood High School.

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