Once upon a time, in the mystical land of Fair Pay, teachers were paid a livable wage. They didn’t have to work three jobs to afford their studio apartments. Buying school supplies didn’t mean sacrificing an entire paycheck. Sometimes, teachers could even afford to go on vacation. Teachers brought out every student’s full potential, and every student’s ambition to learn was met with plentiful resources. Life in the land of Fair Pay was merry and bright. This mystical land is confined to teachers’ imaginations. But it shouldn’t be.
Twenty-five thousand Chicago teachers went on strike on Thursday. They took to the streets to magnify one of the biggest issues in their classroom: scarcity. These teachers brought much-needed awareness to the fact that their students don’t have textbooks and that their schools don’t have the proper staff, among other issues. This strike spawned from the district’s failure to meet teachers’ demands, alluding to the long-fought battle for a well-funded classroom.
On Oct. 5, many took to social media to share their appreciation for their favorite and most impactful teachers. Many of us have had at least one teacher who made all the difference in our world — maybe it was the teacher who spent their afternoons with you to help with your infinite math questions, or maybe it was the teacher who lent an ear when you were weeping about whatever romantic conundrum was troubling you. My favorite teachers were the ones who bought me food and listened to me lament about the struggles of coping with adolescence. Regardless of who that teacher was for you, you could always count on them for comfort and reassurance. It’s safe to say that teachers have rightly earned the world’s appreciation and esteem. So why haven’t they been treated like the respected individuals that they are?
The recent resurrection of the decades-old battle for fair wages and adequate working conditions for teachers has quickly gained momentum. When the battle first began, it was against the law for teachers to unionize and go on strike. Teachers, enraged at the lack of progress in the advancement of their field, went on strike anyway. Teacher activism characterized the profession during the latter part of the 20th century; over 1,000 strikes with a combined total of 823,000 teachers occurred between the years of 1960 and 1974, according to a Time article from earlier this year. In 2019, thousands upon thousands of teachers across the country have gathered to protest cuts to both their salaries and educational funding. These teachers have done — and continue to do — their part to make themselves seen as deserving of better financial compensation and student resources in the eyes of lawmakers. But to what effect?
Following the teachers’ strike in the Los Angeles Unified School District — the second largest district in the United States — teachers and district officials reached a tentative agreement that has yet to take effect. This agreement would, in theory, increase teacher salaries and staffing, partially matching teachers’ demands. Other strikes demanded appropriate class sizes and more counselors, librarians, nurses and social workers. The demands of these strikes have yet to be met, and until they are, they will continue to loom over the heads of district officials and students.
While this era of teacher strikes is about improving education, it creates a vicious cycle that harms the group teachers are fighting for: their students. When teachers go on strike, their replacements don’t always provide the optimal education. From a lack of qualifications to a lack of cooperation from the students, the delicate equilibrium at schools begins to falter. Students will typically remain loyal to their striking teachers and in protest, may not cooperate with their substitutes. These efforts, however noble they may seem, create a rather awkward dynamic in the classroom that is unfit for learning. For Title I schools — schools that have at least 40% of students coming from low-income backgrounds — this kind of dynamic poses a grave threat. With federal funding already down about 6% for these schools, it casts a light on the motivation teachers have for going on strike. So, they go on strike. The cycle repeats.
Many credit the beginnings of educational reform to the No Child Left Behind Act updated in 2002. Former President George W. Bush fashioned this daydream that would hold schools accountable for their students’ performance; in other words, if the students failed, so did the school. Realizing that the nuances of the No Child Left Behind Act proved ineffective and unrealistic for teachers, the Obama administration sought to fix the broken educational system with the Every Student Succeeds Act passed in 2015. The government aimed these national policies at bettering the U.S. educational system by creating an idealistic teaching environment worthy of its own Disney movie. But let’s face it, that’s not the case. Politicians preach that education is at the forefront of success, yet little to no progress has been done to get teachers back into their classrooms. The very fact that teacher strikes still occur hints at the little regard school boards tend to have for their teachers. Therefore, it remains imperative that the friction between teachers and district officials ceases; by making the necessary improvements, the long-held strife among teachers can begin to subside, once again making the profession desirable.
Teachers and students deserve better treatment. Teachers and students need tangible results. Until negotiations prove productive, students will continue to suffer the consequences of a negligent educational system. Currently, the education of about 300,000 Chicago students has been impacted by a neglectful school board. Decent working conditions and higher salaries shouldn’t be confined to the realm of fantasy. After all, an army of pissed-off teachers is a force to be reckoned with.
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