Earlier this year, US Senate Majority Leader, Mitch McConnell unintentionally gave rise to a new rally cry for women’s rights activists.
While attempting to defend his actions in shutting down Senator Elizabeth Warren’s speech against the appointment of Senator Jeff Sessions to the Attorney General position in the Trump administration, McConnell explained: “Senator Warren was giving a lengthy speech. She had appeared to violate the rule. She was warned. She was given an explanation. Nevertheless, she persisted.”
As you might expect, this quote quickly went viral on social media.
This phrase could also serve as an apothegm for generations of undervalued and under-regarded female teachers in America.
As we celebrate another Labor Day this year, we must continue to persist in acknowledging the vital role women play in educating the future of America and commit ourselves to lifting all women up economically.
We must persist in reminding policymakers we must end the era of trying to educate our children on the cheap by exploiting a workforce of devoted, highly educated women.
We must persist in changing the false perception among some that teaching is just a step above babysitting, especially in the earlier grades. Spend a day in a kindergarten classroom – you will be quickly enlightened to the folly of this narrative.
Is it a coincidence that teaching, a mostly female profession, is often perceived as low to mid-skill work, confers little social status, and pays poorly?
We know as many as 76% of public school teachers are women, according to the most recent data from the National Center for Education Statistics. Earlier grade levels are even more dominated by female teachers — 87% of primary school teachers are women. The gender makeup of teachers begins to even out in high school, as 42% of high school teachers are male, but the majority are still women.
The same survey also reveals that as much as 56% of these female teachers had a master’s or higher degree.
Considering teaching’s legacy as “women’s work” (read: underpaid, unskilled, and disrespected), and the ways that has influenced how schools today are structured — as well as who makes decisions, and how teachers are undervalued — it’s a wonder that we don’t have more of a teacher shortage than we currently do.
A major change in the past few decades is that, as the number of variety of jobs open to women working outside the home has increased, more teachers are now able to leave the profession for greener pastures; in fact, an estimated 40-50% of teachers leave in their first five years.
The lack of trust many have for teachers is also a product of the school system’s roots. While teachers around the turn of the century were highly educated compared to other workers, having usually completed high school — and often post-secondary training — at a time when most jobs didn’t require more than cursory schooling, they were not allowed to dictate curriculum or methods.
Today’s teachers, who hold Master’s degrees and regularly complete required professional development, have many mandates and relatively little input when it comes to what and how they teach.
And, of course, lack of compensation has always been an issue in teaching and continues to this day.
Well into the 1950s, teaching was one of the few professions open to women. The fact that it was a labor force largely made up of women, who ostensibly were not providing for a family, allowed many to justify the low pay despite the fact that most of these teachers could not afford to support even themselves alone as the cost of living rose.
Historically, women were also thought to be suited to teaching because they were seen as born nurturers, naturally inclined to keep their students and the good of the school as their first priority.
Therein lies the crux of the issue – that women are expected to do the job out of love for children and/or biology. This mentality still informs how we think about teachers in the present. Just as mothers are not supposed to complain about their children or the hard work of parenting, teachers are not supposed to complain about their jobs. They do it for the children, right?
Therefore, when teachers protest poor pay, inadequate working conditions or excessive top-down mandates – especially if they threaten to strike or hold a rally at the State Capitol, teachers are criticized as “selfish” or said to be “punishing” our students.
Teaching isn’t charity work. It’s a job. But because it is a profession dominated by women, and teaching is often viewed as a caretaking role, some view teachers who stand up for their labor rights as selfish. And some still view the profession itself as unworthy of the value and support it’s always deserved.
But it should never be viewed as selfish or unacceptable for professionals to advocate for better working conditions and fair pay for themselves.
When teaching is seen as “women’s work,” it is disrespected and undervalued. There are many problems in our education system, and like other problems — unequal access, institutional racism — the deliberate undervaluing of an entire profession viewed as one belonging to women is not one that can be solved with a new academic standards, curriculum, or more standardized testing.
Sure, the rights of female teachers have come a long way since school leaders dictated things like when they could visit ice cream stores or get married. However, efforts must continue to ensure all teachers are appropriately respected and compensated for the hard work they do.
For the sake of our schools and our children, we need to persist in valuing our teachers, just as we need to value women’s leadership and advocacy, and work to undo decades of educational policy built on a foundation of sexism.
And, as teachers have learned, this may routinely call for lengthy speeches, violating a few rules from time to time, ignoring warnings to “quiet down,” avoiding explanations for why advocacy is hurting “our cause,” and persisting, nevertheless.