The Real Reasons Teachers Are Being Asked To Return To School

Someone on a teaching feed I’m on asked, “What is the real reason why teachers are being asked to return to school?” The real answer is a long one which involves the whole history of school funding.

Meme from “Office Space” saying, “If you could just reopen schools during a pandemic, that would be great.”
Meme from “Office Space” saying, “If you could just reopen schools during a pandemic, that would be great.”

People can’t go back to work if their children can’t go back to school. Trump and Republicans need people to be working so that their donors’ stocks will keep going up and so that they can keep denying the effects of COVID-19 in the 100 days before the election. But they also refuse to provide funding to make this happen because the Republican doctrine is that they are fundamentally opposed to “big government,” “socialism,” or anything that would involve using tax money to assist working people rather than corporations and the wealthiest 1%. There is also racism embedded in this doctrine: many of their followers oppose funding schools if it means it might help “those other children” and promote more equity, which they fear might endanger the advantages they get from a racist system. But of course they don’t want to say that, so they mask it with terms such as “freedom,” “choice,” and “opposing socialism.”

Teachers have been caught in the middle of this political debate for the past 20–30 years. As the Republicans have been hacking at the social safety net and the middle class, more children and working families are looking to schools to replace the services they’ve lost. As a result, the work load for teachers has been increasing.

Meanwhile, Republicans have been vehemently opposing increasing funding to public schools for the reasons I described above. Betsy DeVos, our “Secretary of Education,” is openly calling for dismantling public schools and instead using the tax money that funds schools to fund vouchers for private and charter schools. She is even using this pandemic as an “opportunity” to make that happen. But this has been on their agenda since the Reagan Administration, and even Arne Duncan under the Obama Administration was often an ally to this movement. This, too, has a racial component: the “school choice” movement became part of the Republican agenda during the Johnson Administration’s “War on Poverty,” school de-segregation laws, and its elimination of any tax cuts for private schools with discriminatory admissions policies. “School choice” is really just code for “segregation,” which is the real end goal. The insistence to cut funding for public schools also came out of this — particularly once it became clear that our tax money was going to be funding public schools for everyone, not just the white kids. This is also why schools are still locally funded, which is why children in wealthy areas get a very different quality of education than students in poor areas.

In a further attempt to sabotage public education, Republicans (and pro-privatization Democrats) have also increased the amount of testing, red tape, and other requirements that schools and teachers must meet. This is a classic Republican strategy: cut funding and increase required work until they run an undesirable agency or institution into the ground, then when the agency can’t possibly meet all the requirements imposed on it with the budget it’s been given, criticize it for being dysfunctional and either eliminate it, reduce it, or restructure it to something more to your party’s liking. They have done this with the EPA, Clean Water Act, Endangered Species Act, National Park Service, Bureau of Land Management, etc. They have been attempting to do this to our schools for over 30 years. More and more funding that was supposed to go to schools has gone to creating, printing, distributing, collecting and grading state tests — a massively expensive endeavor that does almost nothing to improve the quality of education, and that in fact detracts from students’ learning.

All these measures have massively expanded teachers’ workloads by making teachers spend more time on test prep, pre-tests, pre-pre-tests, and tracking all of the data these generate for each student. In addition, the amount of other documentation teachers are legally required to do has increased exponentially. Teachers have to follow and document information for IEPs, 504s, social-emotional needs, students who require counseling services, students whose reading or math scores are below grade level, plus produce written lesson plans for each day. While many of these tasks aren’t bad things to do, teachers have not been given any additional time or compensation to make this happen. As a result, many end up working even more hours weekends and evenings. At the same time, low pay means that many need to work second jobs.

Along with trying to gut schools’ funding while sabotaging their effectiveness, Republicans have also led a massive media blitz against schools. They have propagated the myth that “our schools are failing” so loudly and so frequently that now many people blindly repeat that as if it was an axiomatic truth — despite the fact that most of this “failure” can be attributed to funding issues, and despite the fact that many families like the public schools that their own children attend. Nevertheless, almost everyone seems to have had at least one “bad teacher” (out of the approximately 50 teachers they would have had in their K-12 education) and uses that as a justification to tut that “our schools are failing.” The dichotomy of the “bad” teacher” vs. the “saintly teacher” is another insidious myth which is used to both justify expecting teachers to “go above and beyond” and blaming them when they can’t do so successfully enough to overcome all of the funding and red tape that have been purposely used to attack schools.

All of this is coming into play during this pandemic, when teachers are being called on to be saints and potentially martyr themselves by reopening their classrooms for the good of society, or are being blamed as “uncaring” if they raise legitimate concerns about their own safety and the safety of their students. Republicans, led by Betsy DeVos, are using teachers’ reluctance to risk their own and others’ lives as an opportunity to declare that “lazy” teachers won’t do their jobs and to further de-fund, dismantle, and privatize (and segregate) our public schools. Once again, teachers are being voluntold to “make it work” or are being threatened with job loss or professional penalties if they refuse. I don’t think Trump and his followers realize what a short stick they are threatening teachers with — how many people are willing to risk their lives for $30–40K/year, 50–60 hour workweeks, ever-shifting demands, and constant attacks?

As a result of all these trends, the resources and materials provided to teachers, as well as the staff in our schools required to meet all these mandates, has decreased — even as students’ and families’ needs have increased. This is especially the case in areas that need the resources and staffing the most. Class sizes have increased. Pay has not kept pace with inflation or cost of living, so in real wages, teachers make less than they did in previous decades. Colorado’s teacher pay ranks 50th in the nation in terms of wage competitiveness. Teachers are caught between a public that increasingly demands individualized learning, adaptation to individual children’s and families’ needs, personalization, and customization, services for for students with disability and trauma, and additional services such as providing meals, but within a system in which the numbers, funding, and time constraints make that impossible and in which the compensation does not come close to being adequate. Inevitably, teachers get blamed when they “fail” to create success out of an unworkable system. When teachers bring this up, administrators shrug and say, “there isn’t any money,” and inveigh their teachers to “do more with less.” Then families, politicians, and administrators all fall back on saying that if the teachers really cared about the kids, they would find a way to make it work — with the implication that if they don’t want to spend their own time and money to subsidize other people’s tax cuts by finding or creating the resources that no one else could “afford” to provide, then they must be “bad teachers” who “don’t care” and that maybe they shouldn’t be working as teachers at all.

For decades, teachers have been trying to patch the broken system with hacks that often involve dollar-store purchases and clever DIY projects they found on Pinterest. Now they’re spending their summer vacations and weekends making shields with PVC pipes and shower curtains because the same pearl-clutchers who insisted that schools HAVE to reopen “for the good of the children” couldn’t seem to find the money for plexiglass shields.

Screenshot of a classroom outfitted with protective screens made out of shower curtains and PVC pipe
Screenshot of a classroom outfitted with protective screens made out of shower curtains and PVC pipe

The center cannot hold. Teachers cannot keep mending a broken and chronically-underfunded system with elbow grease, duct tape, and late nights. It’s one thing when they’re trying to decorate a classroom, or build cubbies for student storage, or create a more efficient grading system (although teachers really should be getting the funding, time and resources for all of these as well). It’s another when the materials are needed to increase the odds of keeping everyone alive and free of a disease that could also cause life-long health implications. It is not our job to sacrifice ourselves and endanger the children we are supposed to protect because other people have realized — too late — that our schools are essential to a functioning economy.

Image credits:
Image from “Office Space” (1999).

Suzie Null is a former middle and high school teacher and current professor of Teacher Education. Follow her on Twitter at WritingontheWall @NullSet16

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store