Why are we so willing to sacrifice the wellbeing of educators?

By Moira O’Neil

Photo by Allison Shelley for American Education: Images of Teachers and Students in Action.

At the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, we asked grandparents to sacrifice themselves for the economic wellbeing of their grandchildren. For example, Lieutenant Governor of Texas Dan Patrick explained that grandparents should be “willing to die to save the economy for their grandkids.” Now the Trump administration is asking teachers to put their lives at risk because, as they say, our nation’s economic recovery depends on schools re-opening.

Trump criticized the CDC guidelines for how schools might open safely for being overly cautious and impossible to implement and even threatened to cut off federal funding to schools should they fail to re-open for in-person instruction. In an attempt to assuage parents fears about their children’s safety, Education Secretary Betsy DeVos repeatedly cites statistics about the low infection and mortality rates among children and young people, but fails to address potential risks to teachers and others. Her choice of which statistics to put forward sent a clear message: the administration cares about your children’s health, but not about teachers and other adults who make schools run.

Why are so many of us so comfortable asking teachers to work in unsafe conditions at great sacrifice to their own well-being even as they make demands that they return to a safe workplace? Part of the answer is how we think about teaching in this country.

For over a decade, my colleagues at the FrameWorks Institute and I have studied people’s perceptions of teaching and learning. One consistent theme has emerged. People have a deep — almost subconscious — belief that “good” teaching is about teachers having “caring” dispositions, which is an innate, personal quality that cannot be taught.

This shapes how we support — or don’t support — teaching as a profession. We often fail to understand the importance of teacher training, knowledge and skill. It stops us from demanding that teachers have ample opportunities to develop their professional skills and the necessary institutional resources to support the practice of teaching. It dampens support for increasing teacher pay and benefits, and their rights as workers.

Most importantly for right now, the “caring teacher” frame stops us from thinking about workplace health and safety in public schools. Federal regulations have never gone far enough in protecting teachers in public schools; even before the pandemic, many public sector teachers were working in unsafe conditions. And now, we are asking them to return to work at great risk to their health and wellbeing because they “care.”

Historians have traced the origins of the caring teacher idea to the nineteenth century when the profession was feminized. Teaching as a skill and a profession became devalued because women, whose labor was undervalued, were doing it.

This idea is now commonplace. It’s in the stories we read, hear and see about education. For instance, the “white savior” narrative is a common theme in movies about teaching such as Down the Staircase (1967) Dangerous Minds (1995) and Freedom Writers (2007). These stories typically focus on a white teacher who enters a low-resourced school with Black and Brown students and, against all odds, helps students reach learning outcomes that others thought impossible. Along with their failure to accurately represent how systemic racism operates in our education system, these movies advance the idea that all it takes to be a great teacher is to deeply care about your students.

In some respects, Trump is right. School closings have created enormous challenges for parents and other caregivers. My husband and I work full time. Last Spring, we were unable to effectively homeschool or assist with remote learning for my two daughters, one of whom has been diagnosed with a developmental disability. It is hard to imagine how we will be able to work full-time this fall without schools or other forms of childcare. But this experience strengthened our commitment to prioritize better working conditions for our nation’s teachers.

To shift current attitudes, we must take this moment to go beyond thanking teachers and acknowledging them as the heroes that they have always been and continue to be. Improving educational systems requires rethinking what teachers do each day. In order to continue to utilize their skills in this challenging time, we must put their health and wellbeing inside the classroom first. We must put our money where our mouths are and prioritize this workforce while no longer asking them to risk their health for the sake of all children.

Moira O’Neil is the Vice President of Research Interpretation at the FrameWorks Institute, a communications research think tank.

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