An important moment during the September 12 Democratic debate concerned the discussion about education. There was consensus on one point: teachers in this country need help. They need to be paid better and they need support, not only on the local level, but also on the federal level.
Like so many challenges facing our country, fixing our educational system is complicated. What takes place in the classroom goes beyond those four walls. Schools are a microcosm of what’s happening in our country. When Margaret Sagarese and I were writing books for parents of young adolescents, we would often hear from teachers at our talks. Problems at home spilled over into the classroom, turning teachers into social workers, substance abuse counselors, marriage advisors, domestic violence experts, and so much more. Teaching, they told us, often took a back seat. Conditions have not improved, in fact, have worsened with the opioid crisis, leaving some children to raise themselves. Support in the home is critical for a child to learn and thrive. When that emotional and financial backup is not there, others must step in to provide that help.
Teachers provide that support. As the need grows greater, so does the pressure on teachers. On Facebook a few days before the start of the school year, I began to see postings by teachers. The excitement about stepping back into the classroom was tempered with their fear of what might be walking through those doors. “I’m a mess now with anxiety,” one of them posted, “not knowing what kind of emotional needs my students might need from me.” Another said: “I joke that I have PTSD, but I really do. Just the anticipation of what the new year will bring gives me such anxiety.” Still another: “I’m still not recovered from last year. I really mean that. The issues that some of our kids are dealing with are horrific. Educators are inherently very empathetic and we carry their trauma home with us.”
Imagine facing that, day in and day out. Probably one reason why tips for teachers dealing with stress are flooding the internet. But there are only so many hot baths, massages, and glasses of wine to ease that pressure. Real change is needed. During the last debate, there was focus on making schools more diverse. That’s important, of course, but that must be done alongside giving teachers the support they need. Here are some suggestions that the candidates can include in their platforms.
Teachers need to be paid better.
Senator Bernie Sanders said that his legislation would guarantee a salary of at least $60,000 a year, currently the average of what teachers make, according to the National Education Association. Two problems with that. Try supporting a family of four in some parts of the country where the cost of living is much higher. And in many areas, teachers are making far less than $60,000 a year, forcing them to take on one or two other jobs.
Teachers should not have to use their own money to pay for school supplies.
According to a survey conducted by the federal Department of Education, 94 percent of public school teachers reported paying for supplies and were never reimbursed. Trying to make your classroom festive for Halloween or another holiday without having access to financial resources exacerbates the pressure these teachers already feel.
Teachers should be provided with classroom support.
One kindergarten teacher said she has 16 children in her classroom this year. One is homeless, another in foster care, another has a parent in prison. Several children have behavioral problems that disrupt any attempt at learning. There apparently is no money in the budget for a teacher’s aid and no one volunteers to come in to help. Resources need to be found to address this need. Schools also need to think outside the box. What about finding retirees in the area who might like to spend a few hours a day helping a teacher?
Standardized tests need to be reevaluated.
“No child left behind,” seemed like a great idea. But it led to an overemphasis on testing. There does need to be some measurement for what children know and what teachers need to focus on. But having very young children sit for long tests, when they can barely sit still, is not the way to go.
Universal pre-K needs to actually be universal.
Recently a taxi driver in New York City told me why he was supporting Mayor Bill DeBlasio, whose presidential bid has floundered. His reason? His children have benefitted from universal pre-K in the city. Pre-K should not only be free, it should be mandatory, forcing parents to make sure their children begin their learning early on so as not to show up for that first day of school lagging behind.
Schools need to recognize teacher stress as a serious issue.
Tech giants have play areas where their employees can relax. Adrianna Huffington, CEO of Thrive Global, has set up places where her workers can take naps during the day. There are safe places where college students feeling anxiety can go to destress. The teacher’s lounge that existed back in our day, where teachers met to have coffee and talk, is not enough. What school district will make a bold move to install a spa or a place for teachers to really unwind? And, at a minimum, every school district should have psychologists on staff who can meet with teachers to help them cope with their stress. Access is everything.
Administrators need to spend more time in the classroom.
Many administrators in education – principals and superintendents, for example – spend only a few years teaching before they begin to climb that promotion ladder. They quickly forget what it was like to be in a classroom. The only time they do sit in, they are evaluating the teachers. How about sitting in to remember what it was like and have some empathy for those on the front lines? Would be eye-opening for sure.
We need gun control.
These drills only add to stress for teachers and students. Funny how we are now targeting vaping that, yes, has claimed so far six lives. But that pales in comparison to the hundreds that have died this year in gun violence. CEOs of major corporations recently signed a letter forcefully urging the administration to act. School districts should do the same.
We need a Secretary of Education who actually knows something about education.
By any measure, Betsy Devos has been a failure, fighting for neither the students nor the children. During the debate, Elizabeth Warren observed that she was the only one on the stage who had actually been a teacher. That doesn’t disqualify the others running, but we at least need a president who can appoint someone who actually will spend time in classrooms across the country and listen – really listen – to teachers.
When that time comes, I have a list of places that secretary of education can visit.
Charlene Giannetti, editor of Woman Around Town, is the co-author with Margaret Sagarese, of many books for parents of adolescents, including The Roller-Coaster Years, Cliques, and Parenting 911.
Top photo: Bigstock