When I was graduating college, my friends’ futures were brimming with impressive labels: Google, Facebook, McKinsey, Bain, PhD, MD, Fulbrights – the list of professional excellence was seemingly never-ending. When I said that I was becoming a teacher, I got puzzled looks – “Why would you be a teacher?” “If you can’t do, teach,” I heard. The nonchalance about my professional trajectory was unsettling. What’s more? Nothing has changed in the last ten years.
As a country, we do not value teachers. Though teachers spend hours gaining their credentials and licensure, developing curriculum scope and sequence, grading, mentoring, and learning how to better their pedagogy and impact, there is not a sentiment of collectivism around their hard work.
How do I know that’s the case? Teachers are chronically underpaid, evident by the fact that they often have multiple jobs to sustain themselves. They are often single handedly blamed for not raising student academic achievement and berated for having unions to support their causes. And now, they are being tasked with something far greater – they are being required to show their dedication to their profession by putting their lives on the line.
COVID is not over. The abysmal response by the federal government is evident by the United States reaching over 500,000 deaths. It took months for us to operationalize and implement basic social distancing principles: wear a mask, stay six feet apart, wash your hands, don’t congregate in large events. Some Americans still do not believe nor follow these principles. However, the push to re-open schools live in areas where educators are not vaccinated shows the little regard that policymakers have about educators’ lives.
Teachers go in their profession not for the money or the fame. They go into teaching because they genuinely love kids and want to do their part in making the world a better place. By opening schools without providing teachers the opportunity to be vaccinated is sending a message that we already knew – teachers are not valued. Their voice is not valued. And in this case, their lives are not valued.
Yes, the necessity of opening schools in person is great. We need to provide in-person instruction particularly to our most vulnerable students: students with special needs, students undergoing mental health crises, students who require the safety and structure of their daily routines. By pushing the narrative that reopening schools is being inhibited by teachers who do not care, is frankly, disappointing.
We need to acknowledge that this past year has been one of trauma and challenge. We cannot overcome the darkness by making teachers martyrs for a cause that they do not have a say in. As a country, we need to do better. And the first step in doing better is valuing the voices of those who have dedicated to their lives to the service of others. How do we do that? By listening to them.
Sana Shaikh, PhD, of Haddam is a Director of School Operations.