About the Author: Eric Severson is a Special Education teacher at Clara Barton High School in Brooklyn. He ran as a VP with UFT Solidarity in 2016 and 2019.
Recently many teachers have begun sharing a reversal of the old saying maligning teachers: “Those who can do teach, and those who can’t make laws about teaching.” The same can legitimately be said about opinions on teaching, that those who have never spent a day in front of a classroom are most likely to have strong and very wrong opinions on what teachers should do and how we should feel about our profession and students.
Let’s start with a list of some of the classic misguided notions that I hear from time to time, followed by a response to a recent NY Post editorial accusing us of selfishness:
● ‘Summers Off’ is largely a myth. Teachers (including myself) work summers to make ends meet, attend professional and curriculum development, and this summer spend our time organizing and lobbying to make sure our lives and health aren’t put in danger.
● Contrary to Bill O’Reilly’s anti teacher rant, teaching is not a ‘part time job’ and we don’t leave at 3 o’clock, we are up late planning for the next day, grading, making phone calls and writing emails, and doing everything else we don’t have time to do during busy and often chaotic days.
● Tenure in a K-12 public school does not mean a guaranteed job for life. It simply means that one has due process and can’t be summarily dismissed without a hearing and an inquiry. In much of the world these are considered basic rights in a democracy, and those who complain about it would do better to fight for such rights in their own profession rather than gripe about what legal rights educators have.
● Teacher’s unions are not about ‘protecting bad teachers’ as anti teacher editorials and Twitter posts are so fond of saying. Like all labor unions, teachers unions are about pay and benefits and working conditions, and the workplace protections we have fought for over the years protect against harassment from vindictive administrators and arbitrary dismissal by power hungry bosses. Those who want to remove tenure and strip teacher’s unions of what power they have are inevitably motivated by financial or political concerns that have nothing to do with a quality education. Think about the best teacher your child ever had and ask yourself if they would have stayed on without some degree of job security and decent pay and benefits that is only possible with a union.
● No one goes into teaching because the money and perks of the job are so great, but many detractors seem to think this is the case. Since teaching in most states now requires a master’s degree, teachers are paid less than comparably educated peers just about everywhere. Teaching is one of very few professions in which the employees must dip into their own pockets to pay for the basic supplies necessary to do their job, which will be even more of a problem this Fall now that the teacher’s choice program providing funds for supplies has been cut to $0 and inevitably teachers will end up having to bring in their own sanitizing wipes and soap when the DOE runs out and there is a long delay to resupply.
● This brings me to the final point, that in some circles including a recent NY Post editorial, teachers who wish to continue teaching remotely are accused of selfishness and not stepping up to put themselves at risk for their jobs in the same way that police and fire fighters have. Besides the obvious ways in which that comparison is nonsense, that police and fire fighters don’t need to be confined in a huge building with hundreds of other people to do their jobs well, this attack is as offensive as it is inaccurate. First, consider how many New Yorkers fell ill or died from COVID-19 because De Blasio and Carranza dragged their feet while other cities and nations around the world shut down faster. Teachers led the way in calling for closing school buildings, and think how many lives would have been saved had we been listened to. When school did go remote, teachers shifted from in person to online instruction seamlessly with only three days of training, and while working remotely spent countless hours beyond their contractual requirement answering emails, making phone calls, and doing all they could to support remote learning. Of course the push to keep learning remote in September is partly about teachers being concerned for their own health, and this is fine, everyone has the right to a safe and healthy workplace and to fight for it if they’re not getting it. However, it is also about our lived experience, that the DOE’s bureaucracy that historically can’t even keep bathrooms stocked with soap and which took years to get working A/C units installed in most classrooms can’t be trusted to provide PPE, ventilators, and cleaning supplies and keep them well stocked and maintained. This is a matter of public health, and even if young people are less likely to suffer severe effects from the virus, exposing them at school can lead to them exposing parents and other relatives to it at home.
In the age of Betsy DeVos, it has been easier than ever for teachers to win the national argument about our profession and fight the toxic rhetoric promoting privatization and stripping our unions of what modest power they have left, but the fact that there are still editorials out there accusing us of selfishness for promoting common sense and public health shows that there is still bias and misinformation out there, and we cannot rest as long as that is the case.