Today's Educator Shortages are a Product of Decades of Bullying and Ignoring TeachersRoundup
tags: teachers, labor history, education history
Diana D'Amico Pawlewicz is a historian of education policy at the University of North Dakota, a Visiting Scholar at the Bonner Center for Civic Engagement at the University of Richmond and an editor of Made by History. Her next book, Walkout! Teacher Militancy, Activism, and School Reform, and will be available in 2022.
America’s schools are receiving significant attention thanks to fierce debates over covid-19 mitigation methods and curriculum. But they have another more significant problem a century in the making that has generated far less of a spotlight: a teacher shortage felt in every state. School district leaders have resorted to hiring substitute and emergency licensed teachers and asking burned-out teachers to do more.
The problem is these stopgap measures are not working particularly well. A schools superintendent in Bothell, Wash., recently resorted to filling in as a physical education teacher. In Bristol Township, Pa., officials canceled classes at one school Friday because they did not have enough teachers to open.
And this is nothing new — in fact, it is a historical pattern. At its root, the problem stems from school leaders ignoring teacher complaints about low pay, stifling bureaucracies, and lack of respect and autonomy. Over the past century, this refusal has left schools vulnerable to wars, demographic shifts and now the coronavirus pandemic. Each time, rather than deal with the deeper problems that leave schools vulnerable to teacher shortages, administrators and school boards opt for short-term bandages that have proved inefficient, ineffective and injurious.
By the first decades of the 20th century, labor laws pushed children out of factories and into schools, expanding the reach and infrastructure of public education across the country. And as schools grew, teachers and their advocates made their discontents known. With few worker protections in place, school leaders could fire and fine teachers without cause. Writing on teachers’ working conditions, John Dewey reflected: “The situation would be ridiculous if it were not so serious.”
Female teachers led by Margret Haley and others organized and formed associations to achieve equal pay for equal work and have a say in how schools were run. But school leaders like Chicago’s Jacob Loeb dismissed their pleas, arguing that such teachers “terrorized and manacled the entire school system.”
When World War I hit, so too did the consequences of this dismissal. In 1918, one reporter warned that the country was facing a “teacher famine.” In rural and urban areas, teachers were “resigning from their positions in the schools to take up other kinds of work” where they could earn more money and have better working conditions. In Iowa, there were 160 schools with no teachers at all, and in Louisiana, the state superintendent worried that the state would have to shutter its schools. Facing widespread school closures, Alabama state leaders called for “emergency training courses” that would bring adults to the schools quickly.