Recently a friend told me she read something that said, “Teachers are underpaid because America does not value the work of women.” It was, in fact, a brilliant quote from Black educator, Alfred Shivy Brooks, who makes fantastic sweatshirts with quotes like this. I could not stop thinking about this quote and so I wrote this article. Thanks for the inspiration, Alfred, and for letting me know where the quote originated. WeAreTeachers believes that EVERYONE should get the credit they deserve.
Growing up, my brothers (all four of them!) were pushed into the financial world, but I was not. “You should become a teacher,” they told me. “You love kids.” Three out of my four brothers went on to earn a lot of money. I did not. When I was a first grade teacher with ten years of experience and a master’s degree, my salary was $37,000. It barely kept us all afloat. I had to borrow money from my brothers sometimes.
Regularly I asked myself the question: what do teachers have to do in America to get paid enough? Spoiler alert: We may have to encourage more men to enter the teaching profession in order to get the salary increases teachers deserve.
It is impossible to separate the teaching profession from the work of women. The occupation has been female-dominated since the 19th century. So, when I watched the positive outcome of a lawsuit like the U.S. women’s soccer team enjoyed, I got interested in investigating how teacher pay was discussed on the internet. There’s no shortage of posts on Reddit, Twitter, and Facebook about how little teachers are paid, but teacher gender is not often discussed as a reason for being underpaid. So this post on Reddit, and the comments that followed, was gold:
It’s no secret that women have always been devalued in America. We typically see women’s income as “extra” money. Even when she supported the household, she should not undermine the construct of man as primary breadwinner. This notion of women’s pay as inessential, and, of course, the concept that teaching is an extension of mothering, has been used to undervalue the work of education.
Are there really more women in education?
Yes, as many as 76 percent of public school teachers are women, according to the most recent data from the National Center for Education Statistics. Earlier grade levels are even more dominated by female teachers—89 percent of primary school teachers are women. The gender makeup of teachers begins to even out in high school, as 36 percent of high school teachers are male, but the majority are still women. Also, it turns out that even within teaching, the pay and opportunity decline for women.
Are all women afforded the same teaching opportunities?
If we dig even more deeply into the teacher pay inequity, we find that among women, white teachers tend to make more than teachers of color. As Lisa Rabasca Roepe discovered in researching for her article “Why Increasing the Minimum Wage Could Help Close the Gender Wage Gap,” according to Julie Vogtman, director of job quality and senior counsel for the National Women’s Law Center, “The gender and racial wage gaps aren’t just the product of direct pay discrimination on the job. Our society has devalued the work that women do, especially the work that Black and Latina women do.”
Another issue that makes teaching exponentially more difficult for Black female teachers is that they tend to be expected to connect with or discipline Black students regardless of their role at the school. As Youki Terada writes in “Why Black Teachers Walk Away,” “‘Black teachers are being inundated with fixing discipline,’ said Frank. ‘The number of teachers in interviews who have talked about people marching Black and Brown boys to their classes to fix them and get them straight, that’s a microaggression.'”
Women have been raised to care for people, and so the belief system that they will do it, even if it isn’t their job and without getting paid more, continues.
The pandemic exposed underpaid work of women further
Being a teacher has always been difficult because of the low pay and difficulty in having a balanced life. The pandemic made life even harder for female teachers. In “Harvard EdCast: The Unique Challenges Facing Women in Education,” “The pandemic has exposed many of the challenges facing women working in education.” Jennie Weiner, an expert who studies how to create a more inclusive and equitable education field, says that “women make up a majority of the education workforce but occupy barely a quarter of top leadership positions. This is not by accident, but by systemic design. Many people would rather believe that hard work and being really good at what you do could outperform bias, and that’s a lie. No matter how good you are, if we live in discriminatory system, that discrimination will raise its head.”
Jennie Weiner goes on to explain how the pandemic world affected women more severely. “We’re looking at somewhere between 2.5 and 4 million women leaving the workforce.” She explains that this number is related to discrimination. If a heterosexual couple both worked before the pandemic, “it is highly likely because of the way discrimination works that the woman was in a lower paid field.” The wife typically took care of the childcare, cooking, and scheduling. It didn’t make sense that she would keep her job. In the case of female teachers, they were made to feel guilty for the children in their class who would be left behind. This put women in the most stressful category of worrying about both their own children and their classroom children.
What can teachers do to be paid more?
In her post, “Teaching is a Woman: Why I closed My Door to the Classroom ,” Ari Christine shares, “Please don’t ask ‘what about the children?’ I care about them, but I have to care about me more. It wasn’t until the pandemic that I realized the true toxicity that envelopes education. Teaching is a woman. And who are women expected to be in our society? She’s supposed to always be there to serve. She feels guilty when she needs a day off and always has so much to fix when she returns. She’s only celebrated for sacrificing. She isn’t appreciated until she leaves.”
I’m not recommending we all leave the profession so that they’ll appreciate us more. That’s not reasonable. We love being teachers. We love our classroom kids. But, we deserve to be paid a livable wage. One worthy of the time, commitment, and money it takes to become a professional teacher. This means we need to advocate for ourselves by attending board meetings and delivering research on benefits of increased teacher pay. It means we need to pay attention to which districts have the highest salaries and look at their budgets to find out how they made it possible. In every profession, there are two things to manage: the actual work and the work to build a career. Start saying no to more recess duties. Take on the work that helps you move your career forward. We need to push ourselves to become networkers and understand how the school political game is played.
But, most of all, put yourself first. How long have you been waiting for that to actually happen?