Thank a Teacher or Give Her a Raise?
Eloise (Weezy) Henry teaches fifth grade at a public school in north Texas acclaimed for the academic and social/emotional caliber of students it matriculates. The past year, since Covid-19 altered the nature of learning, she has shown up every day to do the impossible. Her daily classroom hours are divided, partly devoted to instructing students present in her midst and partly adapted to students learning virtually from home via a large Zoom screen that can’t help but distract the others sitting feet away from her.
Footnote: Weezy receives IV chemo every Friday afternoon after school so she can recover over the weekend and dive back in Monday morning. She does her job faithfully every day, week after week, without complaint because she loves the work and believes her students will soon carry forth our culture. She is one of 3.7 million teachers across the U.S. who is a gatekeeper of society.
Teacher Appreciation Week is celebrated this year May 3-7. Founded by Congress in 1980, the 2021 observance takes on deeper meaning because of how Covid-19 has demanded teachers stretch their resources, patience, flexibility and, magically, hours in a day. What teachers do defies the laws of physics.
“At this age kids must keep eye contact with me to stay focused,” she says. “I’m bound to lose some students when I’m not looking straight at them. They may wind up in La La Land playing games on their cell phone or iPad and only pretending to do an assignment—but from a short distance I can’t tell if they’re looking at Greta Thunberg or their latest crush. When lessons are remote,” she says, “I have no idea what they’re doing unless they stay in the middle of the screen where I can see them.”
Brookings Institution notes in a recent piece on punitive teacher pay in America: “Parents during Covid have been left to play the role of teacher, principal and lunch lady all at once. We’re pulling out our hair trying to figure out lesson plans, distance learning platforms and assignments. And our children are treating us like the flailing emergency substitute teachers we are.”
Food for thought.
Not only is Weezy responsible for lesson plans, she must prepare them two full weeks in advance so virtual students can swing by and pick up their “manipulatives,” that is, any kind of study aid, from lesson printouts to rulers. But the song remains the same:
- Teachers make about 20% less than other professionals with similar education and experience.
- In many states, teachers earn less than family living wage.
- Up to 25% of teachers quit the profession each year and roughly 20% resort to second jobs.
The average fifth-grade teacher’s salary is $43,752 as of March 29, 2021, though Mrs. Henry took the fifth when we asked her point blank how much she earns. The salary range typically falls between $33,937 and $57,295 depending on where you live, your education, certifications, additional expertise and the number of years you have spent in your profession.
“There was this idea that you don’t have to be that smart. It’s not as complex,” said Richard Ingersoll, professor of education at University of Pennsylvania who previously taught high school and keeps tabs on the industry. In a CNBC report he elaborated, “Or [it’s not] as difficult as being an accountant, working with numbers. Or being a dentist, working with teeth.”
State lawmakers claim they will move in 2021 to increase teacher pay, especially in light of Covid-19’s dramatic impact. Teachers’ salaries have persistently lagged behind inflation and productivity with states’ pay to teachers, adjusted for inflation, decreasing 4.5% over the past decade. Some states are better; some are worse.
Teacher Appreciation Week might be ironic, especially during a national health crisis, if it weren’t for the dedication most teachers have by nature. They seem steeled to a higher purpose by nature, which in the long run might not serve their bank account. Remember Eloise Henry is also fighting a personal health crisis. Some days she feels weak, but she hides it. We asked her if she is a martyr, pouring herself into each day and each child. We asked her if she wishes she’d chosen a more lucrative profession. “For me it was never about the money,” she fires back, winking. “I am the potter and my kids are the clay. I turn up the lights in their eyes. If I’m able to swing it, I am among the privileged.”
This week, figure out a way to thank a teacher. A good one is not hard to find.