We Must Support Our Teachers | Opinion

Teachers are not OK.

At the start of the COVID-19 pandemic they were hailed as heroes for seamlessly pivoting to remote learning. But as some schools stayed closed for over a year, teachers were blamed for learning loss. When schools reopened, teachers contended with bad ventilation and overcrowded classrooms, rising misbehavior and criticism for teaching "divisive concepts" like racism and antisemitism. At a breaking point, teachers are retiring early and quitting in droves, exacerbating an existing teacher shortage. As teachers' requests for basic safety measures during the Omicron wave spark more backlash, we must support them.

The last few decades have seen vicious attacks on schools and teachers by a bipartisan "education reform" movement intent on replacing public schools with charter schools and voucher programs, and swapping veteran educators with temps from Teach for America. Billionaires finance the campaigns of politicians who carry out their agenda of privatizing schools, and they fund education "reporting" that's biased against public schools and teachers.

But media narratives of "Rotten Apple" teachers and "failing" public schools diverge from who teachers really are and what public schools actually mean to most Americans. Ninety percent of American kids attend public schools, and the majority of K-12 parents are satisfied with the quality of their child's education, according to a 2021 Gallup poll.

Americans know that public schools are the foundation for the American Dream.

As a Soviet refugee, I grew up in New York City public schools. When my kindergarten teacher, Mrs. Lerner, told me I was smart, she pried me away from my grandma's apron strings which I clutched each morning, begging not to go to school because I didn't want to get teased for my bad English. In the fourth grade, when mono confined me to bed for a month, Mrs. McNamee taught me over the phone every night. In my eleventh grade precalculus class, the dynamic Ms. Slavin made me enjoy math for the very first time, proving that the impossible was possible.

This became my mantra when I was an English teacher at a Washington Heights high school, where my colleagues and I propelled our Dominican students, most of whom were from low-income homes, to college. One of them, Shaun Abreu, recently won a seat on the New York City Council, becoming the first Latino to represent District 7.

Because of how much teachers do for students and communities, they're expected to cure all societal ills. And when schools shut down, teachers get blamed, endlessly alternating between hero and villain. It's easier to scapegoat teachers than it is to hold politicians accountable for investing in schools and providing pandemic support.

Given school buildings' longstanding decrepitude and overcrowding, it makes sense that teachers across the country have requested upgraded ventilation, adequate testing and a temporary remote option during an Omicron wave that has hospitalized an alarming number of kids. When districts failed to respond, teachers, students and staff got sick, and attendance fell while anxiety skyrocketed. As Brooklyn-based teacher Liat Olenick wrote in The Nation, "Schools are not functional right now, but instead of support, all teachers have gotten from the media and politicians is hate."

A teacher wears a mask and teaches
A teacher wears a mask and teaches remotely from her classroom on Sept. 24, 2020, in New York City. Michael Loccisano/Getty Images

You can't scroll through the news without seeing teachers being denigrated.

Chicago mayor Lori Lightfoot, for example, who locked teachers out of their Google classrooms when they demanded a remote option until testing was expanded, made the rounds of news programs where she called teachers' actions an "illegal walkout" and told them to "get serious" about returning to in-person instruction.

But teachers' voices are largely missing from mainstream reporting on schools. In fact, independent journalists and veteran teachers are taking to Twitter to call out legacy media for limiting its sources to Ivy League professors and dark-money groups bankrolled by the same billionaires who are trying to do away with public schools and prevent students from reading Toni Morrison and Elie Wiesel.

Considering how teachers are treated, it's no surprise that they're quitting.

Enrollment in teacher prep programs has been declining since before the pandemic. Those already teaching are often driven out by disrespect and stress, which COVID has exacerbated. Nearly one in four teachers surveyed by RAND in 2021 said they were likely to quit their jobs, compared to one in six before the pandemic. In a 2021 National Education Association survey of nearly 2,700 teachers, 32 percent said the pandemic drove them to plan to leave teaching earlier than they'd expected. Schools across the country are struggling to find staff, which doesn't bode well for the future of public education.

In her book Slaying Goliath, historian Diane Ravitch wrote that the onus of saving schools has fallen on grassroots activists like the parents and students who marched with teachers in the Red for Ed movement that swept the country in 2018-19.

A similar movement may be taking root now. Hundreds of students recently walked out of dozens of New York City high schools to protest unsafe learning conditions and demand a remote option. Following their lead, students in Chicago, Seattle, Boston and Saint Paul also walked out. Students in Oakland are planning to walk out as well unless better protections and a remote option are provided.

The bond between students and teachers runs deep. As former teacher and current New York City councilmember Jamaal Bowman tweeted, "Students aren't okay if teachers aren't okay ... the vast majority of teachers wanna be there for their students. But they also wanna be respected. And they should be."

Florina Rodov is a former public and charter school teacher whose work has been published at CNN, The Atlantic, Shondaland and others. She's working on two books. Follow her on Twitter @florinarodov.

The views expressed in this article are the writer's own.