The rhetoric of “It’s for the kids…”

Now, I want to clarify that the rant that follows isn’t personal. I’ve been treated well by my employer. My pay is decent for a K-12 educator. My life-work balance improves with every year on the job. I’m not patronized. I’m treated like an educated adult who has a field of academic expertise. I’m trusted to provide the best education possible to my students (and I’m confident that I do that and I do it well.) And I’d say that relatively speaking, my employer has been cautious and tried to protect teachers during this pandemic. So, I’m saying this as a teacher who has it pretty good; a teacher who is employed at a private school with class sizes that aren’t overwhelming and with students who treat me with kindness and respect. But we teachers are family, so I need to say something about education in the United States, broadly speaking.

If you’ve spent any time around K-12 education you have heard people use a magical phrase that justifies how teachers are treated: “It’s for the kids.” If teachers aren’t paid a living wage, their sacrifice is “for the kids”. If teachers are asked to work unpaid overtime, it’s “for the kids”. (And by the way, most teachers don’t get paid for our summer “vacation” unless we opt to spread our ten-month salaries over twelve months, so many teachers work another gig in the summer and sometimes even extra jobs during the school year!) If teachers have to be verbally abused by their students or their students’ parents, it’s “for the kids”. And many of the non-profit organizations designed to improve schooling in this country buy into this philosophy (e.g. Teach for America), happily pushing participants to work themselves to exhaustion “for the kids”.

Then the pandemic came along. Many teachers were told that their subject matter doesn’t matter because what matters is that they provide a place for children while their parents go back to work. If the quality of their teaching is subpar, it’s ok: just give us a place to send our children so we can make money. In essence, many teachers have been told their respected vocation is actually free childcare designed to allow their parents to go back to work so that the economy can thrive. Teachers became “essential workers” braving Covid-19 exposure on the front lines. All the while, many of our fellow citizens demanded that they return to take care of their children while complaining about requests for those children to be vaccinated and wear masks.

Now, teachers are leaving education at alarming numbers. Where I live in Texas, and elsewhere, some schools are begging parents to come to be substitute teachers because of the teacher/staff shortages caused by Covid-19 infections and teachers walking off the job permanently. Some people are aghast by this. How can teachers do this to the children? The hypocrisy is stunning as are the assumptions. Teachers aren’t in a vocational caste where they must remain in education until they die. Teachers are humans with (free-ish) wills. Many teachers are quite educated. I know this is surprising to some but many teachers are intelligent enough, innovative enough, and entrepreneurial enough to do quite well in other sectors! There’s nothing that demands that teachers stay teachers until they die. When society tells its teachers that economic profit matters more than the well-being of the teachers they think must be life-long saints, there shouldn’t be any surprise when those same teachers ask themselves, “Wait! If the economy is what really matters, why don’t I get myself a piece of that pie? Maybe that way I can retire someday too!”

The empty rhetoric of “It’s for the kids…” has been exposed when it became clear that many people care less about “the kids” than they projected. But here’s what is also important to realize: every underpaid, overworked adult teacher is a human who was once a kid. When the exploitation of teachers is justified by saying it’s “for the kids,” and that teachers should work themselves into the ground so that the next generation can have better opportunities, they’ve revealed that what they’re saying is that they want teachers to keep fueling the machine. Teachers need to work hard to create the next generation’s exploited, overworked, underpaid, dehumanized workforce. “For the kids” then means, “we need more bodies to help make capital!”

If you think this is a lie, notice the predatory lending habits associated with student loans. There’s a segment of our society that salivates at the idea of more and more children becoming young adults who don’t understand finance or know what they’re doing when they take loans for tens of thousands, if not hundreds of thousands, of dollars. Is that “get them into college” mentality really the magic bullet we think it is? If wages are stagnant but the cost of education continues to skyrocket, what we’re telling the next generation is this: “If you want to be educated and maybe work one of the jobs that come with that education, there will be a tax: you will spend hundreds a month from your wages on student loan payments.”

If American society wants to do something for the next generation, it needs to find a way to pay teachers better, make sure their work-life balance can be maintained, shrink classroom sizes, update their facilities, provide them with the necessary resources, etc. That’s “for the kids”. Teachers shouldn’t be martyrs. And this is true of apparently “progressive,” “pro-education” states like California, who thinks it’s ok to offer high school teachers a starting wage of $48,044 – $52,466! That’s not a living wage in California; not even close! As a society, we can right these wrongs or we can watch educators walk out the door, all but guaranteeing that the next generation will have something else stolen from them along with the health of their natural environment.

Teaching isn’t just my job; teaching is my passion and part of my identity. This may not be healthy but I’m not alone. Most teachers do the work they do for the same reason. We’re not just employed as educators; it feels like it’s part of our being. But teachers can be pushed beyond their limits and when they walk, they walk, and you may not be able to replace them. So, let’s do something “for the kids” and treat teachers with the dignity they deserve, paying them the wages they deserve, and giving them the work-life balance and working environment they deserve. I’m looking at you, California!

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