by Alexandra Robbins
LeVar Newsom is a full-time physical education and health teacher in San Antonio, but his workday doesn’t end when the bell rings at 3:20 p.m. On days when he’s not coaching football, soccer or basketball, he drives straight to his job as a carpet cleaner, where he works from 4 p.m. to 7 p.m. Then he goes home to grade papers and prepare lessons. Until recently, he also worked a night shift as a hospital technician — 10:45 p.m. to 6:45 a.m. — before returning to school by 7:15 a.m. He barely saw his wife and two young daughters.
In January, Mr. Newsom’s doctor, concerned about his high blood pressure, told him to quit the night shift or risk having a stroke. Mr. Newsom left that job, but his physical and emotional struggles remain as he tries to figure out how else to supplement a salary of about $30,000 (after taxes and insurance payments). At various times his water and cellphone service have been cut off. He suspects he has torn ligaments in his knee but is reluctant to have it examined because he needs to keep working.
“I’ve shed a tear or two,” he admits. “I’m always thinking, How am I going to feed my family?”
If things don’t change after the 2020 presidential election, Mr. Newsom says, he doesn’t know what he’ll do. He’s not alone. Teachers across the country tell me that for them and their profession, the stakes of a presidential election have never been higher. While former Vice President Joe Biden and Senator Bernie Sanders are both courting the teacher vote, teachers wonder whether either candidate can repair the damage the Trump administration has done.
President Trump and his education secretary, Betsy DeVos, have been, in the words of a Nebraska teacher, Patrick Fielder, “the most toxic thing ever to happen to public education.” Not only have they belittled teachers and schools; they have also fought to eliminate civil rights protections in schools; to cut funding to reduce class size, teacher training and support; to make it easier for students to get away with sexual assault and harassment; and to put guns in schools. Mr. Trump and Ms. DeVos have repeatedly pushed to divert billions of dollars from public schools to private programs that studies show don’t help students.
Many Americans are not aware of how bleak the education landscape in this country has become. A recent national poll asked Democratic voters which candidate would best handle health care, climate change, foreign policy and immigration. The survey made no mention of education. “Teachers feel more voiceless than ever,” said Julia Rion, a South Carolina elementary school librarian. “There’s a lack of community support and understanding of how difficult it can be to serve children’s educational, emotional and psychological needs.”And now teachers have new concerns about the administration’s slow response to the coronavirus pandemic and the unnerving challenges they face as a result. Before most schools closed, teachers were among the groups most at risk of exposure to the coronavirus. I spoke to an Idaho high school English teacher who had to work on Monday despite having a chronic health condition and a weak immune system. She said officials in her school district, which closed on Tuesday, had wanted schools to stay open so that parents could continue to work. “But teachers aren’t babysitters,” she said, “and schools aren’t day care.”
Over the past decade, the national average teacher salary has dropped 4.5 percent, adjusted for inflation, according to the National Education Association. In 2018, the Economic Policy Institute reported that teachers are paid 21.4 percent less than professionals with similar education and experience — a record-high pay gap, and a major reason the national teacher shortage is increasing.
Challis Young, a 31-year-old Oregon high school teacher, told me that in recent years she has seen more than 10 teachers her age quit because of long hours and low pay. “Teachers are drowning,” she said. “High school students see their teachers struggle, especially in our small town, and they don’t want that life. How are we supposed to attract talented and professional employees?”
A 2019 Phi Delta Kappa poll found that about half the country’s public schoolteachers — and 61 percent of high school teachers — had seriously considered quitting the profession in the past few years. Further, 75 percent of teachers reported that their community schools were underfunded, 60 percent said they were unfairly paid and 58 percent would vote to strike for more school funding.
The St. Paul strike was the latest walkout in the thriving “Red for Ed” teacher protest movement, which teachers began in 2018 to demand greater public-school funding and improved teacher benefits and pay. The strikes fortunately have begun to show results in some states. Surveys show that when teachers strike to protest school funding cuts and low salaries, they boost public support among both Democrats and Republicans for raising teacher pay.Many teachers already are striking. Last week, teachers in St. Paul, Minn., walked out for the first time since 1946. They asked the district for more special-education teachers, multilingual staff members and in-school mental-health professionals, and for a salary hike. The union ultimately settled for less because of the coronavirus pandemic.
But it shouldn’t take strikes to persuade the public and lawmakers to treat teachers better. Teachers are among the most vital, hardest-working, passionate and selfless members of the work force — yet they are also among the most disrespected, underappreciated, overworked and underpaid.
When I asked teachers what they wanted the next administration to address, the most frequently mentioned issue — along with decreased class size and increased mental-health resources and support staff for students — was restoring respect for teaching as a profession. “I will be voting for whichever Democratic candidate makes it to the ticket and Betsy DeVos is the No. 1 reason,” a Missouri special education teacher, Bridgett Blake, said. “When I started teaching in the late 1990s, teachers were not seen as idiots who couldn’t be trusted. We weren’t viewed as evil and lazy like we are now.”
Even before the coronavirus outbreak, the working conditions at many schools were inadequate at best. Teachers in several Philadelphia schools must bring their own toilet paper and paper towels to work. Maryland’s largest school district grants teachers only two days of paid maternity leave — and no paid days for adoptive leave, paternity leave or other family leave. A Utah high school teacher told me she taught seven English classes last year, most of which had 40 to 45 students.
One of the largest sources of teachers’ workplace stress and anxiety has been a lack of resources — human and financial — for special education and for students learning English. Challis Young told me that in a sophomore history class, she could have a student at a third-grade reading level, a first-year English learner, a student with an unstable home environment, a significantly advanced student, a student needing emotional support for autism — and two dozen other students with varying strengths and weaknesses.
The coronavirus introduced new obstacles and dangers. “Kids sneeze, cough and don’t cover their mouths,” said Suzanna Jackson, a third-grade teacher at a low-income school in California. “And they touch everything.” Ms. Jackson’s school didn’t close until Wednesday, while nearby cities were already sheltering in place. Ms. Jackson said that school officials discouraged teachers from using disinfecting wipes or sanitizers in their classrooms, citing concerns about exposing children to chemicals. “There are no disinfecting products that work against Covid-19 in our school that I know of,” she added.
Officials in some school districts expected teachers to show up even though schools were closed. Teachers in Fayette County, W.Va., originally were told to be at school weekdays for students’ questions, lesson planning and meal deliveries. “I have several immuno-compromised co-workers who are furious,” a teacher told me on Thursday — before district officials said teachers could go home after submitting grades. “I don’t want to go back until it’s safe. I struggled to keep my composure the last few days of school. Even my toughest kids were scared, terrified and looking to me for solace. I said everything will be all right but I’m not sure I was telling them the truth.”When I asked Ms. Jackson on Tuesday why she was at school, she started to cry. “I come in anyway because they’re my kids,” she said. “I’m not going to leave my kids. I feel torn. I’m mad the district told us to be here, but my kids need me.”
Eventually, teachers will return to work. But without proper resources, enough time and adequate support staff, they will be hamstrung, desperate to reach all their students but unable to do so. “My hands are tied,” Ms. Young said. “I watch kids I know could be saved drop out, commit petty crimes, use drugs and make bad choices. We could fundamentally change the lives of millions of children, but we’re simply too overwhelmed to meet their needs in the way we know we should.”
LeVar Newsom is trying. As with many teachers, his heart is with his students, and he sacrifices his financial needs to focus on their well-being. He often hunts for donations for classroom supplies and clothes for students. Recently he provided shoes and football cleats to a student who owned only a pair of flip-flops. Despite his struggles, he has no plans to leave teaching.
“I didn’t have when I was growing up,” he said. “So I like being there for these kids because they don’t have. Seeing kids’ futures get brighter makes it all worthwhile. Teaching can be hard, but it makes my soul happy.”
Alexandra Robbins (@AlexndraRobbins) is the author, most recently, of “Fraternity: An Inside Look at a Year of College Boys Becoming Men.” She is writing a book about K-12 teachers.