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In a time of terrible news for progressives, the teachers’ strikes that have erupted across the country have been one of the few bright spots. First, teachers in West Virginia went out on the picket lines and didn’t go back to work until their demands were met. Now, the teachers of Kentucky and Oklahoma are following suit.
There are plenty of reasons that teachers, whose work is essential and requires a substantial level of education, are paid so poorly in this country. There is the Tea Party Republican hostility toward government employees. There is the neoliberal idea that all workers need to “make sacrifices” even in times of economic strength. There is the systematic destruction of organized labor that began with Reagan’s presidency and could soon be completed when the Supreme Court rules on AFSCME v. Janus.
There is also sexism.
The mean income of police officers in America is just under $65,000. The average pay for a teacher is about $10,000 less than that, and in some states, the average pay for educators is as low as $40,000. The job of police officer does not require a college degree. Not only does becoming a teacher require a college degree, but it either requires a master’s degree or proof that you’re working toward one. 75 percent of all teachers in America are women; 86 percent of all police officers are men.
You may argue that police deserve a higher pay for the risks they take. But police officers don’t even rank in the top 10 most dangerous jobs in America; construction workers, roofers, truckers, and loggers all have higher mortality rates. We could, instead, compare teachers to all other government employees. The average salary for a government employee is $84,000, and while there are some highly educated personnel in the mix, only about half of government employees have completed a bachelor’s degree. So again, there is a discrepancy.
If we look outside of the public sector, we see a similar story. A recent study concluded the teaching is the only “white collar” profession dominated by women, and as a result, a gender pay gap is baked into the job. The Economic Policy Institute found, “In 2015, public school teachers’ weekly wages were 17.0 percent lower than those of comparable workers.” That is almost the exact disparity between the pay of men and women nationally. Hillary Clinton made this connection while she was on the campaign trail, telling the New York United Teachers Representative Assembly, “While we’re at it, at a time when the majority of teachers are women, we need to stand up for equal pay for women.”
Sexism in teaching goes beyond the gender pay gap, though. Becoming a teacher comes with many of the gendered perceptions that have historically plagued women in America. Tasks that would be seen as overtime in other professions, or would at least garner the gratitude of a boss, are expected and characterized as “motherly.” As one writer put it, “Teaching isn’t charity work. It’s a job. But because it is a profession dominated by women, and teaching is often viewed as a caretaking role, we see teachers who stand up for their labor rights as selfish.” As one education professor asked, “Are teachers expected to do too much parenting?”
The numbers tell us the answer is yes. In a study of 36 comparable nations, the Teaching and Learning International survey found that American teachers spend the most time with students. This pushes time devoted to lesson plans, continued education, and extracurriculars outside the bounds of what should be their workday.
Like a parent, a teacher is statistically either on the clock or asleep. Researchers found that teachers tend to work between 12- and 16-hour days, though the “school day” is only seven hours long, and teachers always endure teasing from workers in other sectors for “getting summers off.” During the summer, teachers estimate that they spend up to a month on continuing education, an average of three weeks planning their curriculum, and tend to begin working full days about a month before school begins in the fall.
While the demand for pay increases and improved healthcare have gotten the most national attention, you can see traces of this gendered mentality in the demands of the striking teachers. In West Virginia, educators were forced to use a fitness app called “Go360,” which monitored their fitness and diet activity. It’s hard to imagine a predominantly male class of employees being forced to diet as a part of their job. Then there is the so-called “emergency certification,” which allows unqualified individuals to teach in public schools, as if the teaching profession doesn’t carry the esteem that others do. As teacher Albert Morejon wrote in an Oklahoma teachers Facebook group, “Last time I checked, no one in this room would go to a doctor, lawyer, or even a plumber with an emergency certification.”
Even the governor of Oklahoma, a woman, compared her state’s striking teachers to “a teenager wanting a better car.” It’s hard to imagine firefighters being infantilized like that.
Many of the problems that plague female workers, such as the gender pay gap, expectations over parenting or caregiving, and the “confidence gap” in the jobs women choose to apply for, are, sadly, inextricable from the American view of teaching. These perceptions, combined with the Freedom Caucus-led suspicion of public employees, has led to intolerable conditions for teachers across the country. American conservatives have gotten very comfortable taking things away from teachers and disrespecting their profession. Much of this comfort has come from using gendered stereotypes as a weapon.
Victories in the labor struggles in West Virginia, Kentucky, and Oklahoma would not just be wins for educators, they would be victories for working women across America. The first step in crushing our country’s culture of sexism is by meeting women’s most modest demands.
Brenden Gallagher is a politics reporter and cultural commentator. His work has been published by Motherboard, Complex, and VH1. He’s the co-founder of Beer Money Films, an indie production company. Based in Los Angeles, he works in television drama as a writers assistant.