Alex Caputo-Pearl, president of the United Teachers of Los Angeles union, explained that although salaries and benefits are important, “our contract campaign is suffused with a lot of demands that benefit society much more broadly.” A news release from the Chicago Teachers Union about the recent 10-day strike echoed that sentiment: “Our contract fight was about the larger movement to shift values and priorities in Chicago.” For CTU President Jesse Sharkey, the strike was not for teachers, but for “real and lasting change for our students and the people of this city.”
On the surface, there is nothing not to love about teachers advocating for their students.
But this effort, though noble in intent, might backfire because this formulation — teacher compensation for the greater good — reinforces the image of teachers as self-sacrificing servants, rather than as professionals. And that might set the larger cause backward in the long run.
Perhaps more than any other social institution, public schooling has been a key lever for social justice throughout U.S. history. In 1848, Horace Mann made his case for the social value of public schooling by describing it as “the most effective and benignant of all the forces of civilization.” In his estimation, public education “beyond all other devices of human origin, is the great equalizer of the conditions of men — the balance wheel of the social machinery.”
But while these dreams often went unfulfilled, generations of Americans have turned to local schools seeking opportunity and access and rooted their calls for social change in the promise of education.
Yet there is another equally long tradition in American schooling, one that undermines this goal of social justice: staunch resistance to paying teachers living wages and improving their working conditions. At its root were regressive gendered tropes — the idea that teaching was women’s work — that brought women into the public schools in the first place and isolated them at the lowest levels of the school bureaucracy.
In 1856, New York City Schools Superintendent S.S. Randall explained that women were natural teachers. “Outside of the family,” he offered, “she nowhere seems to occupy her appropriate sphere.”
The mother-teacher logic rationalized the place of women in schools, giving way to what would become the largest professional occupation and largest group of working women in America. For early school leaders such as Mann, women belonged in the “empire of the home,” and the classroom was a natural extension of that domestic space.
But that mother-teacher logic had a dark side: It functioned as a way to control teachers and tamp down their demands for authority, respect and remuneration. The perception of women as natural and docile caretakers simultaneously carved out space for them in classrooms and marked them as unfit for leadership. In policymakers’ imaginations, teachers were young women who would care for the children of the community before they had their own husbands and children to dedicate themselves to. In this formulation, what would women need money for? For teachers without families of their own, the story went, schoolwork would be a natural extension of what women were born to do.
This conception, of course, was a myth as women turned to the public schools to build careers, find authority and voice in public spaces and provide for their families — one of their few opportunities to do so in the 19th century.
By the turn of the 20th century, female teachers began organizing, reasoning that working collectively and affiliating with organized labor would offer the sort of voice and power they lacked as individuals.
Fighting against practices that “placed women on a lower plane than a man,” Grace Strachan led New York teachers on a quest for pay equalization. But they ran into a wall of resistance. Denying teachers’ requests, one school board member explained in 1910 that “I would like to have it understood that the schools are conducted for the children, not for the benefit of the teachers.”
Faced with the rise of teachers unions in Chicago, members of the school board turned to the public for support. In 1915, school board member William Rothman characterized organized teachers as a greedy, self-interested group, guilty of “low standards of womanhood.” Agreeing, Chicago School Board President Jacob Loeb said that in seeking higher pay, organized teachers have been led away “from a position of single-hearted devotion to the welfare of the children.” To hammer home his point, Loeb mused in 1916, “I do not think the parents want women of that sort as examples and instructors for their children.”
Since those early years of teacher activism, women have secured the right to vote, own property and represent themselves in court and financial dealings. The proverbial “glass ceiling” that limited women’s full participation in professional and public life has been largely shattered, we are told. And yet the same historical mother-teacher logic that casts women as self-sacrificing caretakers persists in our schools, limiting teachers’ voices to their classrooms and rationalizing low pay.
The data makes that clear: Today, teaching remains predominantly female, with women serving as more than 75 percent of the nation’s 3.7 million teachers. And according to a 2018 study conducted by Sylvia Allegretto and Lawrence Mishel of the Economic Policy Institute, female teachers earned 15.6 percent less in wages than women in comparable fields, and in no state did teachers earn more than other college graduates.
For schools to fulfill their promise as engines of social justice that create equal opportunity for all American children, teachers must be paid like the professionals they are and be elevated to the higher echelon of education, shaping all aspects of the educational experience. Teachers — highly educated adults — deserve competitive wages and professional work environments where they have time to think and authority to make decisions. By virtue of their experience and expertise, they see and know more than the rest of us about what their students need. We need not only to listen to teachers, but to amplify their voices and heed their calls.
Instead, a system constructed thanks to sexist assumptions in the 19th century continues to govern teacher pay and conditions and, in the process, discourage people from becoming teachers and deprive our teachers of the ability to do their jobs well. They need time to collaborate with colleagues and to eat lunch and the freedom to not need to work second and third jobs, depriving them of time to prepare. We would not ask doctors, lawyers or computer programmers to labor under such conditions. Nor should we teachers.
Perhaps today’s union leaders have found an effective way to kill two birds with one stone. Teachers have long stood on the front lines of fights for justice and equity, and they have long sought higher pay. This sort of blending has yielded tangible benefits and roused public support, to be sure. But it comes with costs, too, as it affirms the image of the teacher as self-sacrificing servant rather than individual expert. And long term, this may serve as a barrier to achieving the higher pay and necessary conditions for teachers to do their jobs as well as possible.