It's more important than ever that teachers influence support for public education

It's more important than ever that teachers influence support for public education
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As schools around the country close in an effort to slow the spread of COVID-19, the implications of this strategy are only beginning to take shape. Unequal access to learning will be exacerbated as the digital divide makes it difficult to impossible for many students to continue in school. Younger students don’t have the skills to work independently, putting parents and caregivers in the position of taking over for teachers with homeschooling.

Fault lines are bound to open as the work of school shifts home and pressure increases on families and workplaces. The lack of consensus on how long school closures should continue and whether they are the best strategy likely will intensify disagreements over the role of school in educating and caring for children.

Inevitably these questions and conflicts will affect public perception of teachers and the work they do. This needs to be an urgent concern especially for public school teachers, staff and their allies. Labor tensions are already surfacing. From Amazon warehouses and cleaning crews to nurses in Sacramento and Los Angeles, workers are protesting work requirements and conditions in light of the threat of COVID-19 infection. Applications for unemployment benefits are rising and many predict much worse to come

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As financial pressures increase, ensuring support for spending on public education is more important than ever. The general public already has little idea of teachers’ work; schools are called "black boxes" because so little information about what happens there reaches beyond the building. The more people feel they are doing teachers’ work, the more they may question teachers’ role in responding to the current crisis. Current news coverage has focused mostly on teacher pay. As the COVID-19 crisis deepens, failing to step in and ensure everyone knows the work teachers are doing and the support school staff are offering will be a serious mistake. 

As a linguist and teacher educator, I study how public discourse about teachers affects expectations for the teaching profession. Analyzing coverage of the past two years of teacher strikes in mainstream news outlets, especially in editorial and other opinion pieces, I noticed a repetition of polarizing, “us vs. them” language that disregarded the depth of concerns and collaborative vision raised by striking teachers.

From 2018 on, striking K-12 public school teachers in Chicago, Denver, Los Angeles, Oakland, and across Kentucky and West Virginia demanded, and won, smaller class sizes, more resources for students including nurses, librarians, and counselors, a living wage for staff, and limits on charter schools. Teachers continue to push for affordable housing for themselves and their students, some of whom are homeless, and an end to school closures. By striking, teachers and staff forced a public conversation about these fundamental social issues, each of which remains urgent during the upheaval caused by COVID-19.

The bottom line is that the teacher's voice is most often heard on the picket line, which limits the opportunity to influence education policy. Recent innovative labor practices and more holistic vision than typically characterizes strikes should have positioned teachers as leading voices in policy solutions and advocates for children, but this didn’t happen. Instead, coverage of the many teachers' strikes has primed a public conversation pitting teachers against “the rest of us.” 

To be sure, much news coverage teacher strikes ranged from sympathetic to informative. But news and editorials also painted teachers as threatening and irresponsible. Denver pleaded with teachers that "We're at your mercy, please don't strike". Teachers in Los Angeles and Chicago were accused of being uncaring about their students in headlines such as Why does the L.A. teachers union want to limit options for poor children?" and This CTU strike has betrayed Chicago's children." 

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Recently, persistent negative attitudes toward striking teachers were evident in coverage of graduate student employees at the University of California Santa Cruz, who were fired after a month-long wildcat strike overpay. 

Photos of their protests included police in riot gear confronting the students. And just a few weeks ago, teachers outside Pittsburg threatening a strike after working without a contract since January 2019 were accused of putting "adult interests...ahead of the welfare and best interests of students and families". A tiny minority of news pieces about teachers ever feature direct comments from teachers. 

As schools close, the black box is even darker, teachers’ work more invisible. Advocates for public education need to go to the media and take more control over how their stories get told.

National papers reach a wide audience, but some of the most significant education policy and most of the funding decisions occur at the local level. News outlets with a local focus are an essential and more accessible resource for influencing the legislators and voters who determine the laws and funding that shape public education. The ever-increasing number of online publications and social media platforms offers more democratic access to public conversation. 

As long as the pressures of the news cycle control the story, teachers will only get a say when they’re in the streets. By investing in regular opinion writing and building relationships with reporters across a range of outlets, advocates can turn the current difficulties into an opportunity to more meaningfully influence support for public schools.

Jennifer L. Cohen is an associate professor of education in the Department of Teacher Education at DePaul University’s College of Education.