It's time to step up support for teachers and schools – they’re essential

Al Sowers

It’s taken a pandemic to remind us of all that teachers do. Teachers not only teach, they also act as social workers, coaches, nurses, surrogate parents, and IT trouble-shooters—all for about $39,000/year (national average starting teacher salary). In Minnesota, it’s $38,500—that’s about $1,500 less than a milk delivery driver makes. Day after day, they show up and give 110 percent because they love and believe in their students. They are constantly thinking about ways to improve the educational experience for each student, often paying for improvements out of their own pockets. Ninety-four percent of teachers in one survey said they pay for classroom supplies without reimbursement, to the tune of an average of $479, according to the New York Times.

Schools help keep the children in our communities safe, providing a place that’s warm and dry. The adults at school look out for children. Teachers and administrators are required to report incidences of suspected child abuse to the proper authorities. Schools also help keep children healthy, feeding 35 million kids a day and hosting nearly 2,000 school-based health centers nationwide, according to the National Assembly on School-Based Health Care census.

They connect children and their families with social services—something that’s particularly important here in Minnesota where data from the state shows that four out of 10 public school students are eligible for free and reduced price lunch. Schools also serve other functions in the community, e.g., as polling places. And they give all of us an opportunity to unite around a shared value: the love of our children.

The education system is extremely stressed right now, as administrators try to figure out whether and how they can safely return to on-site education and what resources will be required, including staffing. Even before COVID-19, there was a teaching shortage. Fifty-two percent of Minnesota’s licensed teachers are not in the classroom, according to research done by Minnesota Professional Educator Licensing and Standards Board with the Wilder Foundation. And districts across the state regularly wrestle with teacher vacancies as they wait for action on the Addressing Teacher Shortages Act of 2019. Now 12 percent of teachers in one EdWeek survey said they may leave teaching, even though they weren’t planning to do so before the pandemic. 

There are plenty of ways you can show your school and its teachers some well-deserved love right now.

  • Volunteer if you’re able. The volunteer opportunities might look different this year. You may be doing tutoring online or helping ready laptops or putting textbooks into bags for delivery to homes.
  • Become a substitute teacher. Even before the pandemic, districts across the nation were only able to fill 54 percent of the approximately 250,000 teacher absences each day, according to an EdWeek Research Center survey sponsored by Kelly® Education. Here in Minnesota, we do better than that, but there are still more than 20 percent of substitute teacher staffing needs that go unfilled every day. Help fill the gap!
  • Support the school financially, by voting to approve the millage, even if your own children have already graduated. Citizenship involves caring about everyone in the community and working to strengthen that community.
  • If you’re a business leader, remember that today’s elementary student is tomorrow’s worker, and find a way to invest in the schools. Think of it as growing your own workforce. You enjoy tax incentives that benefit your business; you can generate a bit of goodwill in the community by building it. How? Start career readiness programs the way these Minnesota companies did, or give employees paid time off to volunteer in the schools, or sponsor a competition related to a skill set your company needs

Most importantly, say thank you to teachers and administrators. The work they do is physically and emotionally demanding, and, as I said, we have taken them for granted. Let’s all take a moment to show our teachers we see how hard they work and how much they care.

Al Sowers is vice president of Bloomington-based Teachers On Call.