Why Are Teachers Striking? It's Time to Listen to Their Greatest Concerns

Photo: In January 2019, more than 30,000 public school teachers in the Los Angeles Unified School District went on strike to protest issues including large class sizes, a lack of certain staff support, and low salaries. (Getty Images)

Over the past couple of years, a growing number of states, cities, and school districts have witnessed teacher strikes. Teachers strikes are not new to the nation, but what has been noteworthy of late is the growing number of teachers who are pushing not only for increased pay but also for additional supports in the classroom.

Issues Raised at Recent Teacher Strikes

Within the past year, teachers in two of the three largest districts in the nation, Chicago and Los Angeles, hit the picket lines, and their demands were not solely about money. The primary points that the teachers in Chicago and Los Angeles were fighting for were:

  • Reduced class sizes
  • More school counselors, social workers, and nurses
  • Additional librarians
  • A greater investment in traditional public schools. 

This trend for additional supports was seen the last few years by teachers in Denver, Colorado, and Oakland, California, as well as states like West Virginia, Kentucky, and Oklahoma, where educators are asking for a greater investment from their states in public education. These calls seem to be spreading nationally and seem to be about justice, equity, and better serving our most vulnerable students.

Take a look at what educators told HMH were their greatest concerns in the 2019 Educator Confidence Report (ECR) conducted in collaboration with YouGov.

Source: 2019 Educator Confidence Report (from HMH and YouGov)

The Evolving Role of the Teacher

Tied to the message that educators are raising is that the job of today’s teachers is increasingly complex. Increased pressure on educators to get students to meet academic standards is compounded by the social and emotional needs that many students have. An increasing number of students have varying mental health challenges, while others experience food and housing insecurities, and deal with different types of trauma that can serve as huge obstacles to learning. Teachers witness the challenges students face every day and often feel overwhelmed and ill-equipped to respond in an informed and sustainable way. In fact, according to the ECR, three-quarters of teachers agree that stressors like these from the educational environment make it difficult for them to be at their best in the classroom.

In Los Angeles and Chicago, teachers received a lot of support from the general public when they talked about the fact that many of them currently have class sizes of more than 40 students at times. To a large degree, the public seemed surprised and amazed that teachers had such large class sizes. Imagine a high school educator teaching five class periods with 35 students per class. This would be demanding, to say the least, at a time when there's a growing push for differentiated instruction and getting to know all students well to maximize learning. Furthermore, teachers are communicating that they need assistance to support students in areas where they have no training, such as helping students with anxiety, depression, anger management issues, and other emotional challenges.

Hence, the need for more counselors is dire. Many schools across the nation have a high student-to-counselor ratio. Needless to say, many teachers are now having to play the role of counselor, therapist, social worker, nurse, and parent—all as they teach. This is a heavy load to carry, and not what many teachers signed up for when they chose the profession. This is also one of the primary reasons many teachers are leaving the profession. Something has to change. 

Source: 2019 Educator Confidence Report (from HMH and YouGov)

How Student Needs Are Changing

Driving much of the need for additional teacher support are the growing needs of students. As mounting evidence has revealed the complex needs of students emotionally, socially, academically, and psychologically, the demands placed on teachers today are perhaps the most intense that we have ever seen in our lifetimes. To that end, teachers have used their voices, shared their frustrations, and mounted their political agency to bring attention to their realities. Our country needs to listen, learn, and find ways to better support teachers in today’s schools.

As numerous reports have emerged that highlight how the U.S. fares educationally compared with other countries, a frequent cry from the public is that our “schools need to be better,” “teachers need to do a better job,” or “public schools are failing us.” Perhaps more poignant questions are: “Is the public failing our teachers?” and “Are many states bailing on public education?” I pose these questions in light of high teacher turnover at many of the most difficult-to-teach schools in urban and rural communities. Yet the public seems largely oblivious to or unconcerned with teachers’ day-to-day realities. Greater teacher activism should be a wake-up call that we need all hands on deck to support our educators, who in turn support our most cherished commodity—our children.

Where Do We Go From Here?

To that end, here are three takeaways that can be undertaken to better understand and support teachers’ needs and concerns.

  • Public education spending is insufficient. Despite billions that are spent on education annually by our country, spending is uneven within states and across states. I have visited many districts that are essentially a tale of two cities, wherein one set of schools benefits from tremendous tax revenue and parental contributions from more affluent homes, while just a few miles away schools serve some of the most impoverished students. Moreover, some states like Oklahoma spend approximately $8,000 per pupil while other states like New Jersey spend around $20,000 a year. States must devise more robust and equitable investments in education to ensure that the neediest areas receive adequate supports.
  • Social-emotional needs of students are real, but so are those of teachers. While an increased focus has been placed on student trauma, less attention has been given to the needs of teachers’ emotional health and well-being. While there's been a focus on students' wellness, we continue to see a large number of teachers going out on disability and stress leave and experiencing a multitude of other health issues. To be clear, many teachers state that their own health is suffering due to the increased pressure that they feel on their jobs. There needs to be a national conversation about teacher self-care, wherein we talk about the growing frustration, anger, depression, and often outright hopelessness that many teachers feel about their jobs. States and districts must double down efforts for mental health supports for educators.
  • Public perception of teaching and teachers has to change. One of the purposes of the recent teacher strikes is to bring a renewed awareness to the difficulty of teaching. Unlike other nations across the world, teachers in the U.S are not held in the high regard that they deserve. While many teachers do not enter the profession for the money, they deserve to be compensated in a manner that is consistent with new reforms and increasing demands. I have long called for a national campaign to enlighten the public about the jobs of teachers. Too many are taken for granted—many work countless hours investing in other people’s children—yet we allow a few bad apples in the profession to shape our view of the dedicated educators who show up every day doing their best to make a difference.
Photo: In January 2019, more than 30,000 public school teachers in the Los Angeles Unified School District went on strike. (Getty Images)

Education scholar Rich Milner at Vanderbilt University has discussed the toll on today’s teachers and has studied how teachers' emotional struggles can have a direct influence on their practices and interactions with students. It leads one to question: who really cares about the teachers? We must think creatively and collectively about how to get the public to adopt and sustain a more supportive and empathetic approach to the jobs of teachers. 

Teacher protests continue to swell across the nation. We must all listen and find ways to support them. Teachers serve on the front line of one of our most priceless institutions—public schools. We have long touted education as our proverbial equalizer, the place where hopes, dreams, and aspirations of our youth become realized. Our teachers are alerting us to a serious call about our future, and my concern is whether or not enough of us are listening.

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You can book a keynote with Dr. Tyrone C. Howard, ICLE Senior Fellow and an Associate Dean at the University of California, Los Angeles, to bring his expertise about equity and cultural relevance to your school or district.