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The GW Hatchet

Serving the GW Community since 1904

The GW Hatchet

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Crime log: Subject barred after shoplifting at bookstore
By Max Porter, Contributing News Editor • February 26, 2024

Column: Why sexism is to blame for today’s teacher shortage

We can’t blame people for leaving the profession, but we can recognize our society’s sexist condescension of the work they do.

Ticonderoga No. 2 pencils, Lunchables, crying over math homework at the dining room table — it wasn’t so long ago that we left these things behind. We may have graduated, but the K-12 teachers who guided us to the ceremony still lack the respect their work deserves.

The nation’s public education system is facing a crisis: Our apple-loving, knowledge-espousing teachers are overworked, underappreciated and underpaid. Sure, presidential hopefuls high-five teachers on the campaign trail every four years, and students occasionally shower them with Starbucks gift cards. But an educator shortage has been brewing in the United States for more than a decade — something the pandemic and a long history of sexism directed toward the profession have only exacerbated.

At least 300,000 public school teachers and staff members left their jobs between February 2020 and May 2022. To make matters worse, fewer people are entering the field: Each year since 2017 has seen more education job openings than hires, and the gap is widening. As a result, the remaining teachers face poor and worsening conditions, and the roughly 49 million students enrolled in public schools in the United States bear the consequences of disrupted learning.

The root cause of this emergency is sexism. Since the mid-19th century, teaching has been inextricably associated with women and thus undervalued by American society.

Horace Mann, the “father of the Common School” — emphasis on “father” — wrote, “natural sympathy, sagacity, [and] maternal instincts preeminently qualify her for this sphere of noble usefulness.” This rhetoric, from 1843, ties women’s abilities as educators to motherhood, regurgitating stereotypes that question their professional competence. Echoes of this discourse, written 77 years before women won the right to vote, are still prevalent today. Ever heard anyone refer to teachers as “glorified babysitters?”

Teaching was regarded as a lowly profession at its conception. It was transient — instruction usually only occurred for several months of the year — as well as informal and male-dominated. As the country industrialized, schools unable to pay the increasing costs of retaining male teachers enlisted women into the profession out of necessity. Female teachers were paid about half as much as male teachers — Mann wrote, “is [it] not an unpardonable waste of means … to employ a man at $25-$30 a month when it can be done much better, at half price, by a female teacher?” And male principals were employed to handle the disciplinary problems that women were deemed ill suited to take on.

We are not so far removed from this past: Women dominated the education field by the 1900s, and they still dominate the education field despite being underrepresented in administrative roles today. In the 2020-21 school year, 77 percent of public school teachers were women, while women accounted for only 56 percent of public school principals.

Moreover, 89 percent of public elementary school teachers were female — compared to 64 percent at the secondary education level. Some 179 years after Mann, these figures indicate little has changed in society’s view of women as caretakers best suited for tending to young children. It is no coincidence that the field is dominated by women and not adequately credited for its role in society.

As a woman studying political science, I am often asked every humanities student’s favorite question: “What will you do with your degree? Become a teacher?” The condescension tacked onto the phrase is palpable.

The immediacy of my “No” flies out as if I were asked if I wanted to turn my summer job at an ice cream shop into a full-time career. Somewhere along the way, society conditioned me to view teaching as a “fall-back” option, something beneath me that I should avoid taking up unless I had to.

But honestly, I think I would enjoy teaching. It has nothing to do with some innate calling to care for kids and all to do with my own love of learning and appreciation of the public school system. Teaching is an incredibly difficult profession with the ability to transform lives. The shortage of educators is not only alarming but also cause for introspection — our society undervalues teachers’ work because of its association with femininity. We can’t blame people for leaving the profession, but we can recognize our society’s sexist condescension of the work they do.

The most impactful people in my life have undoubtedly been my teachers, whom I have immense admiration for. I’ve had the privilege of learning from talented educators throughout my K-12 public school education, and I can confidently say that I would not be the person I am today without their relentless support.

My teachers have been mentors, friends and the biggest inspirations in my life. They fed my curiosity, developed my interests and armed me with the tools I use in everyday life. The sexism inherent in their job is not something my teachers should have faced, and it’s not something I or anyone else who decides to enter the field should face, either.

Katarina Engst, a junior majoring in political science, is an opinions writer.

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