This week on the Truth for Teachers podcast: An edu-history lesson with Jennifer Binis on why teachers are overworked and undervalued.
As educators, we talk a lot about how teachers are poorly paid and how unrealistic the demands are. But we don’t talk nearly as much about how things got to be this way. We need to understand the societal norms, institutional structures, gender dynamics, and so on that got us where we’re at today in order to be able to change them moving forward.
Jennifer Binis is one of the most knowledgeable people I know on this topic. I follow her on Twitter as @JennBinis, and I love her ability to notice patterns and interrupt them. She’s also the curator of @Edhistory101 on Twitter and has a podcast on education history. Her podcast is not regularly updated, but provides a really entertaining and informative perspective on the history of our schools–the first episode in particular is well worth your time.
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Angela: Why do schools overwork & undervalue teachers, from a historical perspective?
Jennifer: I think where we start thinking about gender, education, and history is looking at the common school era. One of the things that is hard for teachers to understand is that the notion of femininity was always deeply entrenched in who gets to be a teacher. There was a very conscious effort to make teaching a profession that was acceptable for America’s young women (mostly white).
At the rise of the common school movement, America was saying, “Okay, east coast, let’s have a common school. Let’s send all of our boys and some of our girls to school. They need to be in a place that’s safe and warm. And who better to do this than women?”
We have to keep in mind that a lot of what we inherited has its deep roots in this notion of white femininity. And so when we struggle against some of the things that happen in the present day, it can help us to understand where those roots are: back in the notion that teaching is what women do before they get married and before they have kids. It’s a safe, welcoming profession for America’s white women.
So this is a time in history when women were not allowed to work outside of the home, right? What time period is this?
Around 1830, so right before the Civil War. You always have to have little asterisks for these conversations. It’s worth stressing that in most southern states, teaching black, enslaved children to read was illegal. In multiple states, including in the northeast, indigenous children were given Christian educations, oftentimes, with or without their parents’ consent.
That’s one of the battles I fight on Twitter, where a large number of people like to say, “Well, America’s stuck in the factory model.” And the challenge is when we talk about the factory model, you’re narrowing the history of education to just what happened to white children. We have to talk about what happened to enslaved children. What happened to indigenous children? What happened to Asian children when they first arrived on the west coast?
So in the 1830s, before the Civil War, something like upwards of 80% of all women in Massachusetts in the 1840s and 1850s had been a teacher at one time. Because it was what women did before they got married and had children. So you’d get your grammar school graduation degree, you’d teach, you’d meet your husband, and you’d quit your teaching job … which meant the turnover was incredibly high.
And this was always a job that was designed for white women because this is the first time really where white children were leaving home during the day and were in someone else’s care. And that was thought to be something that a woman would do best.
Yes — exactly! This is when I’ll start the plugins that I like to do of teacher/education history. There is a new book by Dana Goldstein called The Teacher Wars: A History of America’s Most Embattled Profession. She starts back in the 1830s and 1840s, with the rise of the common school movement, and talks about the transition away from dame schools towards grammar schools, and how they had to produce so many teachers.
So yes, it was a relatively new phenomenon that we would gather all of our community’s children in one building, put one person in charge, and have them take care of the child for most of the day.
How long was school in those days?
It was varied and depended dramatically on the community. One thing to keep in mind is the nature of bodily functions. A school superintendent in New York State in the 1850s did a huge survey of all the schools in the state. And there were something like 200,000 one-room schoolhouses at its peak, and only 40% of them had a dedicated washroom or outhouse. A lot of the one-room schoolhouses were close enough to children’s homes where they could just walk home.
So they maybe had three or four hours of schooling, and would go home throughout the day to use the washroom or outhouse. School wasn’t a full day. And sessions were typically about six to eight weeks long throughout the entire year. The longest sessions were usually in the summer and the winter. But it wasn’t a full day, and it didn’t become a full day the way we see it now for 180 days until the early 1900s.
How were these teachers compensated?
Incredibly poorly. New York state started one of the first Department of Educations in the country, and it was big on documentation. The State Superintendent for Education would hire these “schoolmen” to go out and do inventories of school districts. They would collect data on salaries, outhouses, textbooks, etc.
And in one report, the man doing the review noted that the teacher remuneration was fair because the male teacher was earning $27 a session, where the female teacher was earning $13. That was utterly reasonable because, of course, he had a family to support and she didn’t. It didn’t matter if he was married or not: men would often earn up to twice as much as women teachers would.
So a man could become a teacher and he could be married and have children, but not women?
Sure. And it was utterly transitory for men. It wasn’t really seen as a profession for men. There were some exceptions to the rule. But often, if a community had a male teacher, he was on his way to something else. He was a lawyer who couldn’t get a job in a law firm. He wanted to work in the government but wanted to save money before moving. It was a transitory thing typically for men. Not always, as there were always exceptions, but yes — it was women’s work.
And how interesting that even today, we find that men teachers often don’t stay in the classroom as long as women do. They’re often pushed toward leadership really early in their careers. and are encouraged to move to an assistant principal position as soon as possible.
Absolutely, and that phenomenon has a name. It’s called the glass escalator. It came out from a sociologist named Christine Williams, and she noticed that in female-dominated professions, cisgender white men tend to move very quickly. Exactly like what you said.
So when we think about what teachers can do, I’m a big proponent in naming patterns. If we noticed that men are always asked to lead the committee or to be the department chairs, or if men are always the ones speaking up and being heard, we need to ask questions, even if it’s hard and awkward, or uncomfortable.
Even if you could say, “I noticed that in our school we have 15 leadership positions and 12 of them are male teachers.” Or, “All of our male teachers have leadership positions in our community. What are the unintended consequences of that?” Just having that kind of conversation and saying, “Are we accidentally falling into these patterns?”
It’s interesting to listen to you talk about the historical patterns, because it sounds almost like you’re describing modern schools in so many ways. We’ve come so far and yet a lot of things are still the same. How is what’s happening today in our schools still being impacted by gender dynamics and by this history of the profession?
You identified the schoolman phenomenon where men often get promoted or move more quickly up through the ranks than women do. There’s also a whole bunch tied up in classroom decorations. The whole phenomenon of the Instagram Teacher or the Pinterest-Ready Classroom that is deeply entrenched with the notion of gender norms.
One of the transitions that had to happen to make school a place where women could work–where families wouldn’t have to worry if their daughter was working–is that it had to be a beautiful place. Because in order to for it to be a respectable place, it had to be aesthetically pleasing. So a great deal went into advocating that women teachers decorated their school room. Teachers were praised for having aesthetically pleasing decorations, for painting the walls, and making it pleasing for their children.
That’s an incredibly hard habit to break because human nature is to want to make things look pretty. But when teachers participate in the Pinterest classroom phenomenon, sharing Insta-ready classrooms, or putting forth a picture of a beautiful classroom without detailing — I spent this much money. This was donated. It took me 97 labor hours to get all of this done. My parents and my in-laws and my kids helped — we’re doing a disservice.
Another way to kind of disrupt patterns or to advocate for change is to be absolutely transparent about how much unpaid labor goes into making a beautiful classroom.
It’s not that you’re wrong if you do it. But we don’t want to make it seem like this is the expected norm, or that everything that magically comes together with no expense and no effort on the part of the teacher, because sometimes it does look effortless.
Exactly. And there’s nothing wrong with doing it. Where we run into the problems is if we act as if it is, like you said, the norm or that it just happens overnight.
When you asked the question about what we can do? Another thing that we can do is physically share teacher evaluations with each other. The write-ups that your admins write, the actual language–share it with each other, especially if you’re a mixed gender teaching team or faculty.
As an example of that: a good friend of mine has been teaching for 20 years now. His classroom walls are bare. It’s a mess, but his kids love him. He teaches government and has the bare minimum requirements on the wall for visual aids in teaching American government. His next door neighbor is a second-year teacher. She’s young, she has a whole bunch of student loan debt. She can’t afford to decorate her classroom.
When they compared teacher evals, my friend noticed that nothing was said about his classroom decorations, but for his neighbor (a brand new teacher), something was said about how the classroom wasn’t very welcoming or warm.
And fortunately, my friend had the gravitas and the expertise to go to the principal and say, “It is not fair that you wrote her up for classroom decorations and not me.” It was a tough conversation with the admin about the unintended consequences of gender-based lenses.
Right, because normally teachers aren’t sharing evaluations. I don’t think I ever knew what any of my colleagues had on their evaluation unless it was something that really made them mad. Maybe they talked about it a little, but it’s not something that we were really having conversations about.
Because we’ll often talk about the way it makes us feel, or we talk about the general sentiment. But we need to get down to adjectives.
There are a couple of different researchers who do work around feminism in teacher evaluation and taking a feminist lens to teacher evaluation. Critical Feminism and Critical Education is one of my favorite books about it. And they talk about how female teachers are referred to as gentle and kind and sweet, where male teachers have control of their discipline or understand their content.
Administrators tend to focus on different things in evaluations and the only way to uncover that is to physically share with a colleague. You have to ask, “Hey, what words were used to describe you? What words were used to describe me?” and kind of unpack that.
The same holds true for teachers of color. If you’re a white teacher, share your language with a teacher of color and look for those same patterns. (Of course, the challenge in many cases is with that demographic pool, you can go 13 years of education in America and not have a single Black teacher. So you could be the only Black teacher in an entire school district.) We’re not to a place where this is considered a natural part of sharing because of how dominated the profession is by white women, but a small step is to start sharing language between the dominant demographic of a community and the non-dominant.
One of the interesting things that sometimes comes up when I’m talking about the relationship between teacher expectations and gender dynamics is that people will say, “All teachers are overworked. It’s not just expected of women.” And I think the important point to understand is that anyone who’s in the classroom is going to be impacted by the gender expectation, by the expectations for women. Gender dynamics are going to impact all teachers because the norms of teaching were developed for white women.
Absolutely. Even down to how we handle large group discussions. The act of raising your hand is a norm that is very Eurocentric, very white-centric, to talk one at a time, to raise your hand, to wait for an adult to acknowledge you. It’s a very school specific behavior, which by virtue of the dominating demographic is a white norm.
So one of the expectations that is still being placed on teachers today is to have this warm, welcoming, decorated classroom that is sort of a holdover from the earliest days of the profession. What are some other things that we’re still experiencing the lingering effects of?
The nature of your classroom discussions. Things about walking single file or how we even refer to each other, going by Mrs. or Mr. All of these things are inherited norms related to having an adult in the classroom in charge of a group of students in the hierarchical structure.
It’s not to say it’s wrong or bad to have your students call you Ms. Watson or Ms. Binnis. But let’s stop and take a moment to consider, “Why am I having my students call me by my last name?” Well, if it’s a way to show respect — respect as defined by whom?
And the exciting thing about these conversations is there’s never really a right answer. It’s not like you have to start using only your first name. But it’s about saying, “Okay, wait, why are we doing this?” And kind of tilting our heads a bit and saying, “Hey, maybe we could come at this a different way.”
When we do that, we’re more likely to create inclusive classrooms where every child feels as if the community was created for them and with them.
Do you think it’s fair to say that the job of being a teacher was designed to be underpaid and undervalued from the beginning?
To a certain extent, yes. I’ll refer to Goldstein’s book. The challenge is a catch-22. Yes, teachers were underpaid because female teachers were cheaper than male teachers, but it was also an elevated position. Women couldn’t go into the clergy. It wasn’t possible for women to be a layperson: either you were a nun or you couldn’t be a layperson and go out and proselytize. That was just a door that was closed to women. But if you went and became a teacher in a classroom, you were proselytizing to this group of children. You could show them the light of a Christian education.
So on one hand, yes, underpaid and devalued. On the other hand, there’s the martyr teacher syndrome. It’s funny that you and I are talking during a major teacher’s strike. Because a lot of people are going to write thought pieces about how these teachers are putting their needs in front of the kids, or their job is to be in front of the classroom.
That’s playing into this norm of the martyred teacher: that what teachers do is so special that they should set aside all of their earthly needs and just focus on what the children need. And as soon as you start to peel that back, you realize what a catch-22 that is for grown women to have their needs overridden because “you’re here for the kids.” It’s a terrible message to send to children–that once you become a teacher, you lose your right for self-advocacy.
One of the things we don’t often think about is the physical demands that teaching can have, which is tied up with a martyr syndrome. Teachers have a disproportionate number of urinary tract infections and kidney infections, which is a function of how schools are designed and how teachers can’t just step out when they have to use the restroom because they’re often the only adult there.
Because of how schools are designed, we’ve created these kinds of systems where it just seems like the norm: “Well, of course, you’re going to go four hours without using the restroom because that’s how long you have until you have a planning period.” But who would complain about that because teachers aren’t expected to complain, right?
Right! And that’s a whole other issue. This idea that as a woman, when you are in charge of children, you should do that happily. You should be smiling. You should never want to imply that you would rather be someplace else. You’re not supposed to get tired. Why are you complaining? This is the most important work on earth. We’re not paying you well for it, but we’re still going to tell you it’s super, super important.
You’ve kind of identified there, in a nutshell, the catch-22 that is the American educator. You’re going to be devalued, but yet hyper-valued.
How do you make sense of that? How do you make sense of the fact that you’re told, “This is the most important job on earth, but we’re going to give you $35,000 a year for it?”
The only way to really make sense of it is just to say, “Okay, the roots of this system were built on white supremacy and institutional sexism.” So it’s not going to make sense, because there’s nothing logical about devaluing an entire group of people because of ethnicity or 51% of the population because of gender.
It’s not logical, by definition. So part of it has to be, if we’re going to make changes, we have to start labeling patterns whenever we can. We have to recognize this system was built for our comfort as white women, which means if I’m uber-comfortable, odds are good that someone in my world — be it a parent, or a student with a disability, be it a child of color — somebody likely is uncomfortable.
This isn’t to say that we need to be uncomfortable, but we can’t make that the top of the to-do list. And again, it’s a catch-22 of devalued and hyper-valued at the same time.
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So what are some things that we can do to sort of disrupt that? If we know that the system doesn’t make sense because it was intentionally built on an inequity and we know that we want to do better, what can teachers begin doing?
I think one of the first steps teachers can do, especially if a teacher is a white woman, is become educated about institutional racism and to start to think about white supremacy and how we inadvertently play into that. There are so many great resources about that. Teaching Tolerance does a whole bunch of really great webinars. There are Robin DiAngelo’s books. There are a whole bunch of resources to turn to.
Another step is to start getting more comfortable with calling out and identifying patterns: I notice that.., I wonder if…, I notice that our… Like I said before, if there are 15 leadership positions in our school and 12 of them are staffed by male teachers, even though there are only 12 male teachers in the building … we have to start to identify those patterns.
And the challenge will be: it’s not about an individual man. It’s not about us as individuals. It’s about systems. But if we as an individual can educate ourselves, we can work to understand why we do what we do.
I’m also a big personal advocate of quotas and just kind of keeping in mind if the things that I’m doing represent the world in which we live. So if you’re looking at your classroom library, does it represent the world or does it represent, a heterosexual, cisgender, non-disabled norm of White America? Are you representing the full spectrum of the experience? When we think about the texts that we use, are we centering people of color as opposed to white Americans?
This is just thinking about how can we bring the margins into the center, and how can we ensure we’re interrupting patterns wherever we can.
Right. And I think what makes it sort of tricky–especially for white women–to notice and interrupt these patterns, is that we’re just not taught to think systemically. We’re not taught to notice these kinds of institutions or structural discrimination.
So if we’re talking about how women are treated in schools, it’s tempting to say, “But I have a male principal and he’s really nice to us and he works just as hard as we do.” Or if we’re talking about how the inequity is really based on white supremacy, then it’s easy to say, “But I’m not racist. I’m not part of that system.”
I think what you’re talking about here is not just thinking about individual people or making individuals right or wrong: “This person is good or bad.” or “This person is doing the right thing, and this person is a bad person.” I think we need to move away from that and look at systems, and things that we’ve been conditioned to believe. Let’s look at the structures that are set up and notice how that plays out in these repeating patterns that you’re talking about.
What we can do, as individuals, is think about how we can interrupt those patterns. This isn’t to say we need to work to get the male principal fired because he’s a man. But look at the research around things of that nature.
One of the first things a principal can do is if you have a faculty meeting and you open it up for questions to your teachers, always call on a woman first, if a woman has raised her hand, or a person of color, if a person of color has raised their hand first.
There have been a couple of different studies that show that if a woman or a person of color talks first, that you’re more likely to hear more questions from women or you’re more likely to have other people of color chime in. So in other words, as much as you can, don’t call on a white man first. Which may make you think, “Wait a minute, but he might have a good point.” I’m sure he does, but it has to do with our comfort level with following up and speaking up.
I think the piece about speaking up, that’s a whole other kind of can of worms here because it is difficult when we talk about teachers wanting to advocate for themselves. Sometimes, it is different if a woman speaks up or if a man speaks up.
I shared a piece on my Facebook page the other day and a former male teacher jumped in and said, “When I was a teacher, I told the principal that I’m not doing this and teachers need to stand up and they need to kick and scream and say they’re not going to tolerate this anymore.” I’m like, “With respect, it’s going to be perceived differently when it comes from you because you’re a white man. It’s going to come across differently if it’s a person of color, or if it’s a woman.”
Women are conditioned that we need to be sweet, especially white women. We need to be nice. We need to prioritize the comfort of other people and their feelings. That’s more important than being heard. That’s more important than making our point. So, I think there’s a big fear on the part of a lot of teachers that, “If I speak up, I’m going to be perceived as aggressive or defensive or fragile or emotional and I’m not going to be taken seriously.”
Absolutely. I think you’re hitting upon that need for self-education. It’s reading stuff like DiAngelo, who has a whole great chapter on white women’s tears, on how they’re learned behaviors. We pick those habits up and in our attempt to avoid those learned behaviors, we may inadvertently reinforce those learned behaviors. So you’ve spoken to that need between, “I have to unlearn behaviors” and “I have to learn new behaviors in order to move us forward.”
And just to clarify for anyone who is wondering how does race really play into this … I think the influence of gender dynamics and the patriarchy is a little bit more obvious. So I just want to state explicitly and let you elaborate because you’re much more versed on this than I am, but the patriarchy and white supremacy are inextricably linked. You cannot separate them. They work together, and so we really can’t talk about any of these issues without race also coming into play.
I think that’s a very fair way to say it. Yeah, absolutely. And I’m going to sing her praises one last time — check out Robin DiAngelo, who talks about Kimberly Crenshaw’s work around intersectionality, and how Black women sit right at the crossroads of white supremacy and institutional sexism in schools. There are experiences and intersections for black women teachers that are unique to them, and how those things come together are worth us spending time thinking about.
So I think you’ve hit upon a very important point that a Black woman may experience things differently as a teacher than a white woman would, and those differences are essential and important for us to attend to.
Is there anything else here that I haven’t asked you about that you think is more important for teachers to understand?
I’m looking at my bookshelf and I want to say, “Read all these books.” If I could say if there’s one thing, dear friends and listeners, one thing that I could advocate for, it’s this. There are so many well-known white male educators in a profession that’s dominated by women. You might hear someone say, “Here are 10 new great education books I can’t wait to read.” And every single book is written by a white guy. And it’s not that the white guys don’t have good things to say, but they’re just everywhere, they have a platform everywhere already.
It’s one of those things where if your gut is saying, “Hey, you should read this great book by this well known white male educator,” I guarantee you, I can promise you, there’s a book on that same idea that’s been authored by a woman, a woman of color, by a man of color. Signal boost them.
That way we don’t have the same 6 to 10 men who keep getting bandied about in education even though they’re not really saying anything new anymore. They keep coming out with a new book that’s a rehashing the old stuff and they keep getting elevated. Signal boost somebody else.
What do you think about the fact that when teachers do speak up for what they need they have a fear of being perceived as being greedy or selfish or not putting kids first? Particularly when it comes to public opinion. Anytime see teachers striking or rallying or speaking out, accuse teachers of being greedy. They feel like, “Oh, you barely work as it is and you just want more from us as taxpayers.”
How do we reconcile this with the idea that teachers really do need to stand up for themselves in many ways? We do need to improve working conditions for teachers without this fear of being seen as not caring about kids. Because I think that’s what holds teachers back from speaking up. No one wants to be that person who doesn’t care about kids.
The short answer is to say, “You devoted your life to becoming a teacher. You made it your professional career. No one doubts your commitment to children.” I don’t think anyone actually goes into teaching for the summers off, as much as that cliché is bandied about.
Never. I’ve never heard a teacher who said that.
And the funny thing is if you do find someone who says, “Oh yeah, I became a teacher because I could have summers off,” it’s probably a married guy, most likely white, whose wife is also a teacher. And that’s a fair attitude to have.
Don’t be afraid to be greedy. If somebody says, “Well you want this, sure, but what about the kids? What about the students?” Say, “My working conditions are their learning environment. The fact that I have to go four and a half hours without using a restroom because there’s no way for me to get a break does impact your child. I can’t get the resources that I need, and so I have to choose between buying extras for my family or extras for my classroom. That impacts me as a teacher and it impacts your child.”
So I’d say, don’t be afraid to be greedy. Don’t be afraid to say what you need. But at the same time ask yourself, “Is what I’m doing trying to center whiteness and femininity? Am I trying to get back to my comfort level or am I truly trying to make a better environment for all students?” It’s a constant battle. There is no straight line.
I think part of this work is constantly going back and forth about, “Am I inadvertently feeding stereotypes and completing patterns?” or, “Am I interrupting and centering the margins?” Every situation is different, and we just have to keep asking that over and over again, and when we make mistakes, apologize and don’t do it again.
Right, keep moving forward. It’s not this endless guilt trap. When you know better, you do better.
Yeah. I’ve been thinking a lot about the notion of punching up versus punching down, and calling in versus calling out. I think that’s something that we could have a conversation about as white women in the educational world: what it means for us to call in our fellow white women. What it means to call out white male leaders. What it means when Black women call us in, and our obligation to listen regardless of how hard it is. I think that’s another thing that’s worth thinking about and trying to unpack the best we can.
Because there’s no way to do that and keep everyone comfortable. I think a lot of times, we prioritize comfort: “Say it in a way that makes me feel okay to hear it, and if I don’t feel good hearing it, then you have done something wrong.”
Sometimes it’s hard to hear things. It’s kind of funny because if one of my friends says something to me and even if it falls on me harshly, I understand where they’re coming from. But if a stranger says something, it’s different. I think the point is that it’s a constant battle and the worst thing we can do is just kind of brush our hands of it all and say, “Well, I can’t solve it,” or “It’s not my responsibility.” The best thing we can do is say, “I’ll lean into it and try to solve it.”
And also not fall into that martyr mentality where it’s like, “I worked so hard as a teacher and everyone is criticizing me all the time.” I think that’s one of the reasons why it’s really easy to be fragile as an educator, because you feel constantly under scrutiny.
Your students don’t like things, parents are criticizing, your administrator may be pushing back on something, sometimes it feels like the general public is against you. So it feels like you’re on your own trying to navigate all these spaces,and now here’s a fellow teacher coming along and also criticizing me. And it’s like, “I’m done. I’m just going to shut down.”
Exactly. And the good thing is, there are affinity groups out there. There are groups of white women teachers negotiating this, and affinity groups all around the country online where you can connect with other people who are trying to negotiate those sort of tensions. So there’s never an excuse to give up. Don’t give up.
It’s a lifelong process.
Yes, that it is.
What’s something that you wish every teacher who is listening to this remembers?
A teacher named Julie on Twitter asked for some advice for new teachers, and I think the thing I would like everyone to remember is what I shared with Julie:
Our profession has a history. We have an obligation to know it. And that means interrupting damaging patterns when we can, and tipping the moral arc whenever and wherever we can. So it’s about small moves and self-work.
You’re referring to that quote about the moral arc of the universe leaning towards justice?
Yes. And it does very, very slowly. And I think what we can do as individuals, though, is work to tip it. And even if it’s a small move, like looking at classroom libraries and which history you’re teaching and who you’re centering. Don’t feel guilty about asking for more, and be careful of your centering. It’s complicated, but it’s worth it.
If you enjoyed this episode, check out the recommended reading and resources from Jenn’s site here. You can also find her on Twitter as @JennBinis where she’s having these kinds of conversations daily.
The links to Amazon in this post are affiliate links (this means I get a small commission, at no cost to you).
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