2021 | Opinion

Opinion: It’s time to honor heroic efforts to educate students during a pandemic year

Women are leading in key administration, union, board positions in MCPS

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As we begin the new school year, it’s tempting to want to forget everything about the last one.

The chaos of remote learning and hybrid in-school and virtual instruction, not to mention the pain endured by families and educators personally impacted by COVID-19 infections, made it a year for the history books.

But there was at least one positive aspect of the last year — the heroic efforts of educators and staff members to get kids through the year despite all of the challenges.

The Labor Day weekend is a good time to reflect on the work of all school system employees. Educators will do just about anything to enhance the education and meet the needs of their students.

Families had an unusual opportunity during the pandemic to actually see — on their kids’ computers — how hard teachers worked to make lessons happen and help their students through the rough patches.

Educators proved to be first-responder heroes to students’ needs. But their heroism didn’t start during the pandemic. Teachers, paraeducators, other school staff members, and principals have always been the go-to people at school for a student’s academic, social and emotional needs.

Principals in particular have had to go to bat for their schools and communities to secure adequate resources, so that learning could continue. And we know that kids are returning to school with enormous needs after a year of isolation, learning loss, and physical and mental health issues.

Teachers and other school staff members will be on the front lines, once again, fighting for more guidance counselors, social workers, school nurses and psychologists. They will be fighting for more resources to help struggling students catch up academically.

And they will be fighting for a collaborative partnership with school officials to get the essential services and programs that our kids need.

So, who are the educators who are fighting so hard? Interestingly, we’re mostly women.

In an exciting first, the presidents of the three unions representing the education workers in Montgomery County are all women. We are “sisters” who will stand together as one, advocating for what’s best for students.

Similarly, the eight members of the Montgomery County Board of Education are women, and for the first time, we have a woman serving as interim school superintendent. And about 66 percent of all principals are women.

Since the late 19th century, there has been a disproportionate representation of women in K-12 education. Today, over 80 percent of teachers nationally and in Montgomery County are female.

In Montgomery County Public Schools, 66 percent of supporting service workers — such as bus drivers, cafeteria workers, paraeducators, media assistants and tech support personnel — are  women.

Education is the bedrock of our democracy and the foundation of every child’s future. Yet, despite lip service paid to its importance, it demands a lot more respect.

While women overwhelmingly are the providers and leaders of our children’s education, their work isn’t treated with the same level of respect as male-oriented professions. And their wages reflect that disparity. A recent report by the Economic Policy Institute found that teachers earn nearly 20 percent less than other similar white-collar workers.

Teachers also take the blame for all that ails public education, a wholly unfair situation given that teachers and their unions continually press for what kids need, but it’s up to others to make it happen.

It’s up to school districts and state and local lawmakers to adequately fund public schools and address the poverty and discrimination that account for most of the disparity in student learning outcomes. The American Rescue Plan helped, but much more is needed.

Even in progressive Montgomery County, school funding has failed to keep up with the increasing needs of our children. The county’s child poverty rate, racial and ethnic diversity, and special needs student population have grown significantly. Montgomery County school staff members are burning out as we struggle to meet ever-increasing demands without adequate support or resources.

Given these conditions, it’s not a surprise, but a disappointment nevertheless, that the Montgomery County school system has hundreds of unfilled positions each year. Education should be a profession that attracts the best talent and provides them with a lifelong, fulfilling career with wages and respect that are commensurate with the essential, intense work they do.

This Labor Day, consider the worth of the work of our educators. It’s also a good time to let elected officials know that Montgomery County Public Schools need increased funding to help educators give our kids the kind of well-rounded education, with all of the appropriate services and programs, they need to excel.

Jennifer Martin is president of the Montgomery County Education Association (MCEA). Christine Handy is president of the Montgomery County Association of Administrators and Principals (MCAAP). Pia Morrison is president of the Service Employees International Union (SEIU) Local 500.

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