Maybe it’s because they offend the spirit of late capitalism

Photo by Adam Winger on Unsplash

Whatever the educational debate we’re having in this country — school COVID measures, “critical race theory,” or charter schools — there’s one constant. A large portion of the American public doesn’t respect teachers. In fact, some of the rhetoric indicates a level of hostility and resentment that goes well beyond simple disrespect.

The stereotype goes like this: teachers are lazy and pampered. They finish work at 3 pm and have summers off. They have generous pensions. Their unions — some of the last powerful unions in the country — keep them cosseted in luxury. They’re indoctrinating your children and living soft, comfortable lives.

Now, anybody who actually knows a teacher knows that this image isn’t particularly true. First, the hours — studies have found that teachers work pretty much the same number of hours as other college graduates. The school day may end around 3, but it begins for many teachers at 7 am, and they often take work home in the evenings. Even in the summer, the average teacher works about 20 hours a week on school-related work, even though they aren’t being paid for it.

Many teachers don’t make lavish salaries. In Florida, for example, the average teacher makes less than $50,000; adjusted for inflation, Florida teachers’ salaries have declined by 12% over the last two decades. On average, teachers make about 20% less than similarly-educated workers in other industries. Many states’ teacher retirement plans have become less secure, and retirement ages have risen in many places.

So the story you often hear in the discourse about teachers isn’t really true.

But what if it was? What if you had a job that allows you to do what you love? One that promised you a comfortable retirement, a long summer vacation, a short workday, and a union that protected you from exploitation? Wouldn’t that be… good?

I think much of the resentment of teachers comes from the fact that they do a job that doesn’t fit into the way we’ve come to expect the world to work in the bleak atmosphere of late American capitalism. Many American workers just take it for granted that corporations are powerful, and workers aren’t. We’re at the mercy of the rich and powerful, and there’s little we can do about it. We’re going to have to spend most of our waking hours working on things that we’re not particularly interested in. In exchange, we get to be employed, but our job security and income are precarious. Twenty-first century American workers are required to hustle endlessly, shoveling their time and effort into the maw of corporations so that stockholders can realize slightly higher capital gains.

That’s just the way it is. In fact, many of us have convinced ourselves that this is how it’s supposed to be.

Teaching — at least the fantasy of teaching that many commentators attack — represents an assault on many of the values of twenty-first century American capitalism.

These are people who have chosen to make less money in order to make a difference in the world. They work in organizations that are less hierarchical than the business world, doing jobs with little chance of promotion (the ladder of promotions available to teachers is quite short and unattractive to most of them).

Teachers (at least according to the stereotype) have chosen jobs with humane working hours, with a long summer break in which they can pursue other interests and recharge. They have a more secure retirement than most other Americans. They got these things because they are unionized and have fiercely resisted attempts to crush their worker power.

None of this computes in a capitalist system where you’re supposed to sell your soul to the highest bidder and be grateful for the scraps thrown your way.

Psychologists know that resentment and envy are close relatives. Maybe Americans who have given up on working a meaningful job that leaves time for a full life outside of work can’t stand to see anybody else who might be doing that. Americans who have become used to taking whatever their corporate overlords are willing to toss their way can’t stand to see a powerful union that actually takes collective action to get its workers what they want.

We could be working to make a world where everybody has a job like teachers supposedly have. Instead, many Americans just want to make sure that teachers’ jobs are as miserable as everybody else’s.