It’s a sick-out day in our school district. Again. This is our fifth day out in three weeks. That means a day when the teachers—who are contractually not allowed to go on strike—have called in sick, en masse, so they can go to the state capitol and protest.
There is much to protest. Over the past few years, the Kentucky government has “borrowed” funds from teacher pensions and then refused to give it back. To be clear, this is money the teachers have paid into the system, themselves, for their own retirement, and the state has essentially stolen it. Like many states, Kentucky is dealing with a state legislature at the moment that is doing its level best to gut public education. The most recent fight is over funding for private schools. It is a complicated abomination of a bill that does all sorts of bad things, but the bottom line is, they want to funnel tax dollars away from public schools and make those dollars available for private (read: religious) schools.
What’s really gross is that, whenever the teachers organize and show up to advocate for their own rights—and really, for the very idea of public education in general—politicians twist the narrative mightily and try to make the teachers the bad guys in the media.
Except—thing is—most of the teachers are women.
This is true across America. Yes, there are men teachers. Some great ones, in my experience. And some of them are out there advocating for the system as well. But on the whole, teachers in this country are more than 75 percent female. That ratio means that the face of public education itself is female. And you can’t ignore the reality that much of the gaslighting, silencing and shaming that goes on in these protest situations would be much different if teachers were primarily men. In fact, I’d venture that the way we view and value education, in general, would be different if the teaching profession was predominantly male. For instance:
1. Teachers would make more money. Salaries would be higher across the field because it would be widely assumed and accepted that “teachers need to make a living to support a family!” This is how the pay gap still exists in our wider economy. But it is a fact that wages remain low in predominantly female professions, such as teaching, nursing and childcare. These are critical skills and services, without which society would collapse on itself; and yet, because we value women less, we pay less for their work. (For more on this, read my book, Resist and Persist: Faith and the Fight for Equality.)
2. Politicians would not be able to demonize teachers for demanding their benefits. When a wave of women in red shirts descend on Frankfort (or Topeka, or Phoenix, or any other number of state capitols where this fight has been staged lately), it is really easy for the big white men in the big office to play the “hysterical woman” card. You tell me they would try that if all the red shirts outside were men, just wanting what they paid for?
3. Politicians would not say that teachers “just don’t understand the bill.” Really, little ladies, don’t you worry … If you understood all the more complicated parts of this legislation, you would realize that this is for your own good! It’s going to be better for everyone! That is the tone around some of our lawmakers right now, no joke. They would not play that bullshit if the teachers were mostly men.
4. Nobody would say that teachers are glorified babysitters. Male-dominated professions establish these things called “authority” and “legitimacy” that affects their public image. And, as we’ve discussed, their pay grade.
5. More men would be teachers. There are some chicken and egg things going on here … But if more teachers were men, then more men would become teachers in a self-perpetuating situation. Role models are critical, in any field. If more boys saw more male teachers, then more of them would become teachers, and then repeat facts 1-4. And, if more men were teachers and teachers made more money (see #1), then nobody would tell boys “You can’t be a teacher and support a family,” and then, guess what? More male teachers. See how that works?
6. Teachers would probably not be required to get a master’s degree, as they are now in most states. Because hey, men are busy! They’ve got families to raise! And because we trust them to do their jobs without demanding the level of training and education that we make women obtain to prove themselves.
7. There would not be prolonged political battles over the soul of education because when teachers spoke up and said why public school is important, they would be heard the first time. Again and again, teachers show up to talk about how public education is crucial for leveling the playing field, providing opportunity, and preserving the principals of democracy. And again and again, they are dismissed, doubted and silenced. This is patriarchy hard at work, in all the insidious ways it works, to preserve masculine power. It is toxic. And it works.
How do we break these damaging cycles? I don’t know the answer. But I do know, every day my kids end up home from school, I’m over here rooting for the teachers anyway. Whatever the inconvenience, I know they are out there fighting for my kid—and your kid—and the kid that doesn’t have anyone else to fight for them.