Lawmakers Pay Teachers Lip Service, But from Subs to Curriculum, They Don't Respect Us

The other day, my wife and I watched the first episode of the new sitcom Abbott Elementary.  In this episode, there’s a hilarious scene where the school is struggling so badly to find substitute teachers that the principal calls on their 70-year old custodian with no teaching experience to sub in a classroom, where he’s teaching kids about the Illuminati. 


As comically brilliant as that was, the scene sadly shed light on a current crisis in our schools. Across the country, districts are struggling to hire substitute teachers and are turning to so-called “solutions” that deprofessionalize our work. For example, the state of Michigan recently passed a law that allows bus drivers and school secretaries to serve as substitute teachers.

I know damn well if there was a shortage of doctors and nurses in a clinic or hospital, you’re not going to pull random people off the street to perform medical procedures on patients, especially if it’s a life or death situation. Why is that? Because It takes many years of intensive training and study to become a doctor. You have to pass the MCATs, graduate from medical school, and complete a residency at a hospital or clinic before you’re even allowed to treat patients on your own. Binge-watching Grey’s Anatomy or practicing your medical skills with the Operation game isn’t going to cut it, people! 

Here’s another example: if a prestigious law firm is losing several of its lawyers to COVID-19, is it going to hire random people off the street to fill the void? If you’re on a trial for a crime you didn’t commit, you’re not settling for some random-ass person to try your case. If you’re facing a potential sentence of life without parole, you’re going to hire a highly competent, experienced, and licensed lawyer to ensure that your ass doesn’t spend the rest of your life in prison.

If Anyone Could Teach, We Wouldn’t Have a Shortage 

If we’re not settling for unqualified doctors and lawyers, then why are we, as a society, so quick to settle for unqualified and untrained individuals to teach our children? Why is it also OK for uninformed politicians and misguided parents to dictate what we teach and how we teach when many of them wouldn’t survive a week walking in our shoes?  

The last time I checked, no one gave me a teaching license. I had to go back to school for my master’s degree and complete a two-year teaching certification program, for which I paid out of pocket. I also had to pass a series of teaching licensure tests, for which I also paid out of pocket. All of this happened while I was working full-time as a teaching assistant, earning barely over $20,000 a year (before taxes). Even when I finally became a lead classroom teacher, it took about three years for me to finally find my groove.

I know I’m sharing my story, but there are so many teachers out there who traveled down a similar path to becoming the teachers they are today. We give our blood, sweat, and tears to this work. We come into our classroom with a certain level of skill, intellect, and expertise that cannot be overshadowed or easily replicated. We are more than glorified babysitters. If teaching was as easy as so many people believe it is, then there would be no need for teacher training programs or licensure tests, right? Everybody would get off their ass and step into the classroom to teach, right? School districts wouldn’t be struggling so mightily to recruit and retain teachers, right?

It’s Time To Demand Better

As teachers, we are often celebrated for the positive impact that we have on children. Yet we are also subjected to problematic legislation that overlooks our impact and frankly, shits on us. That juxtaposition just doesn’t make sense. The highly-paid lawyers and doctors that we hold with such high regard in our society would not be who they are today without educators who pushed them along the way. And that is the case for just about every industry or profession you can think of.

With the many years of specialized training and expertise that we possess, we should be granted more autonomy to use that expertise in the classroom.

We should be afforded more trust to make curricular decisions that will enhance the educational experiences of our students. 

Elected officials should be consulting with us and learning more from our expertise before making high-stakes legislative decisions that could potentially harm us and our students. But that’s not what’s happening right now. In fact, that has never happened. 

With COVID-19 cases still on the rise nationwide, teachers are needed more than ever! It’s time we demand to be treated as professionals with specialized skill sets. It’s time we demand to be treated like the educated, in-demand experts that we are.

Kwame Sarfo-Mensah
Kwame Sarfo-Mensah is the founder of Identity Talk Consulting, LLC., an independent educational consulting firm that provides professional development and consulting services globally to educators who desire to enhance their instructional practices and reach their utmost potential in the classroom. He is the author of two books, "Shaping the Teacher Identity: 8 Lessons That Will Help Define the ...

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