Teachers’ career choices in COVID times
What does history tell us about whether teachers should just say, “forget it?”
Substantial disruptions in social and economic status sometimes occur in sequence. One period of turmoil leads to another. One change precedes another, resulting in major reshaping of the social and economic order. It may not be that social change necessarily leads to economic change—perhaps they occur in the reverse order; but the two often are disrupted together or in sequence.
In this day and age, our social and economic situation may be in the midst of one of those disruptions, mostly because of global events. Thus, it may be instructive to remember the features of past broad-spread disruptions. I want to examine the idea of disruptive change, sometimes with regard to teachers, teaching, and (of course) special education.
A disruption could have big consequence. Sometimes, there are changes in education—one of those socio-political functions. Shifts in patterns of employment seem to accompany economic disruptions. There are the obvious examples. The Great Recession (2008-2011) and Great Depression (1929-1940?; scholars argue about when it ended) that resulted in massive changes in the job market. As Kalleberg and Wachter (2017) wrote, “The political storm around public sector unions in the aftermath of the Great Recession has shown that economic conditions can interact with and affect political and institutional landscapes” (p. 2). And there were other disruptions in the 1910s in the 1340s that can help us understand the current situation, too.
After glancing at those periods’ influence on employment and labor, I think we’ll have more perspective. I think these events are all instructive in thinking about how the labor market for educators—including teachers and especially special educators—may be changing in the immediate and near future.
Here I want to provide historical lenses to catch glimpses of where we are and where we might be in the near future. Let’s come forward in time after starting in the Middle Ages, examining one of the most horrific times in human affairs, The Plague, first and then return to the Spanish Flu, the Great Depression, and the Great Recession.
The Plague, the Black Death
Scholars debate when the Black Death ended and how long it lasted, but they pretty consistently put the beginning of it in the late 1340s, depending on location. Prior to 1347 when it was infecting and killing people in what we now call Italy, it had been a scourge in Asia. It spread across medievil Europe rapidly and reached the British Isles in 1348.
Although many authorities mark the end of the Plague in 1351, there were recurring periods when it infected people for many years after that (Weyman, 2021). Those later outbreaks were not as substantial, but they still decimated local populations.
Before the black death, society was organized into the haves and the have-nots with just a few folks in the “middle class.” The ranks were even more severely delineated than now in many ways.
As dukes, princes, lords, and the like oversaw huge estates from their castles or manor houses, peasants tended crops and livestock, often that the gentry owned. The cerfs may have had a little land that they could farm for themselves, but the lords not only controlled most of the land, they also exacted taxes or lease payments (or both!) on the plots that the cerfs farmed. The taxes could be monetary or shares of the cerfs’ products, but they also could be labor on the lords’ lands...cerfs contributed to clearing, planting, harvesting, etc., for the lords (Wyman, 2020). Some, especially women, worked as servants in the lords’ manors.
Sure, some cerfs supplemented their income by creating products other than farming. Maybe they brewed beer, threw pots, skinned wild animals and tanned their hides, etc. And they traded their wares, sometimes through intermediary merchants. And there were probably some people who abandoned the cerfs’ life and devoted all their time to creating such products or serving as the intermediaries. The latter were, not, however, a large slice of the population.
Somewhat higher in the hierarchy than the cerfs and the crafters, but lower than the lords, there were a few other groups. Overseers and priests occupied special places, as did members of a lord’s armed forces. There were relatively few overseers, priests, and fighters in comparison to the cerfs, but way more than there were lords.
Perhaps some of the priests tutored children. The tutored children would learn to read and write, usually in Latin! Those children had opportunities unavailable to others. Those whom the priests tutored were almost certainly not those with disabilities. If they lived beyond early childhood, those with disabilities were likely to become beggars, considered evil affiliates of the devil, treated as outcasts, or hidden away in inhumane conditions, at least in contemporary writing (Gianfalla, 2016; Minnesota Governor’s Council on Developmental Disabilities, 2021; cf., Metzler, 2011).
The plague was horrific, whether for children with disabilities, priests, tutees, families, or others. To get an idea, think about the current pandemic: The New York Times, as of the time (December 2021) when I am writing this, indicated that > 795,000 US citizens have died from COVID.
Even though that’s a lot of grieving families, those deaths represent about 0.0023 of the population. Consider this as a comparison, though: In the 1340s and 1350s, between 1.5 and 200 million people perished (estimates vary; see History Learning and Wikipedia in sources). The high estimate (200 million) probably far exceeds the total population of Earth at that time. But what’s astounding, is that even the lower estimates of mortality are based on a population of approximately 4 million, so the deaths represent 0.375 (more than 1/3rd of the population). Please let that sink in. If I was a member of a family of 9 (a grandparent, an aunt, two parents, and lots of babies), 3 or 4 of my family died. All the residents in some small villages probably died.
The Plague may have killed proportionally more cerfs than lords, but if greater than a third of the population died, it’s a safe bet that a lot of lords (and overseers, etc.) died, too. But, with fewer workers, surely, the economic dynamic changed. For those who could eek out a living from farming or crafting, they developed newfound advantages. So what happened?
Once the Black Death abated (however gradually), it turned out that the labor force—the common folks and artisan-crafters—had greatly increased authority. They didn’t have to answer to the lords as much. These workers could sell their wares and labor with greater independence. They could demand better deals, because there were fewer competitors. To illustrate, after the Black Death Plague of the mid-1300s, guilds and unions blossomed. The lords might even (yikes!) have to pay people to work their lands. Workers seized more authority over their destinies (Britannica, 2021; Weyman 2020).
In a way, one can see that the workers gained authority. They had greater power! Lords couldn’t lord it over them as much as previously. The former cerfs and crafters could simply withhold the fruits of their labors and the lords would have...nothing! Labor found that it had influence.
The Flu Pandemic of 1918
The so-called “Spanish Flu” or “Great Influenza”, an H1N1 virus, was first recognized in 1918 in the US with additional cases in Europe, and spread worldwide by 1920.
Discussion about the likely animal hosts, origins, differences in viruses across waves of infection, effects on healthy young adults, and more (see Taubenberger & Morens, 2006) sound quite similar to those I read today about the H5N1 flu and, of course, the SARs-CoV-19 virus. Although Taubenger and Morens do not discuss the influence on education, teachers, or students with disabilities, their examination of these issues may be instructive in helping understand effects on current and future pandemics.
Yang et al. (2014) reported that young adults in New York City were disproportionally likely to die of the Great Flu, especially teenagers in the first wave from 1918-1920. Hmmm....
Basing their research on estimates that 40 million people died in the countries they studied, Barro et al. (2020) estimated that World War I led to a decline of 8% and the flu pandemic resulted in a decline of 6% in economic consumption. In the US, the overall decline during the years 1918-1921 was “12 percent for GDP, 16 percent for consumption” (p. 13). They argue that the flu death rate in the period of the Great Influenza had probably the fourth greatest effect on economic activity (behind, in order, World War II, the Great Depression, and World War I; they didn’t consider the Plauge).
Would we expect education budgets to grow under such circumstances? How about funding for education and services for children with disabilities and their families? I was surprised to see, thanks to data available from Government Budget Historical Series from UCDavis, that around the decades 1910-1920, there seemed to be widespread increases in education expenditures by countries around the world.
Still, as I write this, I wonder whether the economic conditions of the period following the pandemic and WWI created some of the background that led Elizabeth Farrell to found what became the Council for Exceptional Children in 1920. I hope to ask Professor Mike Gerber about this question.
As Novoa (2020) developed, breakdowns in child care have outsized effects on families of children with disabilities. These families encounter obstacles in securing care, including availability and quality of care. Presumably, then, difficulties in securing child care in the period following the Great Influenza (and WWI) would have been especially hard on any family seeking assistance. This would actually be fertile ground for a rise in employment of women as teachers. Readers who know about the history of the teaching workforce should weigh in with assistance here. I looked for data by decade on the teaching workforce, but failed to locate any. How did the teaching workforce change in the first four decades of the twentieth century? What, especially, was happening with teachers for students with disabilities?
Fast on the heels of the Great Influenza and the end of WWI, the world suffered another disruptive shock. By the end of the 1920s, the bottom had fallen out of economies world wide.
The Great Depression
In the period of the Great Depression, labor had to work harder to get influence. The balance between labor and ownership-management was teetering back and forth. Prior to and during the Great Depression, oligarchs held the reigns of financial power.
Companies that controlled distribution of goods, particularly by railroads, constrained commerce and, it follows, social relationships. The oligarchs got way wealthy. Thankfully, some of them donated much of their wealth for libraries and such. The names of some of the fabulously wealthy people from 100 years ago are familiar: Rockefeller, Armour, Ford, Vanderbilt, Astor, Guggenheim, Schwabb, Morgan, McCormick.
But fabulous wealth of a few individuals, even given that some of them and their parents made substantial donations for museums and such, did not tip the scale toward equity. It is wonderful that there are libraries built with the $$ from oligarchs of more 100 years ago. Thank them. But, what did such philanthropy do for teachers? Probably very little...maybe provide a destination for a field trip.
In the Depression, unemployment rose to 25%! Imagine, for a moment, what unemployment looked like for Black Americans at that time. Despite heroic efforts by some teachers (e.g., Septima Clark; Charron, 2009), things were going from grim to grimmer for Black Americans.
In his fabulous book, “The Education of Black Americans: 1860-1935,” James Anderson (1988) devoted about seven+ pages (pp. 229-236) to describing how Black Americans in the south were displaced from jobs around the time of the Depression, jobs that policy makers, academics, and philanthropists considered “Negro jobs.” As the availability of other jobs declined, White Americans took jobs that Black Americans had previously held. The displacement didn’t just disrupt employment, it also affected education; schools, including the Rosenwald Schools of the era, discontinued efforts to provide secondary education, especially in trades, for African American youths. I wonder what happened to Black kids with disabilities.
Teachers were neither powerless nor disengaged under the circumstances of the Great Depression. They could see, first hand, how buildings were deteriorating and materials were aging. They could almost surely tell that some of their students were mal- or undernourished. Many, like Septima Clark, carried on, helping their students to progress despite horrific conditions. Teachers also sought to help each other; they joined unions—the American Federation of Teachers reported that, after a dip during the 1920s, the union grew from about 7000 members in 1930 to 32000 in 1939.
There was a strong breeze indicating that education was important and merited governmental support. As Gerber (2018) indicated, “The Great Depression and World War II, in turn, elevated public concern about economic security and the need to protect the well-being of citizens” (p. 12). What Mike left unsaid is that the citizenry included individuals with disabilities who were particularly vulnerable to socio-economic upset.
From our contemporary perspective, the effects of the Great Depression swamp the effects of the more recent Great Recession—thank goodness. Margo (1993) wrote, “The Great Depression is to economics what the Big Bang is to physics” (p. 41). But the Great Recession had influence.
The Great Recession
The Great Recession hit in 2008, recently enough for virtually all readers to remember it. It was brought on by a crises in mortgage lending. Lenders sold mortgages to people who might not be able to pay off the loans, especially if the economy “went south.” Then they sold “the paper” quickly to other mortgage companies, making a profit and leaving someone else “holding the bag.”
One example of changes wrought by the Great Recession is its influence on labor unions. Unions had been trending downward over the 30-50 years prior to the Great Recession. Milkman and Luce (2017) examined the density of union membership as an index of changes wrought by the Great Recession. “Density” is simply the proportion workers who are members of a union; it’s like a percentage of people who belong to a certain group (in this case, unions) and it can represent the labor force overall or individual sectors of the labor market (e.g., education). Density numbers are like percentages, so I’ll represent them in that way here.
According to Milkman and Luce (2017), in 2014 the total number of special education teachers stood at 335,695 (that’s a lot of speducators!). Total union membership among special education teachers was 188,985; those numbers yield a density of 56.296638%—let’s just say, “56.3%.” In 2006, density of union membership was 57.8%; in contrast, after the Great Recession in 2014 density of membership was 56.3% (as we saw in the computation). That represents a smaller reduction over the same time period than among elementary and middle school teachers (from 51.1% to 47.7%) and secondary school teachers (54.6% to 50.3%).
Has union membership helped teacher-members? I don’t know. I suspect that people who hold animosity toward unions will say, “No!” Perhaps advocates of unions will say, “Yes!” As I said, I don’t know. I don’t have the impartial, objective data to evaluate the question.
Regardless if the answer to the unionization question, another disruption followed hard on the heels of the Great Recession.
The Current Pandemic
Most readers probably recognize the enormous pressure-stress-torque operating on education during the current pandemic. I know I do.
In the spring of 2020, teachers and other educators had to drop everything they were doing and re-invent education. Face-to-face teaching was suddenly no longer the default method for providing education. They had to adapt to teaching using interactive video applications; consulting with students via telephone, e-mail, or text messages; and handling behavior issues when some time-tested methods (e.g., proximity control) were not available. The proportion of teachers’ days devoted to their jobs increased dramatically...and many had their own children with them as they “taught” lessons from their homes. In addition, many had to provide their own tech support.
Phew! Now, remember what Novoa (2020) said about problems associated with child care.
Special educators know that litany of the problems of general educators all too well. What is more, they have to endure the same difficulties while working with students who, by defintion, need “specially designed instruction, at no cost to the parents, to meet the unique needs of a child with a disability...,” and furthermore, that
means adapting, as appropriate to the needs of an eligible child ..., the content, methodology, or delivery of instruction—(i) To address the unique needs of the child that result from the child’s disability; and (ii) To ensure access of the child to the general curriculum, so that the child can meet the educational standards” (IDEA, Section 300.39 Special education).
What’s to like about that employment situation?
For the spring of 2020, true to their competence, teachers adapted—and adapted quite rapidly. And then many got to do it all over again for the 2020-21 school year! And they got to do it while education was one of the hot topics on both traditional and new media. People complained that schools were not in session. News sources related stories about physical attacks on teachers and other educators; even school board members were threatened (Shammas, 2021).
There can be little doubt that the current situation has affected the teacher workforce substantially. Diliberti et al. (2021) laid most of the responsibility for changes on “stress.” They reported that almost 50% of teachers who quit teaching “after March 2020 and before their scheduled retirement left because of the COVID-19 pandemic” (p. 1). Based on their survey of substantial numbers of teachers, they argue that the “pandemic seems to exacerbate what were high stress levels pre-pandemic.” They did not, however, break results down by types of teaching assignments (even though their survey of about 1000 included 14% special educators).
Gould (2020) did provide such a breakdown, though. She reported that losses in the teacher workforce during the COVID crises were greater than they were in the Great Recession. What is more, she noted that “half of the job losses in K–12 public education between March and April [of 2020] were among special education teachers, tutors, and teaching assistants” (3rd paragraph).
Emma Goldberg (2021) examined the public revelations of workers who quit their jobs...using media such as TikTok. Although Ms. Goldberg did not profile an educator, the stories are entertaining...even instructive.
On a podcast, Mary Harris (2021) and her guest, Betsey Stephenson (an economist and policy analyst at the University of Michigan), discussed reasons that people leave jobs. They categorized them into three types, which I’ll paraphrase here.
Angry story: Had enough with mistreatment, conditions. Quitting over the intercom: “Management’s horrible. F*** management. I quit.”
Dream story: Workers want work corresponding better with goals: “I’m not on the right path for what I want from life.”
Opportunities-abound story: Practical optimizer wants to grab something better while there’s a chance. “This is a time when there’s lots of opportunities. Right now, I’m going for it.”
These clumps seem sensible to me. And I wonder how they mix with career changes in education. Do people who leave education for reason 1, 2, or 3 differ from others? Do those who want to switch into education differ? These are questions for labor and economics analysts to examine...I’m not qualified!
Regardless of whether people are (a) educators and plan to move within education, (b) in education and plan to leave it, or (c) employed in another area and are looking to switch careers into education, I suspect money is going to matter. Money may not, in fact, be the root of all evil, but it’s important in current times.
Presuming that public education, itself, is not a casualty of the current situation, those state and local education agencies that decipher the potential sea change in the teacher work force will be the SEAs and LEAs that can come out of the pandemic and its aftermath with good prospects.
Might something similar to what happened in the 1300s (and other times of disruption) happen again? Will workers demand change as the SARs-CoV-19 pandemic abates? Might contempory educators, whose positions metaphorically resemble those of the working serfs and crafters of many earlier societies, say they want to get out of their current situation and change jobs? Will there be types like those Harris (2021) and Stephenson described?
My guess is that the successful “companies” (i.e., LEAs and SEAs) will likely
Find funds to increase teachers’ compensation dramatically;
Create systems in which teachers feel like the administration “has their backs.”
Adopt policies and procedures that address school behavior problems.
Adopt policies and procedures that reduce paperwork.
Identify and modify other aspects of the teaching experience to be more considerate of one of education’s top most assets: Teachers.
Otherwise, more and more often, they may hear teachers say, “Take this job and shove it!”
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