Home Minnesota Educator President’s message: Let’s ‘celebrate’ educators a little less and care for them a little more

Let’s ‘celebrate’ educators a little less and care for them a little more

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Education Minnesota President, Denise Specht

I may have surprised a few people at the annual Minnesota Teacher of the Year banquet when I said it was time to stop celebrating teachers and other educators.

After all, the Teacher of the Year program is all about praising teachers and teaching. It’s why Education Minnesota is the main sponsor. On May 5, we honored 11 educators as finalists and named Tracy Byrd as the 2024 Minnesota Teacher of the Year.

In my remarks, I suggested that the morale and working conditions in Minnesota’s schools demanded a change of focus. Minnesota should celebrate educators a little less and care for them more, I said. Those aren’t the same things.

To celebrate teachers, we honor them publicly. To care for them, we show our concern privately. It’s the difference between saying something and doing something.

Elected leaders and superintendents can cheer for teachers all year long without ever really asking how they’re doing and listening—really listening—when they answer.

Because if we’re listening to teachers—and education support professionals and our colleagues in higher education—we will hear that educators are not OK.

As I’ve traveled across the state with the officers of Education Minnesota, I’ve heard the cost of living has risen so much faster than salaries that many educators simply can’t afford to continue working in schools and pay for food, transportation and housing.

A few years ago, a new teacher could make it work by cutting corners at the end of the month. Now every trip to the grocery store is proof that those days have passed. Many educators need a second job—or a new career.

Believe it or not, there was a time when affordable health insurance was a benefit of the job and attracted people to the profession. Not anymore. This year, greedy health insurance companies are raising rates by double-digit percentages in many districts and pricing teachers out of their careers.

When colleagues with families say they can’t afford to take their kids to the doctor, and they can’t afford for their families to get sick, something is very wrong.

Finally, the mental health crisis among students isn’t just growing, it’s changed.

I’ve been in public education for a long time. I’ve never heard so many stories about educators being injured on the job as I have in the past year and a half.

There’s a reason many local unions negotiated contracts this year that include new pools of paid days off for educators to recover from injuries and trauma.

It’s no wonder reforming the pension system has become a top priority for thousands of educators and for Education Minnesota itself. No one can work in schools as long today as they did a generation ago. If you’re doing it right in the 21st century, the job just takes too much out of you.

And yet we’re still expected, and willing, to stand up for the vision of public education for all students that attracted so many of us to the profession in the first place.

In the face of a cynical, national movement to whitewash the curriculum, ban books and cut mental health services, educators stand for the freedoms of our students to learn, read, feel welcome and access mental health supports.

Yes, we have a lot on our plates.

While educators appreciate the social media celebrations, Friday pizza parties and official proclamations, what we really need are wages that support a family, better pensions, affordable health care and safer worksites.

Maybe this year will be the year Minnesotans show they really for their educators.

Denise Specht
Twitter: @DeniseSpecht

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