Heidi Matthews: Celebrating the role of labor in our schools

(Francisco Kjolseth | Tribune file photo) Sellika Reese, a first grade English teacher who teaches phonics, wears what she would need to teach which would make it very difficult for her students to understand her as she joined hundreds of Granite School district teachers gathered at the Granite School District office on Tuesday, Aug. 4, 2020. The teachers were protesting the district’s plans for reopening, which will allow students back into the classroom, like normal, five days a week.

For students and educators alike, Labor Day signals “back to school,” with fresh pencils, fresh classrooms, fresh starts.

This pandemic Labor Day is very different. We teachers, who joke that “there ain’t no tired like back to school tired,” have come to realize we entirely underestimated the exhaustion of starting school with the uncertainties and hazards of a pandemic. And this year, reflecting on the battles fought and celebrated on Labor Day is especially important for our schools.

For teachers, labor unions and professional associations assured that female educators can continue to teach and inspire students, even when they are married or pregnant (yes, marriage and pregnancy were once grounds for teacher dismissal). They fought for equal wages despite gender or skin color. Collective labor efforts assure due process rights, so employees are not fired for capricious reasons or unfounded accusations.

Our professional associations fight for working conditions that allow us to be the best possible teachers we can be for our students. In Utah, our Utah Education Association lobbies for increased education funding to promote equitable education access, create reasonable class sizes, ensure rich opportunities for all students – and yes, provide adequate compensation to attract and retain the quality educators our students deserve.

Successful salary increases throughout the state have made an impact on staving off the increasing teacher exodus, at least in some parts of the state. As the voice for educators in Utah, our professional association knows that improved working conditions are improved learning conditions. Research reinforces that the single largest in-school influence on student success is the educator in the child’s classroom.

So, on this Labor Day 2020, let us recognize and celebrate the role of teachers’ labor.

In a ground-breaking national study, University of Utah economics professor Eunice Han found that when more teachers are members of their professional association, students are better off — they learn more, they perform better on standardized tests, and the most vulnerable students see the greatest results.

Last week, the UEA introduced an online form for Utah teachers to report issues they are experiencing as students return to in-person learning. Not surprisingly, the top concerns they expressed are workload and social distancing.

Educators in many school districts are being asked to teach both in-person and remotely. Physical distancing is simply not possible in some of our infamously overcrowded classrooms. Add to that a lack of enforcement and compliance to the safety standards, and it is overwhelming for many of our educators. In areas where COVID-19 is particularly rampant, teachers are faced with untenable workloads and enormous pressure to deliver the impossible. Some chose to resign, placing even more burden on those who stay.

It’s important to note that many of our schools are thriving with a return to in-person learning, especially in rural areas where the virus is not as pervasive. We applaud these schools and support their continued success. As a labor organization, though, our attention must focus on those educators who are struggling. We champion the motto that, “An injustice to one is an injustice to all.”

On this Labor Day, we know some of our educators are experiencing injustices of excessive and impossible workloads and of inconsistent and inadequate safety precautions against the spread of the virus. We know that injustices heaped on these educators inevitably means students are missing out on positive learning experiences.

Teachers join their professional association because they want to be the best teachers they can be. More than ever this Labor Day, let’s celebrate the important role labor organizations play in our schools to help our teachers do what they do best — teach.

Heidi Matthews | UEA president

Heidi Matthews is a junior high school media teacher elected to represent public school educators as president of the Utah Education Association.