Labor Day lesson: One in five teachers works a second job

Lily Eskelsen García is president of the National Education Association.

In this guest column, she puts this weekend’s Labor Day holiday in the context of the 2018 teacher walkouts that drew national attention to teacher pay and classroom conditions.

An analysis of federal data released this summer found nearly one in five public school teachers holds a second job during the school year, a fact Eskelsen García cites in this piece. 

A former teacher, Eskelsen García was named Utah Teacher of the Year in 1989 after nine years in the classroom. She also worked with homeless children and gifted children; as a mentor for student teachers; and as a peer assistance team leader at Orchard Elementary School in the suburbs of Salt Lake City.

The nation’s largest education association, the NEA has around 3 million members.

By Lily Eskelsen García

Colorful new notebooks, fresh fall outfits, the giddy excitement of the first day in first grade, or the bittersweet finale of rising seniors — for many families across America, Labor Day means one thing: the end of summer and the start of back-to-school season.

But we’ve all but forgotten that Labor Day is a celebration of battles fought and won: for weekends off, paid vacation and sick leave, even lunch breaks. We may take them for granted, but these victories of organized labor were society-shifting, and still vital to all of us.

I think it’s time for a Labor Day refresher lesson. And America’s educators are already giving it. 

Even if you’ve been following the Red For Ed movement from the start — the grassroots activism our union members sparked in North Carolina, the powerful strikes and inspiring walkouts that spread from state to state — it bears laying out why educators are taking such a bold stand for the strong public schools our students deserve. Remember: these are the people who spend an average of nearly $500 out of their own pockets each year to stock their classrooms with the most basic necessities and the special touches that make a classroom a warm and welcoming environment for young minds. They don’t have a job, they have a calling. And they don’t take a day off lightly. 

Which is exactly why they’re demanding change. 

Some 94 percent of educators buy school supplies with their own money — even though they’re among the professionals who can least afford it. Educators are paid 30 percent less on average compared to equally educated professionals, with wages stagnating since the early 1990s. Of course, they’re not happy, but they’ve been making due for decades. What’s changed is that the cracks are starting to show — and our students are starting to feel the impacts of our lawmakers’ neglect. 

Before joining the NEA’s leadership, I was a classroom teacher myself. The grim joke around the lunch room was that teaching paid a perfectly adequate supplemental income. We went around the table, and found that our professional teaching faculty included a waitress, a lifeguard, a shoe salesman, a clerk in Sears’ lingerie department, a furniture mover, and a secretary — me.

To earn a little extra money for my family, I worked for temp agency filling in for vacationing secretaries. After dropping my own boys off at the Boys’ and Girls’ Club, I’d go to my second job. It wasn’t easy, physically or emotionally, but educators today have it even harder.

One in five works a second job. Ask your next Uber driver or Airbnb host — there’s a fair chance they’ll be educators. Personally, I’ve lost track of the times I’ve heard the same sad story of parents taking their kids out to eat only to discover their waiter is also their children’s teacher. 

Given these demands it’s no surprise that two thirds of educators quit the profession before retirement age, with rampant attrition driving teacher shortages in more than 40 states.  

What should be a surprise is that many of our lawmakers refuse to lift a finger, even as our children read from textbooks held together with duct tape, and still list Ronald Reagan as president.  

Instead, our leaders aren’t just asking our educators to go above and beyond, to be superheroes, but to be literal armed guards

The obvious, inevitable result is that educators have reached a breaking point. But it’s not all bad news — and we’re not alone. 

Starting last spring, tens of thousands of educators began rising up across West Virginia, Arizona, Colorado, Oklahoma, Kentucky, North Carolina and all around the country in communities large and small, often joined by parents and communities who care just as fervently about the schools we send our kids. 

Lily Eskelsen García
Photo: NEA Photo

I’ve spent a long time in education, visiting districts and classrooms all over the country, and I never cease to be inspired by the people who choose to dedicate their lives to this career, who can do so much with so little, who make up for what’s been sapped away from our students in funding and resources with their own sparkling creativity, their own personal passion. 

But today I’m inspired beyond words, and not just by our educators and union members, but by parents and students across the country. 

Don’t sit this fight out. Next week, when you see educators wearing Red for Ed, don’t just applaud — join us: Attend a rally, wear red too and tell everyone why, call your lawmakers, act

I said it was time for a Labor Day refresher lesson, but it’s time for a whole new reason to celebrate Labor Day. It’s time to shift our society once more, and restore the great American education system our students so desperately need and absolutely deserve.

About the Author

Maureen Downey
Maureen Downey
Maureen Downey is a longtime reporter for the AJC where she has written editorials and opinion pieces about local, state and federal education policy for...