Against the backdrop of teacher burnout and poor pay, computer science teachers have some suggestions about how individuals and systems can recognize teachers.
When asked what she is hearing from fellow computer science teachers, Julie York is blunt. “Exhaustion. Tired. Eager for summer,” says York, a computer science teacher in South Portland, Maine, and an equity fellow at Computer Science Teacher Association (CSTA), a teacher-led professional association for K-12 computer science teachers.
That sentiment is understandable. After all, teachers have an incredibly tough job, and their work is only getting harder. Teacher shortages are pervasive in many regions, and are especially acute in low-income communities. The pay gap between teachers and professionals with similar education levels is at an all-time high. As a result, teachers and staff are sometimes asked to do double-duty—covering their own classes and filling roles typically occupied by others.
The knock-on effects of such changes will be familiar to any teacher. Teachers must give up their already meager prep time to cover other classes. Electives in hard-to-staff areas may be canceled altogether, and others may be covered by teachers who lack qualifications in those areas. The negative effects of changes on student achievement are well-documented. All of this furthers the stress and burnout that teachers were already experiencing.
“Teachers are having a really rough time right now,” says Jen Manly, CSTA membership experience manager. “They are being asked to do more without being given adequate time, resources, or compensation.”
It’s not just that there’s more work than ever before, says Manly. It’s also that much of this work is deeply emotional and occurs amid other challenges, such as continuing fallout from the COVID-19 pandemic, school shootings, politicization, difficult student behaviors, and public distrust of the profession. Manly explains, “It’s a job that requires a lot of labor – not just doing the job itself, but also the emotional labor of caring for your students.”
What do teachers really want for Teacher Appreciation Week?
Given these sobering realities, teachers deserve more than a trinket or two for Teacher Appreciation Week (though they welcome that too!). Instead, educators and their supporting institutions say that teachers need both recognition and support from their school and district leaders.
“Teachers want a sincere thank you from their leaders for their hard work. Gifts are the icing on the cake,” says Carla Neely, a fifth and sixth grade STEM teacher in Cleveland, Ohio, and a CSTA equity fellow.
York agrees. “We need an understanding that we’re important — an appreciation of what we do and what our students achieve.”
Manly takes it one step further. “Teachers need actual support from their administrators — they need help in lessening the workload and support with student behavior.” Manly says that for Teacher Appreciation Week, this may take the form of canceling extraneous meetings. But Manly emphasizes that support must be deep and ongoing throughout the year in order for teachers to do their best work.
The Unique Needs of Computer Science Teachers
Appreciation and support is especially important for computer science teachers, who are at the heart of our education work at Siegel, and face a host of distinct challenges. So how can school communities support computer science teachers?
1. Elevate the Importance of Computer Science Education
York explains that in her experience as a high school computer science teacher, “We’re considered ‘elective.’ We’re ‘not as important’ as the rest of the school. Instead, we’re seen as a place for people to go to do whatever.” According to York, computer science teachers are often called upon to answer tech questions in addition to their teaching responsibilities. And they often organize and run programs and events that do not receive additional funding.
Similar challenges exist at the elementary and middle school level. Neely offers an example. “At CSTA we have elementary teachers who have been trained to teach CS but find it challenging to integrate it into the curriculum because of time restraints and other requirements given by the state, district, and local leaders,” Neely says.
For York and Neely, it’s important that computer science be elevated to a core subject and integrated into academic standards. Doing so would signal the importance of the subject and would result in better resourcing.
Neely explains, “I am hearing from CSTA members that they want all educational leaders to value computer science in the same manner as reading, math, science, and social studies.” She continues, “Computer science actually enhances the instruction of those subjects.”
2. Honor Computer Science Teachers’ Expertise
In addition, computer science teachers stress that it’s important for teachers to have the leeway to teach concepts in ways that leverage their expertise in both content and in pedagogy. Manly explains. “Like all teachers, CS teachers need to be treated like the professionals they are. They need professional autonomy to do their work without micromanagement, while also getting administrative support for their decisions.”
This dynamic also applies to all STEM teachers, who often operate as a department-of-one. “For STEM teachers, isolation can come in the form of being the only maker or chemistry teacher in the building,” reflects Yadana Nath Desmond, executive director of STEMteachersNYC, a nonprofit organization that supports STEM teachers in the New York City region. At the same time, Desmond explains, “freedom can look like project based learning opportunities that grow out of students’ interests.” In order to pursue such approaches, teachers must have the support of school and district leaders.
3. Give Computer Science Teachers a Seat at the Table
That support begins by giving teachers a voice in decision-making conversations. “We should be listening to teachers about what changes are needed,” says Greg Benedis-Grab, Director of Academic Technology, Computer Science teacher, and STEMteachersNYC workshop leader. “We also need to foster connections between teachers so that they can share key insights, collaborate, and build on each other’s knowledge. Deep understanding and making connections are the two fundamental requirements for innovation to grow and thrive.”
Manly echoes this sentiment. When asked what administrators can do to support teachers, she replies, “Give teachers the authority to make decisions for their classroom and their students. Support those decisions when working with parents and other stakeholders.”
Neely says that when “teachers have a seat at the table and take part in the decision-making for how students learn computer science,” it goes a long way toward signaling that school and district leaders understand the unique expertise that computer science teachers bring. “Leaders need to understand that there is a difference between computer science and educational software.”
Respect and appreciation rest on better compensation for ALL teachers
Crucially, respect and appreciation hinge on fair compensation for teachers. “Teachers need to be able to do what they love and they cannot do that if they are focusing on ways to feed their family because they aren’t getting paid enough to teach,” explains one CSTA staff member.
On average, public school teachers earn 23.5 percent less than comparable college graduates. Stories about teachers struggling to make ends meet abound. In one survey, over 80 percent of public school teachers reported that they either currently or previously took on multiple jobs to make ends meet. In the same survey, nearly half of respondents said that their pay wasn’t sufficient to retain them in the classroom for the medium-to-long-term.
Poor pay is one of the leading causes of teacher recruitment and retention challenges, furthering teacher shortages, stress, and burnout. Joshua Elder, vice president and head of grantmaking at Siegel Family Endowment says, “We are hearing from our grantees who work with public school teachers that teachers are at a breaking point. They love their jobs, but they can’t sustain their hard work and commitment to their students under current conditions.”
Elder, a former public school teacher, believes that legislation to compensate teachers fairly is long overdue. “The current legislation that sets $60,000 as a national minimum for teacher pay could help with teacher shortages. But much more importantly, as a society, we owe our teachers a living wage. It is an important sign of respect and appreciation for the incredibly important work that they do.”
Jake Baskin, executive director at CSTA agrees. “CSTA believes in and supports the bills to raise teacher salaries to $60,000, as we recognize that teachers have one of the hardest jobs and deserve to be paid fairly for their essential work.”
It’s time to elevate the profession
“This Teacher Appreciation Week is the moment to focus on improving the profession to meet — even exceed — the standards of today’s workforce,” wrote Siegel’s president and executive director Katy Knight in a recent op-ed in The 74. Greater and more capable support systems, autonomy and flexibility aligned with 21st century workforce expectations, a voice in key decisions, and increased overall return on investment for teachers throughout their careers will go a long way to creating the profession we need and deserve.