Teachers say they feel caught in the midst of a culture war, and they want politicians to stay out of their classroom decisionmaking.
When politicians do talk about schools, teachers want them to focus on education issues more broadly—and they want their elected representatives to listen more to educators and families.
These findings on teachers’ beliefs about the intersection of politics and schools come from a new survey of about 1,200 traditional public and charter school teachers, released by the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools and administered by the Harris Poll, a market research firm.
The results illuminate the difficult political line that a lot of educators are walking right now.
Since 2021, 18 states have passed laws or taken other measures to restrict how teachers can discuss race, gender, and issues deemed “controversial” in the classroom. All of these laws have been introduced by Republicans. With one political party attacking educators’ classroom practice, teachers have said it can be challenging to defend their profession and advocate for public education without facing claims of partisanship.
“Everything is political in education, especially public education,” said Irene Sanchez, a Latino studies teacher in the Azusa Unified school district in California who was not involved in the study.
Her Latino studies class is in part an attempt to teach students history that they might not get in mainstream social studies courses. “You’re having pushback from people who don’t get it, like, ‘Why can’t things just stay the same?’ But they don’t see the fact that people made these choices to deliberately leave out groups in our history,” Sanchez said.
Other surveys have shown that these bans aren’t popular among educators—regardless of political affiliation.
Data from a 2022 EdWeek Research Center survey shows that educators across the political spectrum opposed these laws. When asked whether the government should restrict how teachers talk about certain issues—including slavery, religion, politics, and gender and sexual orientation—a majority of teachers said no on every topic. Opposition to restrictions varied by topic, ranging from 68 to 77 percent of teachers.
This shared perspective makes sense to Sanchez. Restrictions on specific instructional choices can have ripple effects that would affect the profession as a whole, she said.
“Once people start banning these books like they’ve been doing—it’s wrong, for one,” said Sanchez. “But two, it’s going to lead to us losing more power over what we can teach, and the power we have as a collective.”
‘Valuing the service’ that teachers provide
The National Alliance for Public Charter Schools survey also asked teachers about their biggest challenges right now.
The top response was student behavior and discipline issues, with 74 percent of teachers citing that as their most pressing problem. After that, the next most common challenge was pay, with 65 percent of teachers choosing this option.
Concerns about student behavior have also surfaced in other surveys conducted after the start of the pandemic. In an EdWeek Research Center survey from April, 70 percent of educators said that students were misbehaving more now compared to 2019.
The findings on pay in this survey were nuanced. Only 7 percent of respondents said they were motivated to teach based on the salary. But 84 percent said they believe higher pay and better benefits would help teachers stay in the profession.
Teachers get into the profession because that’s where their hearts lie, said Nathaniel Dunn III, a 3rd grade teacher at i3 Academy in Birmingham, Ala. Dunn was also named a 2023 Changemaker by the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools.
But even if teachers aren’t in it for the money, they need a baseline level of financial stability, he said. “We’re thinking about things that we shouldn’t have to be thinking about: Can we save money for next week?” Dunn said.
Sanchez linked these issues of compensation to teacher retention.
“If people want to ensure that teaching remains this profession where you get those most highly qualified people, I think politicians do need to pay attention to what teachers are saying—that they need more resources, they need more compensation. Those are the things that I think teachers want to communicate: That politicians should be valuing the service that teachers are providing to our society.”