Have you ever noticed that so much of what’s sold as “good news” these days doesn’t seem all that good? There’s the self-sacrificing Texas teenager who’s helping her mom make ends meet by cashing out her own college fund. Or the Dallas–Fort Worth teacher who’s going the extra mile to keep her students’ achievement levels up by teaching from her hospital bed after cancer surgery. Or, just to provide an example that isn’t from Texas, there’s the 8-year-old kid from Vancouver, Washington, who raised thousands of dollars to pay off his classmates’ school lunch debt. Are we actually supposed to celebrate this? Why are these anecdotes cheerfully portrayed as acts of kindness when they’re actually tales of grim dystopia?
An especially grotesque example of this genre recently floated into my newsfeed from North Carolina. A recent post from the Chapel Hill-Carrboro City Schools Twitter account, purportedly celebrating “Random Acts of Kindness Day,” related the news of a public fourth-grade teacher whose students has written “notes of appreciation for folks at the Amazon Fulfillment Center in Mebane, where [the teacher] is also a full time 5:30 p.m.-3:30 a.m./Mon.-Fri. HR manager.” The tweet continued: “(You read that right!) How kind!”
One would hope that the person who briefly posted about this teacher’s terrible employment situation did so out of some ironic attempt to raise awareness of the plight of North Carolina’s schools. Sadly, it’s an obvious example of what my former ThinkProgress colleague and TNR contributor Jessica Goldstein has referred to as “the feel-good feel-bad story.” “In the feel-good feel-bad story,” she wrote in 2018, “irrefutable proof of an institutional failure is sold as a celebration of individual triumph,” for the purpose of distracting us from “the structures that made such kindness, bravery, and fortitude necessary in the first place.”
The tweet from the Chapel Hill school system perfectly fits the mold of a “feel-good feel-bad” story. The institutional failure is obvious: Apparently, it’s quite difficult to live in North Carolina on either the salary of a full-time fourth-grade teacher or a full-time human resources manager. It’s also not clear when this teacher actually sleeps between the two jobs, given the half-hour commute from Carrboro to Mebane, the inevitable commutes to and from home, and the time this teacher spends working outside of her contract hours, as most teachers in the United States do. But this institutional failure is obscured by a supposed individual triumph that is meant to be a reward in itself, as if the fulfillment this educator allegedly receives from always working and never sleeping is some form of compensation.
Whoever sent this tweet demonstrated at least enough self-awareness to delete it, not long after it started attracting attention. That’s probably for the best, because as one local blogger noted, it surfaced unflattering facts: “A new teacher in North Carolina with no experience makes $37,000 per year (10 months), with a modest bump if they have an advanced degree or certification. The annual salary increases on a regular basis up to teachers with 25 years of experience, who are paid $54,000.” One North Carolina school principal recently summed up their personnel predicament like so: “It is incredibly difficult to find anybody that wants to teach, certainly, anyone that meets the qualifications to be eligible to teach.”
This is a national problem. Teachers are paid substantially less than workers with similar educational credentials. According to a 2018 analysis, “Teachers’ weekly wages lag by more than 25 percent compared to similarly educated professionals in 16 states. There are no states where teacher pay is equal to or better than that of other college graduates.” According to a new analysis by the Economic Policy Institute, that gap has only worsened in the years since. It’s becoming more common for teachers to have to work second jobs or hold down a side hustle, and according to a recent story in EdWeek, “new analysis conservatively estimates that there are more than 36,500 teacher vacancies across the United States, and the majority of states are experiencing teacher shortages.”
And there are solutions that don’t require acts of quiet individual heroism or elaborate displays of appreciation. Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders has proposed a measure called the Pay Teachers Act, which will establish a salary floor of $60,000 for all public school teachers, to be funded by an adjustment to the estate tax that currently allows the wealthiest Americans from sheltering their income from taxation. To Sanders’s mind, “If we can provide over a trillion dollars in tax breaks to the top 1 percent and large corporations, please don’t tell me that we cannot afford to make sure that every teacher in America is paid at least $60,000 a year.”
Our current teacher workforce is hobbled by second jobs and side hustles, which scares off the most talented potential full-time teachers and sabotages our kids’ educations and futures. Perhaps the people on the right who spent the last few years screeching at top volume about “learning loss” might be convinced to lend a hand to Sanders’s effort, and then we can celebrate what would truly be a feel-good story.