Opinion: Montgomery County’s teachers need better working conditions

Jennifer Martin is president of the Montgomery County Education Association.

The best part of my job as president of the Montgomery County Education Association (MCEA) is stopping by schools to talk with colleagues about their experiences on the front lines in public education. While there, I also get to observe and chat with students. Every school visit reinforces the sense of pride I feel in the skill and dedication of my colleagues and reminds me what an honor it is to be entrusted with educating our county’s children.Sign up for a weekly roundup of thought-provoking ideas and debates

At a high school, I struggle to keep up with the lanky young man whose stride is easily four of mine as he guides me through the halls and offers his opinions about life. At a middle school, I weave through groups of kids as they verbally jostle to impress each other and scurry or saunter between classes. I am reminded then how a 13-year-old’s bravado covers a host of teenage insecurities. And at an elementary school, little ones peer up at me quizzically and offer shy waves as they line up outside their classrooms waiting to be escorted to the next activity. Their trust, openness and curiosity are beguiling.

But each visit also emphasizes the weighty burden that educators shoulder to make schools welcoming, safe and powerful places of learning for students. Educators are beleaguered and exhausted. Our county must do much more to support their work.

Teachers have been whipsawed over the past two years by those who praise them for their heroism and others who cast unfair blame for months of school building closures that forced us to become instant experts in running virtual classrooms. The return to the school buildings didn’t end the challenges and fears — in fact, the job is pushing many to the breaking point as they cope with staffing shortages while they strive to address the increased challenges our students and families experience.

We must restore respect for the teaching profession, make a career in education attractive to a new generation and supply necessary infrastructure and material resources. With the Blueprint for Maryland’s Future and the unprecedented investment by the federal government in coronavirus recovery funds for education, our school system is poised to make profound improvements in teaching and learning conditions.

To meet the needs of every child, we must do right by the educators who teach them. A recent Education Week article described the national problem of education staffing shortages caused by poor working conditions and overwhelming workloads. These same problems exist in our county, where this month hundreds of classroom positions still remain unfilled. Many staff members have expressed that this will be their last year in the system — and the profession.

Educators are tired of sacrificing countless unpaid hours beyond their workday to fulfill their duties. They are tired of neglecting their own families’ well-being because of work pressures. They are tired of struggling to pay down student debt and find housing they can afford. And they recognize that they possess skills that are highly prized and better paid in other sectors of the economy. As a result, many current teachers are eyeing the exits, and very few college students are now pursuing careers in education. We must increase our commitment to the people who seek to do this crucial work.

Throughout these two years of hardship, the 14,000 members of the Montgomery County Education Association have leveraged their collective power to move mountains to better serve students. They have fought for policies such as adequate student preparation and planning time, wage increases to incentivize and retain educators and substitute teachers, and increases in mental health staffing in schools.

Now is the moment to renew our county’s commitment to giving our students the schools they deserve. Emerging from two years of a health crisis and into a time of managing covid-19, students, families and educators recognize the need to invest in our schools and the people who do the work of educating students. The MCEA calls on our elected county leaders to commit to that investment.

One has already answered that call. Montgomery County Executive Marc Elrich (D) released a budget that seizes the opportunity to build back better. Supplying nearly 99 percent of what the Board of Education requested, Elrich’s budget is designed to give teachers and students the support they need.

The Montgomery County Council now has a duty to approve this budget so that educators have the time, resources and working conditions needed to nurture and develop the full potential of our students. Our children’s success and our county’s future prosperity depend on it.