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labor Vermont Teachers Say They Feel ‘Attacked’ by Policymakers

"Women's Work? Voices of Vermont Educators" details the reality of work for teachers and paraeducators in Vermont. These workers are putting in long hours to meet growing student needs, as the opioid epidemic is on the rise, and child poverty grows. They are spending their own money to buy food and clothes for students. They are supporting their families as the primary breadwinner, and paying off high levels of loan debt. And they feel disrespected because they work in a female-dominated profession.

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There are nearly 7,000 teachers in Vermont, 75 percent of whom are women. Nearly 90 percent of paraprofessionals in Vermont schools are women. And a majority of those surveyed recently don’t like what comes out of Montpelier.

The results of the survey, which was commissioned by the Vermont NEA and conducted by Rebecca Kolins Givan and Pamela Whitefield, researchers at the Rutgers University School of Management and Labor Relations, are to be released Thursday.

Titled “Women’s Work? Voices of Vermont Educators,” the Rutgers report paints a picture of a workforce that is predominantly female, under increasing financial and professional strain, and more than a little frustrated by the failure of policymakers and politicians to consider the consequences in the classroom of some of their initiatives, such as Gov. Phil Scott’s plan to save $100 million annually by increasing the student-to-teacher ratios from 4-1 to 5-1.

And, the survey found, a common feeling among Vermont’s teachers is that the disrespect is gender-related.

“This predominantly female workforce feels they are undervalued and disrespected because they are female. If they were men in these jobs, the men making the decisions affecting them would treat them with more respect,” Givan, the report’s lead author, said.

As one teacher told the researchers in an interview, “There are more men in the political sphere. Our profession is mostly made up of women, but all of these men are making decisions about our lives, and they really do not understand our reality.”

The Rutgers researchers used Survey Monkey to send out questionnaires to 11,525 educators. The 1,054 educators who responded included union members and those who pay a fee to the union. The researchers also visited eight school districts, urban and rural, and conducted 19 interviews with an array of educators.

Givan, who is an associate professor of labor studies and employment relations at Rutgers, will present her findings to lawmakers on Thursday and Friday.

She said in an interview that her key message will be that the high quality of Vermont schools is the result of the the hard work of teachers and other educators who themselves are struggling.

Increasing numbers of teachers are working two and three jobs to get by. More than half of Vermont educators work a second job during the school year, the report says, and more than half work other jobs during the summer. “Countering the outdated notion that educators have a lot of time off, 45 percent of respondents work additional jobs both during the school year and during the summer, and this number rises to 57 percent for paraprofessionals,” the report says.

“There is a sense that because these educators are mostly women, people assume they aren’t the primary breadwinner, but in many cases they are, or are providing an essential income to support their household,” Givan said.

“We consistently observed educators’ frustration that their voice on the job was being put in jeopardy by men (as they saw it) in Montpelier, who did not understand how hard educators are working and how much financial stress they endure,” the report says.

“They are working long hours at school, stretching themselves to support student education and economic needs, and struggling to support their own families. They feel taken for granted because their work is demeaned as women’s work. They are paid less than their peers with similar levels of education, and they interpret this pay gap as highly gendered,” the report concludes.

As one middle school teacher the researchers interviewed summed it up, “If this profession was primarily men we would be making more money and we would be working fewer hours.”

The situation is more stressful for paraprofessionals, who provide support in the classrooms, and often work with special education students. Their pay is well below that of professional teachers, and yet more than a third of paraprofessional educators interviewed said they were the primary earners in their homes.

The study reveals frustration over more than pay, as teachers find themselves dealing with students’ family problems of poverty and addiction. Nearly 70 percent of respondents said they knew of at least one family in their school affected by opiates. One in eight respondents reported having been physically attacked by a student in the last year.

Vermont has seen a significant increase in the number of students identified as having an emotional disability — at nearly 18 percent, it is the highest in the country.

In an attempt to meet federal guidelines for best practices for teaching struggling students, the state has been moving away from the use of paraprofessionals. A recent report for the Legislature by a Massachusetts consultant called for an increase in the number of so-called “highly skilled” teachers for special education programs.

The survey found that teachers are concerned that there simply aren’t enough teachers with special education training, and that eliminating paraprofessionals from the classroom will result in students not getting the attention or help they need.

There is a sense among teachers of being constantly being asked to do more with less, the study concluded. Most of the women who hold college and university degrees, and are employed in Vermont, are in teaching, Givan said. “They are working really hard, struggling and they are feeling attacked.”