Background: The United States education system has long been broken. Neoliberal policies disproportionately impact under-resourced and highly segregated school districts, where most students are at or below the poverty line and are also ethnic or racial minorities. These policies are evident when reviewing high stakes standardized tests which prioritize accountability and competition. Amid the COVID-19 pandemic, teachers nationally reported higher levels of burnout than working adults in any other profession, and this is disproportionately escalating in low-income and urban districts. As another consequence of the pandemic, teachers in under-resourced schools are exposed to higher levels of student food insecurity, frequently paying out of pocket to provide for their students. The aim of this study is to demonstrate how flaws in the current education system perpetuate systemic inequality and disproportionately affect educators in under-resourced schools. Additionally, this study intends to shed light on the personal experiences of teachers and what they concede to be the greatest barriers in the pedagogical field, and what they wish others would recognize to create change in the educational system.
Methods: This qualitative study utilizes semi-structured, in-depth interviews. Seven participants were randomly selected online from the Schenectady school district teacher directory and are actively employed in the district. The sample group consisted of one teacher from VanCorlaer Elementary School, three teachers from Oneida Middle School, one teacher from Mont Pleasant Middle School, and two teachers from Schenectady High School. Interviews were conducted in person or via Zoom and were recorded, manually transcribed, and thematically analyzed.
Results: Teachers reported that food insecurity, adverse childhood experiences, homelessness, and accessibility issues were widespread for students in their classrooms. All participants utilized their own funds to purchase food and other resources for their students weekly. Veteran teachers demonstrated higher levels of compassion fatigue and burnout than younger teachers or teachers with strong personal support systems. Younger teachers and those who described themselves as empaths exhibited signs of secondary traumatic stress and struggled to not internalize the personal experiences of their students.
Conclusion: Empathy needs to be encouraged and supported in the teaching profession rather than seen as a weakness. Society must acknowledge that teachers in low-income districts have high exposure to adverse childhood experiences that make it difficult for them to teach efficiently. In relation to neoliberalism, all participants stated that teaching for the test is not working, and that policymakers must address that the education system is not one size fits all. To empower educators, we must allocate resources to low-income schools and accept that the current education system is inequitable.