It wasn't that The persistent exhaustion that led Christine Huang, a New York public school teacher, to quit the job. Or the low pay. Or the fact that after the school day, due to the workload, she rarely had time to spend with her children.
Instead, Huang left class after seven years because New York City was dealing with the coronavirus pandemic in schools.
"To be honest, I have no confidence in the city," she says. Tension between educators and NYC officials has increased in recent weeks as school openings have been delayed twice and staff shortages persist. In late September, the union, which represents NYC's principals, urged the state to take control of the situation and hit Mayor de Blasio for his inability to give clear instructions.
Now schools are open and the number of positive coronavirus cases is surprisingly low. Even so, Huang said that teachers were lacking grace during this time.
Huang wanted the flexibility to be able to work from home to take care of their children who could no longer get daycare. But her school said that while children have a choice whether or not to come to class, teachers don't. She resigned days later.
There are more than 3 million public school teachers in the United States. Over the years, thousands have left the system due to low wages and tight working hours. However, the coronavirus is a different type of stress test. While schools fluctuate between open and closed, some teachers go without guidance and feel undervalued and underutilized. The confusion could drive the number of other teachers out of the field and massively change the teacher economy as we know it.
Leaving teachers is a loss to public schools, but an opportunity for startups looking to gain a stake in the changing teacher economy. Companies don't have the same pressure as entire school districts and can give teachers the opportunity to teach at more flexible hours. In terms of salaries, edtech benefits from the fact that it goes directly to the consumer and money is less of a budget challenge than a sale to the parents' wallets.
There is an outschool where teachers can give small group classes on topics like algebra, novice reading, or even mindfulness for children. Varsity Tutor, who connects educators with K-12 students who need additional help; and companies like Swing and Prisma that focus on pod-based learning taught by teachers.
The startups all have different versions of the same pitch: they can offer teachers more money and flexibility than the status quo.
Underpaid and overworked teachers
There are large geographical wage differences among teachers. Salaries are determined from state to state and district to district. According to the National Center for Education Statistics, a teacher working in Mississippi makes an average of $ 45,574 per year, while a teacher in New York makes an average of $ 82,282 per year.
Although the cost of living has an impact on teacher salaries like any other profession, data shows that teachers are underpaid as a profession. According to a study by the Economic Policy Institute, teachers earn 19% less than similarly qualified and trained professionals. A 2018 study by the Department of Education shows that full-time public school teachers, on average, earn less in inflation-adjusted dollars than in 1990.
The different salaries among teachers mean that there is room and need for realignment. Startups that aspire to be a part of the teacher economy can suddenly make a whole pitch around these discrepancies. What if a company can help a Mississippi teacher earn a wage similar to that of a New York teacher?
Reach Capital is a venture capital company whose partners invest in educational technology companies. Jennifer Carolan, co-founder of the company that has also worked in the Chicago Public School system for years, sees the coronavirus as an accelerator rather than a trigger for the departure of teachers.
"We have an education system where teachers are underpaid and overworked and they don't have the flexibility that has become so important to workers," she said. "All of these things have led teachers to look for opportunities outside of the traditional school system."
Carolan, who wrote a position paper on teachers leaving the public school system, says the homeschooling tech sector is opening up new avenues for teachers. One of their investments, Outschool, has helped teachers make tens of millions this year alone as the overall addressable market for what it means to be "homeschooled" changed overnight.
Gig economy from startups
Educational technology services have created a teacher gig economy in recent years. Learning platforms with unprecedented demand must attract teachers to their ministry with one of two sweeteners: higher wages or more flexible working hours.
Outschool is a platform that sells small-group classes led by instructors on a variety of topics, from Taylor Swift Spanish classes to engineering classes through Lego challenges. Last year teacher at the outschool earned more than $ 40 million in total, up from $ 4 million last year.
CEO Amir Nathoo estimates that teachers can make between $ 40 and $ 60 an hour, compared to an average of $ 30 an hour in traditional public schools. The outschool itself is up over 2,000% in new bookings and recently made its first profit.
Outschool makes more money when teachers are on the platform full time: teachers pocket 70% of the price they set for classes, while Outschool gets the other 30% of the income. However, Nathoo sees the platform more as a complement to traditional education. Instead of increasing sales by convincing teachers to work full-time, the CEO grows by adding more part-time teachers to the platform.
The company added 10,000 verified teachers to its platform, up from 1,000 in March.
Outschool competitor Varsity Tutors takes a completely different approach, focusing less on hyperscaling its teacher base and more on slow, gradual growth. In August, the Varsity tutors launched a homeschooling program designed to replace the traditional school. 120 full-time educators hailing from public schools and charter schools were enrolled with competitive salaries. There are no concrete plans to hire more full-time teachers.
Brian Galvin, academic director at Varsity Tutors, said teachers were looking for more flexibility within hours. On the platform, teachers teach five to six hours a day in blocks of their choice and can create schedules for nursing duties or other tasks.
Varsity Tutors' strategy is a version of pod-based learning that gained prominence a few months ago as an alternative to traditional schooling. Swing Education, a startup that used to help schools hire replacement teachers, turned around to connect those same teachers to full-time pod gigs. Prisma is another alternative school that trains former educators from public and private schools to become learning trainers.
Pod-based learning, which in some cases can cost thousands a week, has been popular with wealthy families and has even led to bidding wars for the best teaching talent. It has also been criticized, suggesting that the product was not designed for most students.
The reality of the next job
The goal of edtech is a tech-savvy future in which students can learn at the push of a button and teachers can earn more. However, this trail is not accessible to everyone.
Some tutoring startups may create a digital divide between students who can pay for software and those who can't. When teachers leave public schools, low-income students are left behind and high-income students can pay for their way into complementary learning.
However, some do not believe that it is the job of public school teachers, most of whom are female, to work for a broken system. In fact, some say that the whole concept of public school teacher wickedness for leaving the system goes hand in hand with an ingrained sexism that women have to settle for with less. In this context, startups are both a bridge to a better future for teachers and a symptom of failure in public education systems.
Huang, who is now on the job hunt, says the opportunities edtech companies are creating weren't made for traditional teachers, although they are billed as such. So far, she has applied on the educational content website BrainPop, the Newsela digital learning platform, the math program company Zearn, and the Q&A host on Mystery.org for curriculum design.
"I find that a lot of edtech companies don't seem to appreciate our teaching skills," she said. "They are not looking for teachers, they are looking for programmers."
Edtech was forced to meet the increasing demand for services in a relatively short period of time. However, the scalability could inherently conflict with what teachers have brought into the profession. Suddenly their work is being optimized for risk-return, not general education. Huang feels the tension in her job interviews, where she feels that recruiters don't pay attention to the creativity, knowledge, and human skills required to manage students. She made 30 different versions of her résumé.
The lack of suitable jobs led Huang to opt for childcare leave instead of leaving the education system entirely in case she has to return to the traditional field. She hopes this is not the case but is not yet optimistic.
"I didn't get a lot of interviews because people see my resume. They see that I'm a teacher and they automatically copy me," she said.