What Schools Teach Us About Invisible Labor


Children and making a positive impact on their well-being is the true joy of teaching.

With that said, the life of an educator was hard prior to 2020. Already overworked and underpaid, a rise in social injustices, racial tension, and the global pandemic made the role almost impossible. It became clearer than ever that there’s a problem with the way we work.

The pandemic brought to light the interior, often silenced challenges and workload that classroom educators endure. At the start of online learning, the public offered praise to teachers. But as educators began to advocate for safer conditions for themselves, their colleagues, and their students, that praise quickly fizzled out.

The public taking back their expression of gratitude felt all too familiar to educators because it’s the same way the educational system treats them.

It seems that educational leaders only acknowledge the impact of teachers during a designated appreciation week. The rest of the time sweeping decisions are made with little educator input. This just goes to show that classroom educators must act as front line soldiers for every new initiative and too often become the scapegoats for any failed attempts at innovation.

It is our love for students and learning that allow the education system to exploit the labor of educators in this way. During my time in the classroom, the students were the best part of the job. Not only did I have the opportunity to teach, but I was able to be a continuous learner alongside my students. It’s what draws most to the profession, myself included.

But in order to keep effective educators in the classroom, things need to change.

Disparity in Education Across Race and Gender

Educator exploitation is seen most clearly in how the system compensates, evaluates, and sets expectations for teachers. As in other industries, it directly reflects the gender and race disparities in the profession and the broader society.

Historically, teachers have been seen as an extension of domestic labor, even referred to as “professional childcare.” These duties typically have been performed by women, which is why elementary schools tend to have mostly female teachers. However, as students age and progress to higher education, we tend to see more men in the educator role. This reinforces the idea that society only trusts adult learning to men.

Not only does this disparity apply to social status but to finances as well. Despite demands and expectations of the profession growing exponentially, the average teacher salaries have remained stagnant since the 1990s. Educators often work several hours a week that remain unaccounted for in their pay in order to be considered “effective.” Not only does their salary not adequately compensate them, in many cases, teachers bear out-of-pocket costs to meet both student needs and evaluation requirements.

Paying with Invisible Tax and Invisible Work

Due to the drastic demographic differences between educators and students in this country, teachers pay an invisible tax invisible tax alongside mounting pressure and low wages.

For educators of color, most notably African American men, this tax looks like  being responsible for developing cultural competencies of colleagues and students, acting as disciplinarians for students of color, and building and sustaining mentor relationships with students of color. This work is an essential part of the job, but not often considered on a pathway to leadership. As a result, there’s an increased turnover rate for teachers of color who are too quickly burned out.

For women educators (who make up the largest percentage of the profession), they must bear the weight of invisible work invisible work, duties they are expected to perform that are similar to that of a child-rearing homemaker.

This gendered view point extends beyond the classroom into most professions. In Michelle Jaeger’s article, The High Cost of Invisible Labor for Women in the Workplace she lists the following as examples of invisible work females are tasked with:

● Organize team events and office parties
● Collect money and send cards, flowers, or gifts to colleagues
● Track and celebrate team member birthdays and work anniversaries
● Perform office “housework”
● Provide emotional support to colleagues and clients
● Welcome or mentor new employees
● Lead and serve in employee resource groups and committees

As a result, women and people of color spend less time invested in professional development that would lead to more leadership opportunities.

When educators voice concerns about these conditions, tensions rise and they are put in lose-lose situations. Educators cannot manage this feat alone. It requires the efforts of the entire school community.

This moment demands that we stop talking around the problem and name the reason for these disparities: it is the direct result of a cultural devaluation of work perceived to be reserved for women and people of color.

Why This Problem is a Problem Everyone Should Care About

Currently, we are seeing a high rate of teachers leaving the profession after just 3-5 years, with educators of color fleeing the profession at even higher rates. With little pay and high accountability, teachers are held responsible for a lot but lack the necessary mental, emotional, and financial support to meet these standards.

Research shows that at the end of the day, teachers leaving the profession in masses impact students the most. The Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development found report that students are more likely to be low-performers if they attend schools that struggle with shortages and low teacher morale.

Without effective and passionate teachers, our public education system is in trouble. A broken system unable to properly educate children impacts everyone.

What Can We Do Now?

We are left with many questions:

What are we going to do about teacher shortages and turnover?
What is going to change in public education?
How do we disrupt disparities in education?

There is no simple answer or straightforward path. However, there is something we can collectively do to strive toward positive change. We must shift our focus from individual employee successes (or failures) to systemic ineffectiveness and change.

Unfortunately, this problem goes beyond the classroom. What the education field demonstrates is that gendered and racialized professions are perceived as low-skill and labor-intensive. These workers are simply expected to pay an invisible tax and partake in invisible work. As a result, there is increased burnout, turnover due to professional invalidation, exhaustion, widened pay gap, decreased opportunities for advancement, and even penalization for perceived neglect of regular duties in favor of unpaid labor.

There might still be many questions left unanswered, but there is also immediate action that leaders can take to demonstrate their commitment to eradicating invisible, yet uncompensated labor:

● Adaptive performance reviews that account for and incentivize invisible labor
● Invest in employee wellness (leadership development, coaching, emotional support         services, etc.)
● Audit processes to promote transparency and expose inequity
● Pay folks for their labor, both seen and unseen
● Champion pay equity

This is one of the greatest lessons American teachers have to offer us.

Are you ready to learn from it?

By Dr Rodeela Carson


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