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Leadership and Activism, Learning at its Best, Philosophical Meanderings

The Educators’ Story: “The Teacher Faces the Depression” (1933)

In 2001, I taught an History of “American” Education grad course and chose to use primary source documents mostly found on the Internet in lieu of an official “text.” This version of a blended learning environment offered us an antiquated chance to explore many narratives of education from the colonies forward, rather than those selected and repackaged by just a single author. Learners immersed in the work of unpacking and processing resources through document-based questioning, Paideia seminars, and collaborative project work.

Hunting recently for a long lost reference, I rediscovered this article written by Eunice Langdon(1933) and published in The Nation in one of my “pack-rat” tech folders of links and sources for that course. The article is posted at the New Deal Network.

When I first read “The Teacher Faces the Depression” just a decade ago, I couldn’t relate to the stories shared by Langdon. Yet, her stories don’t seem so remote from those of today’s educators who’ve been hard hit by our own generation’s version of an economy gone bad. This article documents a repeating cycle that’s relevant to why we struggle to optimize education as a solution rather than seeing it as a problem during challenging economic times. Our “nation at risk”, isn’t one because of the work of educators, it’s because we consider education a low funding priority when times get tough. It happened then and it’s happening now. And every time the nation experiences such a low point, we lose the potential to attract college students into the profession. We lose professionals from the educational workforce who have other options. We send the message that education is expendable. We set back and limit the cultural and economic potential afforded by a well-educated citzenry to move the nation forward.

I share Langdon’s article in full as an educational resource that tells a story that feels familiar to those who live inside public education today:

The Nation (August 16, 1933)

The Teacher Faces the Depression

Eunice Langdon

  1. ON April 27, according to the New York Times, Paul Schneider, aged forty-four, a sick and crippled Chicago school teacher, shot himself to death. His widow, left with three children, stated that he had not been paid for eight months, that his property had depreciated, groceries which his family needed could be bought only on wage assignment, and worry had aggravated his illness. Less than a month after Paul Schneider’s discouragement drove him to suicide, the militant action of the Chicago teachers–patient no longer–in invading the banks and refusing to be distracted or amused by the picturesque profanity of Mr. Dawes resulted in the payment of $12,000,000 due them for the last months of 1932. Their pay for the five months of 1933 is still owed them. Four hundred of them are reported to be in asylums and sanitariums as a result of the strain, and are possibly beyond help by this very belated and partial payment. Replies to a questionnaire reveal, according to William G. Carr, director of the Research Division of the National Education Association, that 2,278 teachers in 263 schools have been unable to meet payments on $7,800,567 of life insurance, and 759 have been unable to meet payments on their homes. Large numbers of teachers have borrowed to the limit of their insurance policies and in some cases from loan sharks at exorbitant rates of interest. More than 500, only a part of those who applied, have been assisted by one teachers’ charitable foundation. In short, all the horrors of prolonged unemploymentare incidents of employment in the public-school system of the second largest city in the country, which is conducting a “Century of Progress” exposition.
  2. But the situation of the Chicago teachers, distressing as it is, is far from unique. Because of certain incongruous and sensational angles in the situation which habitually make Chicago “news,” the plight of Chicago’s teachers has received a relatively large amount of publicity, whereas the equally desperate, perhaps more hopeless condition of teachers in rural schools throughout the South and in many sections of the West and Middle West has gone almost unnoticed. Public education is threatened with something little short of an absolute breakdown in vast areas of the country. Alabama owes its teachers $7,000,000. Eighty-five per cent of its elementary and secondary schools were reported as closed in April of this year and the rest as running on part time. Many schools, according to a statement made by Dr. A. F. Harmon, State Superintendent of Education, closed before January 1 of this year not to open again until October if they do then. Some counties have gone back to a three months’ term such as was maintained thirty years ago. Few teachers of elementary, high-school, or college rank in State institutions have been paid their full salaries, and most of them are from three to eight months behind. Even these unpaid salaries had previously been cut from 10 to 40 per cent, as they have in other States. Where they have been paid, it has been only partly in cash and partly in scrip, which merchants in some places are no longer willing to accept. In Georgia, teachers in rural counties have gone unpaid for months and in many places their credit is exhausted. Some of them have met the situation by camping in schoolhouses, cooking their meals in the domestic-science rooms. In some rural communities farmers have helped by taking turns in boarding teachers, but in many instances this has proved too great a burden for the impoverished families. These statements, like many official reports, investigations, and surveys, apply almost wholly to white teachers in white schools. But it is a safe assumption that in those States and counties which normally spend from three to sixty times as much on their white as on their colored schools, the sufferings of the Negro school teachers and of the Negro school population have been proportionately heavier. Here as elsewhere complete breakdown has been averted largely by the devotion of the teachers, who have not only gone on working without pay, but have often out of their depleted means helped needy school children.
  3. And as if this crippled condition of the schools were not sufficiently serious, in every locality cries for further retrenchment from taxpayers’ committees, citizens’ budget commissions, the bankers, the power interests, the merchants’ associations, and the real-estate associations are being heard To a large extent these have already been heeded, and at time when unprecedentedly heavy demands are being mad on our public schools they have been forced almost every where to run on reduced budgets, to cut teachers’ salaries, to increase the size of classes, and to drop such “fads and frills’ as the teaching of music, child-guidance work, playground work, school gardens, vacation schools–in short, all the myriad developments of the school system which are intelligent responses to the complex needs of the community, the very features which make the public-school system, with al its weaknesses and shortcomings, an asset to democracy.
  4. And what are the results? In Michigan, says George E Carrothers of the University of Michigan, “a 7 per cent increase in the number of students in Michigan high school’ has been accompanied by a 3 per cent decrease in the number of teachers, salary cuts of from 10 to 40 per cent, and the elimination of courses, which is putting an unparalleled burden on teachers and school systems to keep State educational standards up to normal.” Detroit has cut its night-school service in half, increased the size of classes, and eliminated free summer schools; Indianapolis has eliminated its department of curriculum revision, eliminated night schools, summer schools, and teachers’ colleges, and greatly reduced its appropriations for kindergartens. In Chicago nearly all evening schools have been closed, summer schools have been discontinued, community centers abolished, playgrounds reduced. To quote again from William Carr’s recent summary of the situation in the New York Herald Tribune:

    One or more phases of school service have been eliminated or curtailed in more than half of the city school systems of the nation. Conservative estimates indicate that by the end of the school year kindergartens will be reduced or eliminated in at least 170 cities, night schools in 120 cities, schools for handicapped children in 170 cities, art instruction in 100 cities, music instruction in 160 cities, school nurses in 135 cities, home economics or manual training or both in 145 cities, and physical education in 160 cities.

  5. A short-sighted “economy” has insisted in all these cases on the elimination or the curtailment especially of those services which even in normal times are the strongest forces against disintegration, demoralization, and gangsterism, and which become acutely necessary in the face of the problems raised by the depression. Professor Paul Mort, of Teachers College in New York, announced last winter after a nationwide survey of educational financing that approximately 9,500,000 American boys and girls were being deprived of their educational birthright because of the depression. As large portions of the survey on which this conclusion was based dealt exclusively with white teachers and white schools it seems safe to regard these figures as highly conservative.
  6. “Education is not sacred,” said Mayor McKee at a meeting of the New York City Board of Estimate last October. For this and similar courtesies some 200,000 voters wrote in his name on their ballots in November and many more were prevented from expressing their appreciation only by the “fixing” of Tammany’s voting machines. McKee’s soul, however, goes marching on. According to an analysis by the Public Education Association, the educational budget in New York City for 1933 suffered the following reductions: First, the budget presented by the Board of Education in 1933 was $2,800,000 less than that for 1932. And since there is normally an annual increase in the budget of $5,000,000 on account of the increased number of pupils, the budget request for 1933 was lower than it normally would have been by approximately $7,800,000. This reduction was accomplished in the main by increasing the size of classes, restricting the number of sessions of evening schools, suspending the summer schools and other summer activities, reducing personnel, using substitutes instead of regular teachers to fill vacancies, and making large cuts in supplies and equipment.
  7. Secondly, this budget request was reduced by the Board of Estimate and Apportionment by $1,500,000, which left it approximately $141,000,000. This reduction was accomplished by the elimination of after-school athletic centers and school gardens, a reduction in the appropriation for baths and pools *, the elimination of certain vacant positions, by transferring from the tax-levy budget inspectors and draftsmen for new building work, and by increasing anticipated accruals.
  8. Thirdly, the budget was further diminished by an act of the extraordinary session of the legislature reducing salaries by $8,800,000 and then, after the reopening of the city budget, by an additional $2,500,000, leaving a net total budget for 1933 of $129,700,000, as compared with $145,300,000 in 1932. This last reduction was accomplished by abolishing training schools, withdrawing sick pay from teachers, filling vacancies with substitute teachers, postponing repairs, improvements, and replacements, and making further reductions in the amounts spent for school supplies. All of these reductions amounted to a total cut of $20,600,000.
  9. There is every reason to fear similar and even more drastic economies for next year as well as a possible reduction in State aid. The teachers who took a straight pay cut last winter of from 6 to 10 per cent, as well as various disguised pay cuts in the form of reduced sick pay, larger classes, increased work, and fewer free periods, and still contributed more than $3,000,000 to the School Relief Fund–a contribution which compares rather favorably with that of bankers, power-company officials, realtors, and other citizens’ budget commissioners–are again facing the threat of a pay cut in the Budget Commission’s recommendation of a moratorium on all mandatory salary increases and increments. The threat, indeed, to the teachers’ security, to their peace of mind, to their efficiency is constant. It is undermining not only their standard of living and tending to nullify the hard-won and justified salary increases of recent years, but also, by the strain and hardship it imposes on teachers, the efficiency of the schools. A harassed, underpaid, overworked, and bullied teaching body is inevitably harmful to the schools.
  10. As Dr. Abraham Lefkowitz of the Teachers’ Union recently pointed out in his pamphlet, “Teachers and the Economic Situation,” teachers who were public employees were among the last to profit by rising wages in the boom years following 1914. Their salaries were established by law and could not readily be adjusted. The maximum salary for high-school teachers in New York at that time was $2,650, and this was reached only after fourteen years of service. (Again a comparison of the service rendered the community by the teachers and their remuneration with that of some of the members of the Citizens’ Budget Commission is suggestive.) With rising prices, however, the purchasing power of the dollar shrank so rapidly that by June, 1920, with the price index at 216.5, the purchasing power of this maximum salary was $1,219. In August, 1920, as a result of an active campaign by the teachers, the Legislature of the State of New York raised salaries so that the maximum reached $3,700. But the purchasing power of even this maximum was still below that of the maximum of 1913. In 1928-29 a further adjustment raised the maximum salary to $4,500, at which level it remained until the salary cut passed by the extraordinary session of the legislature this winter. In the face of rising prices, however, even the teacher obtaining the present maximum salary may soon find himself worse off than he was before his salary was raised–and this even without further wage cuts. The suggested moratorium on increments, while not affecting holders of these maximum salaries would hit all those on the lower salary levels–in itself a very gross injustice.
  11. These arc the conditions facing teachers fortunate enough to be employed. What of the unemployed? Their number in New York City alone has been variously estimated at from 5,000 to 15,000. The Teachers’ Union, which gives the lower figure, makes a distinction between those actually on eligible lists and those who for some reason have failed or had no opportunity to take the regular license examinations.) The Unemployment Relief Committee was recently said to be supporting 954 of them. Probably very few of the others have had the good luck to reach the stage of destitution at which they will be eligible for relief from the Home Relief Bureau or will be given “made work” by the Emergency Work Bureau. Many are known to have applied unsuccessfully to these and similar organizations. One such teacher, a young girl, according to a letter in the possession of the Unemployed Teachers Association was ineligible because in her family of five people, one, a brother, was working and making $17 a week.
  12. “I passed the oral and written parts of an examination to teach English to foreigners,” this girl wrote, “and had to have a postponement in my physical because my teeth are in bad shape and I cannot afford dental care. I’ve had to stop my work toward a high-school license because I had no money for tuition.”
  13. “We are always hungry,” wrote another, also one of a family of five, only one of whom had any sort of employment. “We owe six months’ rent…. We live every hour in fear of eviction…. My sister, a typist, and I, a teacher, have been out of work for two years…. We feel discouraged . . . and embittered. We are drifting, with no help from anyone.” Two other teachers known to the Unemployed Teachers Association were declared “ineligible” because they had been making $5 a week by substitute work. The policy of the Board of Education in letting some permanent vacancies go unfilled and filling others with substitutes at substitutes’ per diem pay is largely responsible for the high rate of teacher unemployment. It is a policy disastrous in many ways both to the teachers and to the schools. For the young and hopeful graduates of the training schools and the city colleges who passed their license examinations as far back as 1928 and 1929 and still have not received regular appointments, the situation is tragic. The board has not only decided to hold no further License No. 1 examination, at least until 1934 (to do so would, indeed, be a futile gesture with some 5,000 teachers on eligible lists to be appointed in order of merit) but is filling vacancies as they occur not by making regular appointments from the lists, but very larger by assigning substitutes. Even when these substitutes are taken from the eligible lists with a high ranking they receive only substitutes’ per diem pay instead of the regular rate of compensation. They may thus be made to fill regular positions for years as permanent substitutes, doing regular teachers’ work at substitutes’ pay without salary increments and without permanent tenure, which last a regular teacher achieves automatically after three years of teaching in the city system. The consolidation of classes, the dropping of courses, and the closing of the three city training schools has also thrown upon the system a great number of teachers in excess who must be taken care of, still further reducing the chance of appointment from the lists. The appointment of substitutes has in fact reached a point where principals are protesting against it and against the continual shifting of teachers from school to school. (It was estimated last winter that one teacher in five in the high-school system was a substitute and in some schools the proportion is even higher.)
  14. There is another real though insidious danger in manning our schools in so large a measure with teachers who have no secure tenure and are consequently defenseless against political injustice and favoritism, against the infraction of standards which the Teachers’ Union and other teachers’ associations have labored for years to build up, and against constantly increasing demands on their time and services, without additional compensation. The lack of security is an effective check upon any political or spiritual independence on the part of teachers, and it is particularly to the credit of the Unemployed Teachers Association, the majority of whose members have only a substitute’s status, that they have repeatedly championed teachers who they fed had been unjustly treated. Particularly notable were their protests in the case of Ralph Fagin and Helen Weinstein, substitutes, transferred “for the good of the system” after taking part in a parade of a parent-teacher-student association against overcrowded conditions in Public School 225 at Brighton Beach; their demand for an open hearing of the charges against Isidore Blumberg, a dismissed probationary teacher; and their stand against the “tragic case” policy of Superintendent O’Shea, by which the merit system was abandoned and assignments given to teachers alleged to be in distressed circumstances. In the last case the Unemployed Teachers Association pointed out that many teachers thus assigned did not appear on any eligible list, that appointment on grounds of destitution rather than of efficiency was detrimental to the schools, and that unless allthe tragic cases among the 5,000 eligibles were examined their relative destitution could not be fairly established anyway. It is significant that this “tragic case” list has not been open to inspection like other lists.
  15. In the very tone of the announcements given out by the Board of Education in New York the new and lowered status of the teachers in New York schools is reflected. It was reflected, for instance, in Superintendent O’Shea’s announcement that he intended to “draft” teachers for summer-school work without pay, and in the contemplated by-law of the Board of Education compelling them to give extra hours after school without additional remuneration for the purpose of coaching backward students. It was reflected also in the marvelous “share-the-work” plan, suggested but, happily, not as yet put into execution. Under this plan two substitutes, through “voluntary cooperation,” would alternate in teaching a class, each substitute teaching one week for pay, the next week “voluntarily” assisting her alternate without remuneration. It is also an open secret in the teaching body that the “dear, wonderful, generous teachers,” as Mayor O’Brien recently called them, were not wholly free from coercion in the matter of contributions to the School Relief Fund. It is significant too that teachers who have ventured to protest against this and other injustices have frequently drawn the unfavorable attention of their superiors and the whip of impermanent tenure has been held over them explicitly even at open meetings of the Board of Education.
  16. Members of the New York Board of Education and of such boards throughout the country face no easy task. The pressure on them to reduce expenses, even by such disastrous economies as those described above, from all the reactionary elements in the community has been tremendous and is still going on. It is unfortunate that such boards are usually composed of people who are primarily politicians rather than educators and hence overresponsive to pressure of this kind. In the present emergency, moreover, there has been added to the usual reactionary business interests, the voice of the bewildered and overburdened small taxpayer, who may actually be bearing a disproportionate share of the cost of education. The equalization of the tax burden by a form of taxation placing this load where it belongs, State and federal aid to education throughout the nation, the strengthening of teachers’ associations everywhere, and determined action against false “economies” by all who realize what is at stake will be needed if the schools and the teaching profession are to be saved from disaster.

* The service to the city rendered by these baths and pools can be gauged by the following figures: In the spring of 1931 there were, according to the Association, of Day School Teachers of Swimming, 84,396 boys and girls enrolled for attendance at shower baths, and 62,185 enrolled for swimming. Children were examined every week for signs of contagious or other diseases.

Now a chat with the President:

About pamelamoran

Executive Director of the Virginia School Consortium for Learning: We create paths to contemporary learning by supporting participants from member divisions to engage in critical inquiry to develop curriculum, assessment, and Instruction consistent with a focus on supporting learners to acquire competencies of critical thinking, communication, citizenship, collaboration, and creativity.


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