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Center for Social Concerns’ Labor Cafe discusses K-12 teacher shortage

Members of the Notre Dame community convened Friday evening in Geddes Hall, the home of the Center for Social Concerns (CSC), for the first Labor Cafe of the fall semester.

Dan Graff, history professor and the Higgins Labor Program director at the CSC, kicked off the conversation.

“[The Labor Cafe] is the longest running vehicle of the Higgins Labor Program,” Graff said. “The idea is simply to talk about compelling labor issues in a casual, collegial environment. No one pontificates for too long.”

Graff said the Labor Cafe welcomes participants beyond the “Notre Dame community” as it’s traditionally defined.

“[We] bring together members of the Notre Dame community, and that’s broadly defined, we welcome people who aren’t necessarily card-carrying members of Notre Dame,” he said. “Visitors might be community members [and] all are welcome.”

The co-facilitators of the gathering were Notre Dame seniors Lucia Carbajal, a history major, and Brendan McFeely, a political science and classics double-major. The co-facilitators determine the topic of conversation and help select the suggested readings.

The topic of discussion for the evening was the teacher shortage in American K-12 classrooms today.

Kevin Christiano, a sociology professor, approached the issue of a shortage by looking at the word’s literal economic definition.

“The usual solution to any shortage of anything if you’re an economist is to say … if you want more workers in a particular type of job, you raise the level of compensation, and that ought to draw in greater amounts of labor,” Christiano said.

McFeely expanded the scope of the conversation from the absence of teachers in the classroom to the more general lack of food service employees and custodians — workers crucial to the well-ordered operation of K-12 schools.

“When the Department of Education classifies local education shortages or rates of employment, they don’t differentiate between teachers, custodians or anyone who works with food … those are typically not certified positions. [They are] the ones that have had shortages for even longer [and] are very important but not as well respected,” McFeely said.

Graff confirmed that this difficulty has been affecting the South Bend school system.

“Bus drivers in the South Bend School District has been an ongoing, like almost a decade-long issue,” Graff said. “[You] haven’t been able to rely on the bus showing up because there are not enough bus drivers.”

Acknowledging the larger factors at play, most recently, the switch to remote learning during the pandemic, Carbajal did not condemn teachers for the shortage in the education labor market.

“[Teachers] were very reluctant to leave, and part of it was the burnout. It wasn’t that they were happy to leave or if they had an opportunity that they were more excited about,” Carbajal said. “It was that the quality of life wasn’t fitting it, and they weren’t getting the support from their employers. So, it was really unfortunate that it seemed like that was the issue at hand.”

Graff encapsulated the frustration that walks hand-in-hand with the labor question in American classrooms, expounding on who the stakeholders might be.

“We live in a society that trumpets education is the route for success and that the answer is individual achievement and education to achieve the American dream,” Graff said. “While at the same time, [there are] all these comments are about the indignities of working as an educator, either because the pay is so bad or the conditions are really troubling. What in the world is going on there?”

After the conversation concluded, participants had the chance to hang back to propose topic ideas for future cafes.

Two more Labor Cafe gatherings are scheduled for this fall, on Oct. 28 and Dec. 2.

Contact Peter Breen at pbreen2@nd.edu

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