David Hecker: Student teachers deserve to be paid for their work

February 8, 2022 5:15 am

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Many of us have fond memories of student teachers from our time in K-12 education. These students and aspiring educators joined our classrooms — and for several months, did the work of a full-time teacher, from planning lessons to managing the class on a day to day basis. 

But what many students who have spent time learning from student teachers may not know is that those student teachers were not paid for their work.

In a time when people across the country are calling for an end to exploitative unpaid internships and we’re seeing increased efforts to provide paid apprenticeships in various trades, student teachers have been largely left out of the conversation. It’s time for that to change. People deserve to be paid fairly for their labor, and student teachers are no exception.

Paying student teachers fairly would be a good thing in and of itself, but it would also have far-reaching positive effects on public education as a whole. Michigan is currently facing a dire teacher shortage that has only been worsened by the pandemic, and we should be doing everything we can to ensure teaching is a profession people want to enter. 

Of course, paying student teachers is just one of many changes needed to fix such a complex problem, but it certainly would help. By recognizing student teaching as a job instead of forcing would-be teachers to work for free, we could start these young professionals off on the right foot and show that their work is valued — and, most importantly, ensure they can support themselves while they finish up school and prepare to enter the workforce.

Paying student teachers would also help us take a crucial step toward a more diverse pool of teachers in Michigan’s public schools. According to state education data, more than 30% of Michigan’s students are students of color, but teachers of color account for less than 10% of teachers. We must work to close that gap, and that means removing some of the barriers that keep people from deciding to become teachers.

It’s no secret that college is expensive, and that educators are frequently underpaid and overworked. Young people know this, and these unfortunate facts often lead talented students who could become great teachers toward other career paths instead. Adding what amounts to a full-time unpaid internship to their college workload effectively shuts out students from low-income families who can’t afford to pay their bills without an income.

In Michigan and across the country, skilled trades and their unions are taking steps to provide education and training to strengthen the workforce. Take, for example, the Michigan Regional Council of Carpenters and Millwrights, who last year opened a new training center to house skilled apprenticeships — and, of course, these apprentices are paid for their work while they develop their skills. Programs like this are a no-brainer — they’re good for workers, good for professions, and good for the economy.

It’s past time for our public education system to follow that lead. Student teachers already do great work in classrooms across the state. They deserve to be compensated fairly — both because it will alleviate undue stress and curb the need for an additional job to pay the bills, and because it’s simply the right thing to do. 

By changing this outdated practice, we can begin to address the teacher shortage and set new teachers and their students up for success.

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David Hecker
David Hecker

David Hecker has served as president of AFT Michigan since 2001. Previously, he was secretary-treasurer of the state federation. A member of the AFT executive committee, Hecker was first elected as an AFT vice president in 2004.