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women educators
Mary McLeod Bethune with a group of students after resigning as President of Bethune-Cookman College, Daytona Beach, Florida, 1943. Credit: Universal History Archive/UIG via Getty Images

Given that teachers are charged with imparting the contributions of women to their students throughout Women’s History Month, a special place should be reserved during March for the women teachers who go unrecognized.

“You have teachers who give everything for children — sometimes spending more time than parents — but society doesn’t respect or pay teachers what they are worth,” Michelle Santos told the Hechinger Report. Santos is the director of journalism and media arts for the Richard Wright Public Charter School for Journalism and Media Arts in Washington, D.C. Santos began her teaching career in a facility for students found guilty of criminal offenses; in the nearly two decades since, she has been a teacher and administrator in various schools.

“It’s because we’re mostly women,” she explained. “Women’s work in general is undervalued.”

Approximately 77 percent of the more than 3,827,000 teachers in public elementary and secondary schools in the U.S. during the 2015-16 school year were women.

In our capitalist society, people’s worth is viewed as being linked to the salary they bring home. Women are overrepresented in the lowest paying jobs, and women in high-paying professions are paid less than their male counterparts, according to data from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. Teachers who have gone on strike across the country over the last year and a half have made explicit demands for increased pay and better working conditions; their demands are inextricably linked to women’s frustrations with being undervalued.

Approximately 77 percent of the more than 3,827,000 teachers in public elementary and secondary schools in the U.S. during the 2015-16 school year were women, according the data compiled by the National Center for Education Statistics. There’s an even higher concentration of women in the lower grades: 89 percent in primary school, 73 percent in middle school, but 59 percent in high school. Yet an overwhelming majority of women who have made significant contributions won’t make it into the history books used in classes women teach, because teaching is a “pink-collar” profession, meaning it’s comprised mostly of women. The lack of credit shows up in lower pay.

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Educational occupations with the highest concentration of women are among the lowest paid, according to a 2013 report published by the National Survey of Early Care and Education. Women represented 97 percent of the workers in center-based early childhood programs, which include school-based care, Head Start programs, and child care centers. Yet, according to a 2016 press release from the U.S. Department of Education, “preschool teachers are paid less than mail order clerks, tree trimmers and pest control workers.” The release, announcing a report on child care worker compensation, added that “[c]hild care workers make less than hairdressers and janitors.”

You can’t overstate the impact teachers have on society. They teach children to read, write, and compute. It just so happens that a majority are women. Given that kids spend nearly 1,000 hours each year in class, teachers play a primary role: They not only foster the academic environment around students, but are also largely responsible for supporting children’s emotional and mental health throughout their school years. Teachers are both instructors and nurturers, and play a role similar to that of a parent.

Researchers consistently find that teachers are the most important factor (inside the school) in student achievement. Girls majoring in science, an underrepresented group, are more likely to have become interested through the positive influence of a teacher. Teachers’ expectations of their students’ performance is directly related to how students perform. One of a child’s first relationships with a non-relative adult is with a teacher, who aids students in growing socially and intellectually, preparing them for future relationships.

Despite the clear importance of teachers, the chronic underfunding of schools makes their jobs much more difficult. Congress has failed to fully fund the Title I grant program, which provides funding to low-income schools and districts — the schools black and brown students attend — and helps fill gaps created by inequitable school financing systems. “Between 2005 and 2017, public schools in the U.S. were underfunded by $580 billion in federal dollars alone — money that was specifically targeted to support 30 million of our most vulnerable students,” found a report from the education advocacy nonprofit, the Alliance to Reclaim Our Schools.

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Last week, Santos, the charter school journalism director, brought a group of her students to the Brookings Institution for our Career Day, in which the fellows and staff expose youth who are underrepresented to our think tank. In the midst of introductions and greetings, Brookings staff asked the visitors to introduce themselves. “When people asked my students who I was, they would say, ‘That’s our school mom.’ I have that kind of relationship with my students,” Santos said, adding that she has to be a resource for students before, during and after school, and is present for milestones outside the classroom.

women educators
Richard Wright Charter School teacher Michelle Santos flashes the peace sign among her students on a field trip in 2007 to the World Bank in Washington, D.C. for International Women’s Day, hosted by Rotary International. Credit: Photo courtesy of Tiara Gordon

Santos espouses the kind of relationship with her students that we expect from teachers. By law, when kids are in school, teachers are answerable for some of the responsibilities typically given to parents — in loco parentis — Latin for “in place of the parent.”

“When people asked my students who I was, they would say, ‘That’s our school mom.’ I have that kind of relationship with my students.”

This month, you may see or hear names of women teachers, like Mary Jane McLeod Bethune, who started a private school for African-American students in Daytona Beach, Florida, which eventually became Bethune-Cookman University; Maria Montessori , who launched a movement, which needs no further introduction; and Marva Collins, who founded the Westside Preparatory School in the Garfield Park neighborhood of Chicago. But great leaders like these teachers should not only be exalted in March; they, and the thousands of women who teach our children every day, should be remembered throughout the year.

Women’s history month was created to recognize the contribution of women. The people who are most likely to relay that information should be recognized, too. This Women’s History Month, let’s honor the unsung heroines, like Michelle Santos, who inspire children every day.

This story about women educators was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Sign up for Hechinger’s newsletter.

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