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Low Pay Has Teachers Flocking to the Sharing Economy

Uber has frequently disseminated a similar message: “Every day teachers are asked to do more with less, constantly faced with new challenges and limited resources. Uber opens the door for more possibilities and delivers a meaningful impact to the communities we serve,” the company wrote in a 2014 blog post. Uber has even held initiatives in some cities aimed at supporting teachers: In Portland, for instance, it had a promotion in 2016 for teacher drivers in which the company returned 3 percent of a rider’s fare back to the classroom of that driver (a.k.a., in the company’s parlance, the “UberEDUCATOR”).  

Both companies stress that this trend consists not only of a financial pick-me-up for cash-strapped teachers, but also of a symbiotic relationship of sorts. “Right now, the nation is having a conversation about how … teachers in this country are not given the respect and dignity they deserve,” said Christopher Nulty, an Airbnb spokesman. “We certainly don’t think homesharing is a solution [for all those problems] but we do believe it’s an important tool for teachers” to help cope with them, “and frankly we’re really proud of the fact that 10 percent of the [Airbnb hosting] community is teachers.”

[There are larger concerns behind the teachers’ strikes]

That pride, suggests Arun Sundararajan, a professor at the NYU Stern School of Business, stems in part from the fact that the company has faced intense scrutiny from critics who claim that it enables landlords to take housing off the rental market and basically convert buildings and apartments into hotels, and that it intensifies gentrification. In many cities, proposed regulations threaten to crack down on this phenomenon by significantly limiting the company’s operations or banning it altogether; New York City, for example, recently passed a measure that significantly hamstrings Airbnb’s operations in the city.

Companies like Airbnb and Uber are trying to “promote the narrative that [hosts and drivers] are truly everyday people” who are “casually” participating in the platforms on the side, Sundararajan says. “Highlighting the number of workers who are teachers can be a particularly effective way of advancing that narrative.” It helps humanize the companies. It emphasizes the message that these are safe alternatives to regular cabs and hotels—as Sundararajan puts it, “If society trusts this person with our children, then I feel more comfortable sleeping in their bedroom.”

Nulty, the Airbnb spokesman, expresses these very sentiments in explaining why the company is proud that so many of its hosts are teachers. “It’s hard to imagine a group of people who are more welcoming, more thoughtful, and who enjoy sharing about their community and about their world more than teachers,” he says. “In a moment when there are conversations about building walls, putting up barriers, we really see the ability of people to stay in someone else’s home and have an experience and a connection with another person as a powerful and transformative moment and experience. In classrooms across the country every day, teachers are making those sort of moments and experiences happen in a really compelling and tangible way.”

Chances are that, on top of the supplemental income, many of those educators find joy in meeting and learning from new people, in sharing and welcoming others into their homes. And Airbnb and Uber love letting the public know that their ranks are brimming with teachers. But this relationship, even if mutually beneficial, only exists because for so many teachers, their primary career isn’t enough to sustain them.

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