While sipping my Sunday morning coffee and perusing my Facebook feed, I came across a thoughtful New York Times column by 826 National tutoring center co-founders Dave Eggers and Nínive Clements Calegari on the problems associated with low teacher pay. Eggers and Clements Calegari liken teachers to soldiers: both groups are “in the trenches” working to improve conditions for our country. But unlike soldiers, who are revered for literally risking their lives (and rightfully so), the authors argue, teachers tend to take the blame for the failing public schools campaign. They write:
When we don’t like the way our students score on international standardized tests, we blame the teachers. When we don’t like the way particular schools perform, we blame the teachers and restrict their resources.
Compare this with our approach to our military: when results on the ground are not what we hoped, we think of ways to better support soldiers. We try to give them better tools, better weapons, better protection, better training. And when recruiting is down, we offer incentives.
I had a visceral reaction to reading this column, not because I didn’t already know and agree with all it had to say, but because I just signed my life away on Friday for a ninth year of teaching. And when I say signing my life away, I mean it. Teaching, at least for me, is all-consuming. There are very few moments in the day that I’m not actively teaching, thinking about teaching, grading papers, planning lessons, running teaching-related errands or worrying about teaching. I even dream about teaching. I spend, on average, 10 hours a day on my school campus, and at least an additional hour each night once I get home. I don’t take a lunch — I typically have students in my room working or there’s other prep work to be done — so I shovel whatever frozen meal I’ve brought that day down my gullet at my desk, and I rush to the bathroom whenever I can during the seven-minute passing time between classes. I’d love for anyone who has a traditional “desk job” to spend a day with a teacher, just so they can appreciate the non-stop action of a typical day at school. And while many outside education point to the summer vacation when teachers complain about their tough jobs and low pay, the truth is I spend a good deal of my summer teaching at workshops, revising lesson plans and meeting with my newspaper and yearbook staffs to prepare for the coming year. Outside of my summer teaching gigs, this time is unpaid. (Still, I won’t lie, summer vacation rocks.)
I am not complaining. I have come to accept these conditions as part of the job, and I don’t have a problem with that; I often kept long hours in my previous career in public relations, and it’s just in my nature to take my job very seriously. No, what has worn me down is not the hard work or even the embarrassingly low pay. It’s the increasingly insurmountable obstacles that are being placed in teachers’ paths at every turn, which make it nearly impossible to do the job in a way that we can feel good about. It’s not solely about the money, although, as an American, it’s really hard not to equate my professional worth to my salary. It’s about the conditions under which we are expected to do our job — and let’s remember that the job is to educate our young people so that they may go on to contribute to our society in a way that will help us maintain our status as a world superpower and shining example of democracy. The Arizona legislature this month voted to cut $180 million from the state’s education soft capital budget for fiscal year 2012, after cutting $165 million in 2011. What does this mean for teachers? Well, I know at my school it means another increase to class size — we are likely to top 40 in many of our classrooms next school year; less money to provide transportation, fix equipment and buy textbooks and classroom supplies — I spend about $300 of my own money each year on things like markers, construction paper, magazines, rewards, etc., for my classes; and most unfortunately, fewer curricular choices for our students. Cutting the budget means doing away with programs that do not have huge numbers and are not required for graduation — you know, the ones that often help students find a career path they wish to pursue or that provide some other creative or physical outlet other than taking notes and writing essays (I’ll admit I’m especially sensitive on this subject, as I teach elective journalism courses).
Budget cuts mean boiling the public school experience down to the bare bones — teaching content required for the state standardized exit exam — and essentially sucking the soul out of the school environment. And trust me when I say that in doing so, we’re extinguishing the spark for learning in the kids we are supposed to be inspiring. I’ve seen it happen. Too many kids (in my case high school students) don’t respect the importance of education, and what’s even more depressing is that they don’t respect the teachers who are trying to help them get ahead in life. But can you really blame them, when this is what we’re giving them?
When I started teaching it was easy for me to say that most of the teachers I knew went above and beyond to do what was best for their students. The vast majority of them loved their chosen profession and were excited each day to try new things and impart their wisdom on their students. This made them great teachers, and my school a fun and upbeat place to be. It pains me greatly that I can’t say those words as easily today. After eight years of salary reductions and freezes, increased expectations to take on (often unpaid) extracurricular duties and assignments, increased accountability with fewer training opportunities, and even fewer thank-yous, among other things, I’ve seen the spark die in many of my fellow teachers, just as I’ve seen it in our students. This is the true cost of budget cuts.
I am grateful to have a job, as I know many people in this country currently do not. I will continue to “fight the good fight,” as my department chair always says, because I believe what I am doing is important. I like to think I am a good teacher and that I have made a positive impact on my students, and when I get a note or a Facebook message from a former student sharing with me their post-high school successes, I know my job has been worth it.
But what all the legislators, administrators, parents and voters need to understand is that I can’t do it forever, not under these conditions. I will eventually drown, after swimming against the current for so many years, and I refuse to continue on in such an absolutely essential job if I can’t give it my all. So when that time comes — and it will come if we continue down this path — I will have no choice but to turn my back on the students I care so much about and find another way to pay my mortgage. And I’m sure many of my colleagues — the ones who I respect most and who surely make their students better people — feel the same way. What a laughable shame it is that the most motivated and educated among us will leave teaching well before their career is through, leaving the future of our country in the hands of the disgruntled clock-watchers we have collectively deemed worthy of the job.
The Arizona legislature has repeatedly cut funding to education in an attempt to ease our state budget woes. The state’s fiscal health is in a state of crisis, but cutting funding to our future is not the way to stimulate job growth and innovation for Arizona. Take a minute to see how your local representatives voted on education issues and contact them if you don’t like what you see. Most importantly, use your power as a citizen to make sure we elect officials who will make decisions that will positively affect our children’s education and the future of Arizona.