Monday, May 9, 2011

Help Teachers Fight for Your Children

I am a teacher, proud to claim the profession now besieged by the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune (Hamlet). I began in this profession in 1970, a mere two years after women began to assert their rights for equal treatment under the law and equal pay for equal work. Although many might assume that a woman in a profession dominated by women earned the same pay as her male counterpart, they would be wrong.

When I began teaching, I earned less than my male counterparts because “as heads of households and bread-winners, they needed more money.” I guess I did the same job for “pin” money as they used to say—as a bit of a lark in order to enjoy a new dress or hat, to fix myself up nicely for my man.

I didn’t have a man at the time. Every penny I earned put a roof over my head, food on my table, money into savings, and professional clothes on my back. The government deducted money for taxes, Social Security and such; the school took money to pay for my health insurance. I struggled, especially because I only received a paycheck from mid-August through mid-May. The other weeks in the year were on me. I could save 1/12 of every pay check to see me through, or I could find a temporary job.

Many of us competed to teach summer school. The pay was even less than the regular contractual pay, but it could be stretched very, very thinly so that it spanned the weeks. We had a piece of paper that promised us a job in August if enrollment warranted the position. The future was murky, security like a poorly built bridge.

When the average income was between $7,000 and $8,000, I earned $6,000 as a first-year teacher with a college degree. As I said, men with the same education and experience earned more, but I did not know that then. We still signed Loyalty Oaths and promised not to discuss salary with each other.

Of course, my salary increased over the thirty-seven years that I was in the classroom, Legislatures came and went as did public support for public education. I earned two more degrees, both at the Master’s level, and some hours beyond that as I pursued interests and needs to become a better teacher. This added education was rewarded, but as most teachers know, the actual cost of acquiring advanced degrees is not rewarded dollar for dollar.

I also joined the ranks of teachers who strive to work harder and achieve more. I trained to become an Advanced Placement teacher, thereby giving my students the opportunity to be better prepared for college and perhaps earn college credit as high school students by scoring well on a national exam administered by the College Board and ETS. I also became a graduate of a state Writing Project, a six-week summer investment that transformed my teaching for the next decades. Even in the last years of my career, I still sought to become better by submitting myself for the rigorous examination known as the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards. The analysis and reflection necessary to earn this level of professionalism made me a better teacher, one that served my students well, better than they had been served prior to that level of rigor.

I am a teacher whose students performed well on District, State and national exams. I am a teacher who loved coaxing, guiding, coaching, abiding, and nurturing students. I am a teacher who took work home at the rate of 10-20 hours every week. Add those to the 37.5 contractual hours, and you will see that I, like most salaried employees, worked beyond the stereotypical 9 to 5. A 40-hour week really does not exist for public school teachers.

Summers are not really “off” either, but it would be okay if they were. Teachers are not well paid, considering the responsibilities and education and hours that they must put in. Still, most teachers use summers for institutes, workshops, training, college hours, and committee meetings where they develop tests, programs, and plans for the coming year.

In OK in 2010, a first-year teacher could expect to earn $31,600 for a 185-day contract. In other words, that teacher, with college degree in hand, could earn $170.81 per day or for the minimum 6.75-hour day, $25 per hour. Sounds good, right? Sounds rich? But that teacher makes a contribution to the State Teacher’s Retirement Fund, mandated by law, and loses 7% of his/her annual compensation from that salary. By the way, annual compensation is salary plus fringe benefits such as pay for serving as department chair or District contributions to health insurance.

In OK, teachers do not receive health insurance fully paid for by their districts or the State so teachers must find about $1,000 monthly to pay for insurance for themselves and their families. Then, taxes, Social Security, and all the other stuff that every other employed person in the U. S. must pay comes out of the total compensation package.

No, teachers are not getting rich, and they are not bankrupting states. They pay for their retirement pensions. If States had kept the faith and not used retirement funds, as Congress used Social Security funds, then pension funds would be healthier. But there is one other thief in the pension fund crisis: Wall Street. States took the bet just as many 401Ks, investors, and Average Joes did. They put money into funds and money-making opportunities recommended and backed by Wall Street. In 2008, we all lost huge amounts of our savings, our investments. Wall Street walked away with bonuses equal to or greater than their malfeasance. Everyone else sighed and put off retirement.

Now States cry foul. Now States wish to rewrite history. Now the voters, who have the shortest of short-term memories, heed the crisis call and wonder if we shouldn’t punish the big, bad unions for having the temerity and wit to organize and ask for a living wage as well as improved working conditions. I ask voters to recall:

• The teacher who told you it’s okay to color outside the lines
• The teacher who complimented your choice to color the sun bright green
• The teacher who gave you wings by teaching you to read
• The teacher who had faith in your talents
• The teacher who taught you to calculate and reason
• The teacher who suggested the life’s work that you do today
• The teacher who remembered your birthday when your grieving father, just weeks after he lost his wife, your mother, forgot all about your day of birth
• The teacher who gave you a second, third and fifteenth chance when you had lost your way
• The teacher who was firm and steady so that every student in the room was safe
• The teacher who listened to your dreams with a sparkle in his/her eye
• The teacher who nominated, recommended, and endorsed you so that you could reach another level
• The teacher who stayed after school to help you
• The teacher who sewed your graduation-gown collar in place just before Commencement when you and your family forgot all about it
• The teacher who sent you a get-well card or a sympathy card when sorrow touched your family
• The teacher who taught you a lesson, maybe even one outside the curriculum--a lesson such as stick-with-it or persevere or you can do it, whatever it is
• The teacher who smiled
• The teacher who laughed
• The teacher who made a mistake and admitted it
• The teacher who wanted your success more than his/her own

For the last fifteen years or so, I asked my high school seniors to adopt an attitude of gratitude and write a letter to a person who helped them reach the milestone of a high school diploma. At least one wrote to himself. A few chose brothers or sisters. Several thanked a youth minister or coach. Many thanked at least one parent. Just as many thanked a teacher.

Public education is not a failure. There may be some bad teachers just as there are lousy lawyers, incompetent physicians, corrupt officials, and sinners masquerading as holy men. There are schools without the best resources and schools that do not or cannot offer advanced courses. There are lazy, self-absorbed people everywhere, some in student desks and some behind teacher desks.

What we lack as a nation is a public will to insist upon equal opportunity to excellence for every child. Each of our children deserves nutritious foods to eat, health care to keep him strong enough to learn, parenting that is nurturing and loving, safety at home, school, in cars, and on public thoroughfares. To accomplish excellence for our children, we cannot vilify teachers, blame organized labor, and separate kids by voucher. Doing so is simply to wage a class and race war with the only losers our children, our international reputation, our future as inventors, innovators, and entrepreneurs. Doing so is to be devoid of genuine courage. Doing so is to fail as adults.

Let us not return to the days when parents were so desperate and children little more than a commodity, when parents sold their children to become chimney sweeps and die long before their promise had been realized. Let us not return to days when children did not matter for if we do, we have made a bargain with the devil and sold him our country.