Earlier today, I read about the Parkrose School District teachers who are moving to strike regarding budget negotiations. As I read, I felt a small sense of relief that these issues were being made public and that some teachers are actually willing to stand against the deeply rooted problem of funding in our schools. That comfort only lasted a moment, however, when I began to read the “commentary” to follow that were posted within minutes of the article’s publication. The first line was “they make over $100k a year fully loaded with benefits for about a 3/4 a year job” and was trailed by comments about teachers “taking children hostage” and suggestions to “fire them all, the children would be better off.” Ummm…who exactly are they describing here? Surely not any teachers that I know. While the comments were peppered with valid points, the overall message was a sense of ingratitude and disrespect. I was so livid I was literally shaking.
Shortly after, I filled out a survey sent out by our education union asking me to prioritize areas for budget cuts. Among these were student contact days, salary step increases, workdays, grading days, professional development, health benefits and a few others. At the end of the survey, there was a comment box that asked something to the effect of, “How are the budget cuts affecting you?” While I normally skip comment boxes, I was charged up from the news about Parkrose and felt the need to rant. Before I knew it, I had run out of room. I was surprised at the flow of words but quickly realized why I felt so “free” to share my opinions. The survey was anonymous so no one, to my knowledge, would be waiting on the other side of the submit button to point their finger at me and call me selfish for placing student contact days on a lower priority than health benefits. After some thought on the issue, however, I began to see how my fear of speaking up only perpetuates the lack of understanding among the “us” and the “them” mentality of the community and educators. So I decided I needed to say something. Maybe for the pure purpose of venting and trying to relieve stress. Not even sure who will hear it…but here goes. Do you really want to know how the budget crisis has affected me?
Money is tight, morale is low, shoulders are tense, tears happen often. It greets me in the morning with every email I open, inundates my professional interactions throughout the day and then creeps into my dinner conversations with my family long after I have left my classroom. My school may close this year along with another one right around the corner, which will displace hundreds of kids to new and unfamiliar environments. For many of these students, school has been the one constant in their life while everything else rips around them like a violent storm. This “crisis” has its talons gripped around every part of my job. A job I used to love. Now I come to work having to remind myself to enjoy the time I get to spend with students and the comic relief from colleagues at school that I consider good friends. So that I don’t drown in the depressing muck that surrounds us right now.
Then there are the other parts that don’t really depress me so much as just piss me off. Yet I feel afraid to share these concerns due to public backlash…because we as educators are expected to not care about the money and to just give without complaint. Because it’s “all about the kids.” And I’m not saying it isn’t. But this is a conflicting principle that causes incredibly caring and giving individuals to feel guilty when they have very human responses to a situation that they have little control over. When we complain about “the system” and “the budget” it is not because we want to be millionaires some day. It’s because we are not only human, we’re also not dumb (and while we’re discussing teacher stereotypes, we don’t all wear apples on our vests either….I don’t even own a vest.) We know that if someone asks you for something every year, there’s a good chance they will do it again the next year. The reality is, teachers are just regular people who are tired of being taken advantage of. Yet, this revelation of teachers’ humanity is what causes some people (many of whom have not stepped foot in a classroom since they graduated twenty years prior) to judge our character and worth. Lumping us together with the handful of (or maybe more) terrible teachers they had in their past.
I hear the legitimate argument that everyone is suffering in hard times and cutting back, so why should teachers be any different? But teachers aren’t asking for cushy lifestyles. We are asking for respect from the community and from our country. I have professional friends in other fields with far less educational experience who start at salaries higher than I will ever cap out at. This is a reality I’ve learned to accept. Yet this year, I never saw the benefit of getting my Master’s degree due to pay scale step freezes. Does this make me a selfish person to feel frustration over? I also understand that the solution is not to keep spending…because that will get us nowhere. But it is extremely difficult to be a “team player” when every year you have been asked to cut back without any hope that things will get better. It leaves many of us considering the idea…what if we just said no?
Lots of people say, “Oh I could never be a teacher…” or “Teachers are heroes.” But to be honest, that lip service is seeming to fade into the distance much like our compensation, time and support. It seems that our positive image is only present when we shut up and do our jobs (for less pay and less time to do it). When we suggest that maybe we should get decent health benefits, our hero badge goes out the window and suddenly we are holding kids hostage and ruining their lives. Frankly, I’m sick of it. Teachers don’t produce a product like a paper factory or an Apple engineer. We hold the responsibility for our economic, societal and global future in our hands every day. All the while, our actual control over the outcome is limited at best. Yes, we choose to do what we do. And honestly, even in the midst of all this crap, I still wouldn’t choose another profession. All I’m asking for is a little respect along the way and a glimmer of hope that things are changing for the better. Is that too much to ask?
© 2012 D. Willson