Tuesday, December 13, 2016

It's Not (Only) About the Money

I am a teacher in Oklahoma. I come from a family that values service. My grandfather, uncles, dad, stepdad, and son all have served or currently serve in the military. My mother and one sister have or currently work in law enforcement. That same sister and I work in education. None of those jobs pays well, and that is what we hear most about. Law enforcement, fire, military, education, and other public service jobs have the distinction of being among the lowest paid professions requiring either a degree or extensive training outside of a high school education. Professionals working in those fields advocate tirelessly for better compensation, as well they should. No one who works full time in a career, the aim of which is a public good, should qualify for public assistance or find the American Dream woefully out of reach. But it's not only about the money. Low pay is a symptom, not the disease. Everything teachers want flows from a place of respect for the profession, for us, and for our efforts with the nation's children. As Aretha Franklin would say, "All I'm askin' is for a little r-e-s-p-e-c-t!"

What does respecting teachers mean?

It means putting someone who values education in charge of education departments at the state and Federal levels. One cannot vilify and attempt to marginalize an entire profession and all who practice it and expect to lead it into a new era. Putting someone with no experience in education, someone who has never attended public schools, whose children have never attended public schools, and who has spent his or her entire career attempting to quash public schools is not just bad policy-it is incredibly contemptuous. Using the nation's children as a political football or an opportunity for profit serves neither the children nor the nation. Public schools exist for the benefit of society in creating an informed citizenry. Recognize that, and understand that a strong system of public education is in everyone's best interest.

It means understanding that pedagogy, content knowledge, instructional planning, class size, and classroom management all matter, and none are one-size-fits-all. The research has borne out time and again that class size matters, and there is an optimal range in numbers of students by age group that allows for the most effective learning environment. Pedagogical choices-when and how to teach a concept-are as important as what is taught. Our students are not widgets. They are not one-size-fits-all, and they cannot be standardized.

It means trusting us to teach that which is necessary and that which is simply learning for its own sake, because it's interesting. Many school districts have the goal of fostering lifelong learning. Most of the learning that our students do over the course of their lifetimes will be because they are interested in that learning. Those are the learning experiences that stick. Our students need foundational knowledge in math, languages, language arts, social sciences, empirical science, and the arts to be well-rounded and educated citizens, but they also need those things in order to pursue their own passions and endeavors in life. Sometimes that means we will engage in learning for its own sake in our classrooms. Not everything taught has to have "real-world" implications. It is ok to learn a new word for the sheer beauty of the language. It is perfectly acceptable to know how to solve complex equations because of the new pathways it will create in the brain even if our students do not plan to become mathematicians. Sometimes we will chase rabbits down the rabbit hole. Those times are not meaningless.

It means recognizing that we are not miracle workers. We cannot solve all of society's ills, nor do we cause them. But we can make a dent, and we try to do just that every day. We work with students who don't know if there will be food at home when they get there. We work with students who have overcome unimaginable challenges just to be here. We work with students that would rather be anywhere but here. We work with students who struggle to accomplish what most of us do easily and take for granted.

It means recognizing that we work unpaid overtime during the school year, and the breaks are our comp time. Every teacher I know works more hours than those for which they are contracted. This is not because they are inefficient. It is because there is not enough time built into the contract day to do all that is contractually required of us. What the public sees is the act of teaching. Teachers, in whatever methodology is appropriate for the concept and lesson, teach students, usually in a classroom setting. That only accounts for about half of the job, but it is more than 80% of the average contract day. My current contract is for 6.5 hours of instruction time inclusive of a 50 minute plan, so 50min/390min is 12.8%. That means my teaching time is 87.8% of my contract, but accounts for only half of my duties. Teachers must plan and align instruction to complex standards. We must grade work. We create, administer, grade, and analyze tests. We contact parents and guardians. We must modify and align work and assessments to individualized education plans for special ed students. Many of us must translate work (or have it ready far enough in advance to have it translated) for students who do not fluently speak English.  We analyze standardized testing data. We analyze standardized testing blueprints, alignment, and sample questions. We serve on committees. We volunteer our lunch, planning, before school time, and after school time to help students. All of this cannot be accomplished in a single daily planning period, and none of this is compensated time.  The average teacher in the United States works 55 hours per week. That's the equivalent of 15 extra weeks of uncompensated full-time work. We get six of those back in the summer, one in the fall, two at Christmas, and one in the spring on average. Even if we consider the time off comp time, we are still donating the equivalent of five weeks of full-time work in service to your children.

It means seeing that when we organize, we are not being selfish; we are asking for reasonable working conditions and compensation. We organize to advocate for a fully funded  public education system. We organize for class sizes somewhere south of 40 students because students learn better in smaller classes. We organize to combat the overuse of standardized tests for making broad and unrelated decisions. We organize so that we can be heard, make our workplace better, and make our schools stronger. We organize to stem the increasing demand to give up yet more of our family and personal time without additional compensation, to not have our insurance and pensions held up as a political football every legislative session, not to have test scores of students we don't teach used to calculate our evaluation score.  We organize so that so many of us do not have to leave the profession as soon as their personal circumstances allow in order to actually provide for themselves and their families. We are not asking to become wealthy through teaching, but we do plan to organize our way out of the poverty-level salaries in this state. We organize to combat the misinformation about our profession spread by those who would like to privatize and monetize it, and who see in your children only their profit potential.

And finally, respecting teachers means compensating us according to our education, experience, and worth. Respecting teachers means acknowledging us as the highly trained and educated professionals that we are. There are more than 3.5 million teachers, mostly in public schools, across the nation, all of whom hold at least a Bachelor's degree, and 56% of whom have at least one advanced degree. It means that one must recognize the cognitive dissonance of refusing to compensate teachers for education and experience while simultaneously requiring them to have both. It means understanding that you cannot court a first-rate workforce if you pay third-rate (or 48th) salaries. Newly minted teachers are fleeing out state for better standards of living and qualities of life. Experienced teachers who can leave are doing so as well, and for the same reasons. It means recognizing that Oklahoma teachers are dedicated professionals, and should be treated, and compensated as such.