A Teacher’s Reply

On Monday, a superintendent from the school district came and spoke with the teachers at West Salem.

Here is my full reply:

In any other industry, when an organization needs money, they can:

  • cut staff
  • liquidate assets
  • sell properties
  • negotiate with suppliers or find new suppliers
  • cancel product lines
  • enter new markets
  • increase sales through advertising
  • form partnerships that alleviate costs

And if it’s any other government agency, they can also raise taxes, ask for federal aid, trim fat, get in bed with gambling.

But in education, when they need more money, they:

  • cut staff or cut staff pay

[District superintendent], you said “I hear you” when teachers spoke. But you don’t. If you did, we wouldn’t need to say it, you would have said it. But you said the opposite. Your repeated message was “The school board will not cut programs. We will maintain the current level of services.” There is not a person on the planet who believes you can magically maintain all programs and services and cut $25 million from the budget. Every person immediately understands the unspoken conclusion: there will be another bloodbath of teachers.

I have written before about the demands of teaching, which, in every way, are unlike the demands of any other job. The details are too long to include here, but a summary will suffice: I liken teaching to sprinting a marathon or single-handedly parenting 200 children. No teacher resents hard work. No teacher minds professional-level effort. No teacher wants to coast. But no one can do what teachers have been asked to do.

For years I have suspected that the district, the school board, everyone close enough to the situation knows full well that the engine has red-lined for too long. That the burden placed on teachers has been impossible for years. The generals know they have sent the soldiers on an impossible mission from which they cannot return… but since you’re already out there it doesn’t matter what more we ask you to do. Defeat is certain; it does not matter what else we pile on you.

I also suspect that Departments and Boards know that cookie-cutter education, every-one-will-master-the-same-skills mandates are absurd, but turning the Titanic now would be too disruptive, so they race at redline and blame teachers when it doesn’t work. Rather than fix what doesn’t work, they push harder. If we go faster, the ship will stay afloat a little longer.

No Child Left Behind can be seen as implied acknowledgement: “By 2014, every child must meet the standards. We understand what we have asked of you. We acknowledge it is impossible. We know how the battle ends.”

Just yesterday, a classified staff member said to me, “But you don’t see it from the other side, I would not vote to increase taxes for schools.”

As if the schools did anything. When people say “schools” or “education” they always mean “teachers”. The building does not instruct, assess, care, connect, correct, encourage, celebrate achievement, point out strengths. Neither do the desks or buses. (And yet, when the district gets Federal or private money, none of it ($0.00) goes to teachers or easing the teacher’s load.)

But my friend missed two points. The two points that matter.

First, have teachers ever asked for more pay? Teachers ask for Respect. Teachers ask that they be able to do what they are asked to do.

I think my teacher salary is fair. Until you compare it to the task. Then it is grossly out of balance.

I don’t mind giving up a raise. Obviously. Teachers have voted in favor of that many times. But it is literally insane (and degrading) to ask teachers to give up their raise, reduce the number of paid workdays, increase class size, reduce prep time, increase student achievement, manage more mandates and paperwork, and raise the quality of our work. It is no different than asking LeBron James to score more points per game while wearing weights, facing more defenders, and playing in shorter games (and don’t forget the pay cut). It is literally insane.

Second, teachers are on the other side. Teachers are the only ones on both sides: soldiers and tax-payers. Inexplicably, teachers are the only ones on their side. The district does not fight for teachers, the school board does not, the public does not, I do not know what the union does, but in its 150 year history it has yet to make things better for teachers. And, like the citizens in Orwell’s 1984, teachers are kept too busy to advocate for themselves.

I have often felt like the district and school board view teachers as sweat-shop laborers: a nameless, faceless human machine; easily expendable, easily replaceable.

To me school is not a game, directed by the district or federal government. They chase test scores. They engage in endless, pointless comparisons between schools, states, countries. As though students were a commodity or a widget to be manufactured. As though students all (or any two!) come in the same (even day by day) and can be expected to leave the same.

Ask us to do what is possible, or give us enough funding/help to do the impossible. Stop asking us to do more than can be done and giving us less. Stop requiring us to sprint the marathon, naked and alone.

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9 comments

  1. We had “the talk” this morning. You certainly did an eloquent job expressing what I felt as I headed off to face 32 9 & 10-year-olds. I hope your message reaches the eyes and ears of the general public.

  2. My mother (teacher, administrator, principal) and sister-in-law (counselor) retired from SK when educators were appreciated. As I’ve taught here since 1986, I clearly remember those days. In the past8 months, however, I have a litany of grievances which will never be answered and, along with many of my colleagues, I now (1) feel anger, stressful and bitter toward the district and (2) love and care for and educate “my children” the very best I can. Because the district knows I will do so, they continue to treat me in the worst possible way at every turn. And it seems the union’s hands are tied. I appreciate your eloquence and clarity. May it be heard someday.

  3. Very well put. As a Washington teacher that grew up in the SK district, I made sure to not look for a job there. Your district and state does not advocate for best interest of the students or the teachers. We are also seeing cuts, but not in the same manner and hope to never be in the same situation. May things change for you and your many students in the near future.

  4. Have been thinking the very same thing. Hold on to this for a letter to the editor once the district announces its reductions.

  5. Imagine a society that government dictates all educational philosophy ane practice! That’s what we’re heading for. When government steps in and reduces parental responsobility, many problems ensue, we can onoy imagine the results!!!!!!

  6. I empathize with your plight. I am a teacher who has taught 22 years in a much smaller district than SK. We have had multiple reductions and cuts over the years including the loss of a music program. I have to teach it all–P.E. and music with only one 45 minute prep period a week. Two years ago I completed my Masters, but it did not make a difference in pay as I was as far down on the pay scale as I could go and over as far as I could go in our district. My pay is equivalent to what a teacher in the SK district makes at year ten! You have it so much better than some of the rest of us who wish that we had the programs and resources that you do. We too face furlough days, increases in insurance, and reductions in existing programs, homeless students and increasing expectations and standards. etc. Please remember that your situation could be much worse and that those of us in much smaller districts face the same dilemmas as you with much less resources available to us.

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