We Get What We Pay For

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Time magazine recently featured a cover with the image of a teacher declaring that she has to work three jobs and donate plasma to make it with her salary as a teacher. It’s being posted on Facebook by many of my fellow educators and is causing a bit of a firestorm among those who choose to comment. The question of how much to pay teachers has been a hot topic for as long as I can recall, and it centers around the fact that public school teachers’ salaries are paid by taxes, which sometimes means that higher pay only comes with higher taxes. Aside from the trutth that the education of our children is important to virtually all of us, the fact that we all must pay for the men and women who teach them makes our interest in what those numbers will be even more intense than with most other professions. The discussions that generally ensue invariably devolve into arguments over how much time teachers actually spend working and the relative worth of their talents and skills. The arguments take on an almost mythical aspect with emotions running high on both sides. It’s difficult to form reasoned conclusions in such highly charged environments.

So what are the objective truths about being a teacher? That is a loaded question that varies with each person’s experiences in classrooms, but there are general characteristics. First, there are distinct levels of teaching, each of which has unique value for society. Someone entering the field specializes in either early childhood, elementary, middle or high school. While the public has a tendency to view high school teachers as the elite, the truth is that working with the youngest of our children requires special talents and knowledge that many of us simply do not have. In my own case, I quickly learned that I did not have the patience needed to spend a lifetime inside an elementary classroom. Nor did I want to expend the countless extra hours planning lessons for six different subjects and constantly grading mountains of papers and sorting them to be sent home to parents. In all honesty I worked far harder when I was in charge of a fourth grade classroom than when I taught a particular level of mathematics over and over again all day long as a middle or high school teacher. Yet in the eyes of the public I realized that I carried far more prestige as someone who taught Algebra than I had when I was juggling the countless responsibilities of an elementary teacher. Nonetheless, the foundational skills that I was teaching my fourth graders would be critical for their academic development, and it bothers me when I hear comments that elementary teachers are no doubt doing little more than teaching children to color inside the lines. The bottom line is that each teaching position is critically important to the successful outcome of every child who matriculates through the system. 

Teachers officially work about 180 days each school year. The key word is “officially.” While there are many who give no more and no less than that number of days in the classroom, the majority of educators rarely spend only the required number of hours in conjunction with their jobs. Teachers have lessons to plan, papers to grade, conferences with parents to attend, training sessions to enhance qualifications, school events to manage, and a host of other duties that spill into their so called off the clock hours. I estimate that the average teacher arrives at school around 7:30 in the morning and does not leave before 4:00 or 4:30 on most days. They spend an additional three or four hours (sometimes more) each evening attending to the various duties described above. It is not unusual for them to devote entire days of the weekend to their jobs on weekends as well. English teachers may need even more time to grade essays that must be read with great care. Coaches and sponsors of clubs seem to almost live at schools in certain seasons, often with the school year beginning for them in the middle of the summer. Little of this extra time is ever considered when determining just how much teachers make per hour. If it ever were the results would be shocking, and in many cases revealing that some teachers actually make less than minimum wage when every hour is factored into the equation.

The beginning salary of a teacher varies from state to state and even district to district. In general it is about midway between fifty and sixty thousand dollars which may sound somewhat generous, but the reality is that it remains somewhat stagnant over time. Annual raises tend to be minimal when they occur at all. Even earning an advanced degree makes little or no difference in pay. Most teachers actually begin to lose ground in terms of income the longer that they teach. Benefits also tend to be minimal and health insurance policies are often more costly and less generous than those of workers in other fields. Some states have excellent pensions, but others provide minimal coverage for retirees. Those who are devoted to a vocation in education do so knowing that they will never be rich. In fact, a lifetime career in teaching works best if it is supplemented with a spouse’s salary.

Public school teachers are dependent upon the largesse of the government and in particular the tax payers. This is the main reason that many argue that educators need to provide more bang for the buck to earn higher salaries. There is also an ongoing argument that other public sector employees often do not make as much as teachers even when their contributions to society may be more dangerous or more valuable. In response to such contentions I would argue that the very foundation of our social, political and economic society is built upon the education of our children. If we are to progress we must invest in our schools. Creating financial difficulties for our teachers creates a crisis that we need not endure. Right now most parents wince if their children even hint that they may want to enter the teaching profession There is something terribly wrong when what should be the noblest of careers is held in such low esteem. Providing teachers with a fair wage that allows them to live a respectable life would do wonders to change such perceptions.

I was an educator for the entirety of my adult life. I retired with a sense of pride and accomplishment. I never made a great deal of money and my pension is nothing to brag about when compared to other professions. I can’t afford the terrible healthcare supplement offered by the state for teacher retirees, but I’ve found a suitable replacement from AARP. I live comfortably mostly because of the income that my husband has brought into the picture during his working years. I had the luxury of enjoying my work every single day because I was not solely dependent on the salaries that would never have allowed me to live without fear. There is something very wrong about the idea that our nations’ teachers are so undervalued that most of them cannot survive without infusions of additional income. We all need to be concerned. If we don’t adequately address this issue we may soon find ourselves squandering the talents our most precious resource, our children. They depend on us to keep our schools running smoothly. It’s time we faced the reality that we get what we pay for. Our teachers should not have to be more altruistic than their well educated working peers.

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The Benefit of Learning

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An investment in knowledge pays the best interest. —-Benjamin Franklin

I’ve always believed that education is the most powerful way to combat poverty. I used to tell my students that knowledge is power, and that it is a great gift to each of us that the first twelve years of it is free from the government. Sometimes they pushed back on my enthusiasm interpreting mandatory attendance at school as an onerous thing. Many spoke eagerly of reaching the age at which they would be able to drop out and get on with living the way they so desired. I usually confronted them with arguments designed to convince them that learning is a great privilege that is often denied by authoritarian governments.

In my own lifetime I have heard of grievous examples of governments that persecuted and even executed teachers, leaving entire generations of children without even the most basic educations. This was done, of course, to eradicate thinking and the ability to discover truths. Dictators want to be in charge of the dispensing of information so that it benefits their causes. Sometimes when I explained such things I would challenge my students to never ever allow anyone to take away their rights to schooling. When I put it that way, many of them suddenly became far more eager to partake in the lessons that I and my fellow teachers presented to them.

Unfortunately there always seemed to be a few who were not the least bit interested in pursuing knowledge under any circumstances. Instead they wanted to get out of the need to attend school as soon as possible. They had big plans that did not include what they considered to be a waste of their time. Some also had to deal with poverty. Their parents wanted them to get to work as soon as possible. Extended schooling did not appear to be an option for them. Sadly by following this pathway they generally only managed to keep the grinding cycle of economic disadvantage continuing for one more generation.

I truly enjoyed being part of the KIPP Charter schools because above all were the ideas that there could be no excuses for not taking full advantage of all educational opportunities, and each day at school was focused on hard work. Our promise as teachers was that we would support our students in their journey to and eventually through college. The attitude that we all believed was that together we would be to provide our KIPPsters the necessary tools and attitudes for living better lives.

I have happily witnessed extraordinary results among so many of my former students. I have watched them earning multiple degrees and landing extraordinary jobs. I see photos of them standing in front of the beautiful homes that they have purchased and vicariously enjoyed their travels all over the world. Most of them have broken the crushing routines of grinding poverty that had sometimes stalked their families. Not only are their own lives more prosperous, but they have also been able to help their parents, It is so gratifying to see them using the skills, knowledge, and values that they learned first from all of us who are known as Big KIPPsters and later from their professors at universities and their mentors at work.

I recently became involved in a situation that brought home the sadness that I have always felt when I see young folks eschewing the marvelous opportunities that education provides. I was helping a very sweet woman move from one place to another. As we worked side by side for days I realized how bright she was, but also how her lack of resources had made her life so incredibly difficult. She had no savings, but rather had to rely on one paycheck to another just to provide the most basic standard of living. This meant that she was unable to scrape together enough money for the kind of deposits and down payments that are so often required in today’s real estate market. Unfortunately nobody in her family was able to help her either. In fact, she was quite distraught that so help was forthcoming from either her brothers or her adult children. She was on her own, and realizing that she had no way out my husband and I helped her.

Once we gave her the funds to secure a place to rent she realized that she was also alone in having to move her belongings and those of her elderly mother who lived with her. My husband and I spent a very long nine hours loading furniture and other items into and out of a moving van that we rented for her. While we worked side by side she reflected on her life and admitted that if she had been more attuned to becoming better educated, then perhaps her children might also have been inspired to stay in school and even earn degrees. Everyone’s lives might have been better in the long run instead of being so difficult.

I felt quite saddened by the woman’s situation because I know that her circumstances are repeated many times over in our country. Not all schools take the time or expend the effort to help young people and their parents understand the true value of education. They do not provide the unwavering support that is necessary to help those with few resources to navigate the treacherous waters of being admitted to college and then being able to earn a diploma. It takes money and relationships with people who care to help our poorest citizens to better themselves. 

The key to so many of the social problems faced by our society is to teach our young the importance of a lifetime of learning. Knowledge earns interest indeed. The more we all invest in it, the less we will have to spend on welfare programs in the future. Our bipartisan goal should be to insure that the greatest possible numbers of today’s children embrace and appreciate the value of schooling. When they learn, they earn, and we all benefit.

Atonement

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I often joke that I may have to spend some time in purgatory when I die before earning a place in heaven. I note that I can rock along for quite some time doing my best to be a good person and then I do or say something not so nice that cancels some of my kindnesses. Truth be told I’m about average when it comes to my humanity. Like the scores of people who came before me and those who inhabit this earth with me I make mistakes. Such is the inevitability for most of us.

Now and again I see another soul who seems to have achieved a bit more perfection. Both of my grandmothers would fall into that category. They were generous, loving guileless women, but I have often thought that being isolated from most of the ugliness of the world as they were may have helped them not to back slide. Women today spend decades out in an often unforgiving world and the temptation to fight back sometimes leads to anger and invective of the sort that my grandmas never invoked. I believe that I will ultimately be forgiven for my lapses because I also firmly feel that my God is all about redemption. I mean, isn’t that more or less what Jesus told the world as He died on the cross?

I have been reminded of the power of honest contrition by admissions of weakness by heroes of mine like Mother Teresa, Jimmy Carter, and John McCain. All three made it clear in their writings and orations that they sometimes failed to follow their own principles. They spoke of making faulty decisions. In other words they were as human as any of us, which I suspect was also the case of my grandmothers, not withstanding my idealized image of them. As humans we are filled with imperfections and contradictions. When all is said and done the question becomes how we have attempted to live the majority of our days, and whether or not we have been willing to admit our transgressions and attempted to change.

My mother and my teachers all taught me that to sin is human, but to ask forgiveness is divine. They also insisted that once I demonstrated true contrition it was important that I move forward rather than eternally looking backward at my failings. I was schooled in the idea that I should love all of my fellow men, and that my hatred should be aimed at behavior that I found to be egregious, not people. That’s an admittedly difficult formula to follow, but it became a glorious model to use in my work as an educator. I was able to separate the flaws from the person, and deal with behaviors while still caring about the child.

We are in a cycle of judgmental excess, all around. We even take our self righteousness to the extreme of looking back in history and condemning entire civilizations and ways of thinking. We forget the rule of social science that tells us that generalizations are rarely acceptable in assessing humans. We also forget how different the world was from ours even a hundred years ago.

I have been watching the Amazon Prime series Lore and have been taken by the ignorance and superstitions that were prevalent in the world of my ancestors. Scientific and medical knowledge was so antiquated. Philosophies were often based on superstitions. People were generally uneducated much like my two sweet grandmothers who were unable to read or write, much less understand scientific and sociological intricacies. I find it oddly ridiculous that in our modern era there are so many who would overlay our own knowledge and understanding on people who often lived in isolation with little or no education simply because they appear to have behaved badly in a past that was as human as the present.

I also have a problem with pointing fingers of judgement at historical figures who attempted to atone for admitted transgressions and mistakes. It is so easy to insist that none of us would ever have been willing to follow bad leaders, but then we will never know if that is true or not. We cannot possibly put ourselves totally in the shoes of someone from another time and place. We would have to become them in every sense of the word, and of course that is impossible. Instead of looking backwards and admonishing people who lived in times far different from ours it is up to us to look forward. We can do that by learning from the past. Reading and studying with an open mind will teach us how to find the best thoughts and ideas. If we are to be fruitful in our quest for a more equitable society then we must spend more time constructing than tearing down, finding the good and building on that foundation.

I saw a group of students from Harvard who asked a professor what they might do right now to begin to foster positive change in our society. His answer stunned them a bit, but it was brilliant. He suggested that they take full advantage of their educational opportunity by becoming persons who have knowledge and the ability to think critically. He challenged them to acquire the tools that they will one day need to become great leaders, He spurned the idea that they spend their time protesting before they knew enough to come to reasoned decisions.

I also seem to go back to the folksy wisdom of my mother who was indeed a brilliant woman. In her times of clarity she understood human nature as well as any sociologist or psychologist. She often told me that people evolve over time, and that life is a journey through many seasons, all of which make us better people if we are willing to grasp the importance of each. She noted that youth was a time for observing and learning. She spoke of knowing when and how to grasp the reigns of leadership and when to pass them down to the next generation. She felt that a wise person would understand that we are all hoping and dreaming and failing. Each of us is an imperfect being with the potential for greatness. Our journeys in that direction challenge us to be humble and compassionate and forgiving. She always believed that there is an overwhelming goodness to this earth that beats with one heart. If that is our focus we will find happiness and purpose, even as we falter.

And In Other News…

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There are some days when the news stories bring a smile to my face. Sometimes I am feeling happiness and on other occasions I am simply amused. At recent day this week was filled with items that brought a great big grin to my countenance.

I started the day hearing the wonderful news that Dorothy’s ruby slippers from the Wizard of Oz had been recovered. I have to admit that I didn’t even know that they had been stolen, but it was nice to hear a happy ending anyway. It seems that there were several pairs of the iconic shoes which were purchased by collectors. I saw one set when I visited the Smithsonian a few years back. An identical pair was on loan to a museum in Minneapolis because that’s the city where Judy Garland was born. They had been inside a class case that was supposed to have an alarm that alerted police in case there was a robbery. Someone came in one night, broke the glass, and walked out with the beloved shoes leaving no fingerprints or any other clues as to who had been there. For some reason the alarm rang but didn’t inform the local lawmakers and so for ten years the theft has been an unsolved mystery.

The crazy thing is that everyone thought that it would be impossible to sell the slippers, so many worried that perhaps they had ultimately been destroyed. There was even an idea that they may have been thrown into a river or lake. That led to attempts to find them in waterways in or near Minneapolis, but all efforts became dead ends. Amazingly a tip resulted in rescuing the shoes, but at this point the lawmakers are saying little about who the culprit may have been.

It was a feel good story. The kind of happy ending that the old movies always seemed to have. Thats something that often seems a bit hard to come by in today’s world which is filled with so much rancor and so many misunderstanding. For a few moments the newscasters while smiling as they reported on the wonderful news, and so were those of us who heard the story.

Then there was a bit of ridiculousness that occurred at a school in China. It seems that a principal at a kindergarten decided to welcome students for the new school year by hiring a pole dancer to give a demonstration at an assembly for the kids and their parents. The scantily clad entertainer gyrated suggestively causing utter shock among the adults in the audience. To say there were a few complaints is an understatement.

Ironically the principal stood her ground, defending her actions by noting the the dancer has many unique skills. She also defended her actions by insisting that this was an inspirational way to convey to the students that there are many forms of creativity. She was convinced that the children on the whole loved the performance, and questioned the reaction of the parents

This same school administrator had ended last year’s school sessions with a display of weapons and instruments of war. While some of the parents objected to the appropriateness of that particular sendoff, most people got too busy with summer plans to make too much of a stink. When they saw the latest inappropriate display, they felt compelled to speak out. This time their cries of alarm were taken seriously and the principal was promptly fired.

The total cluelessness of the still bewildered former school leader  left me speechless, but also roaring with laughter. I wondered how long it would take Saturday Night Live to do a skit poking fun at this incident. I can only imagine how much more hilarious their portrayal of this educational disaster would be. Knowing the world of schools as well as I do I wondered how many other major faux pas had been made by teachers and administrators whose common sense is sorely lacking. I know that I have seen a thing or two in that regard, and I tell my self that nothing can shock me, but I have been befuddled again and again.

Many long years ago a teacher at one of my schools decided to show a movie to her students. She turned off all of the lights in the classroom to make the environment more closely resemble a movie theater. Sadly the darkness made her drowsy and before long she had fallen asleep. I can’t even repeat what happened after that, but let us just say that things that took place in cars at the old drive inn theaters had nothing on the action that happened in that classroom. After that we all had to abide by a school rule that made us keep all of the lights on no matter what, and encouraged us to closely monitor the students at all times

I probably shouldn’t laugh about such horrific educators, but some things are so ridiculous that there is nothing left but a sense of humor to muck through the craziness. Thus I have to admit to enjoying the story about that Chinese principal. I’m sorry that she lost her job, but really…!

Show Them How Tough You Are

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One of my educator friends posted an article about a more and more prevalent kind of enabler known as a Lawnmower Parent. In general this is not just one who constantly watches over children, but also goes out of the way to pave the way for them, make things smoother sailing. In the example presented in the article a father calls a teacher out of the classroom to ask her to deliver a water bottle to his child. The teacher is stunned that the father has gone to such lengths to accommodate the student, and proceeds to provide additional examples of a worrisome trend that she sees all too often.

About the same time that I read about Lawnmower Parents I listened to the moving eulogy of Meghan McCain for her father John. There was much to talk about in her words, but one of the ideas that really struck me was her description of an incident in which she was fearful and ready to give up. Her dad encouraged her by urging her to “Show them how tough you are.”

In my own childhood, my mom often reiterated stories of hard times when she was just a girl when her father insisted that she hold her head high and ignore the taunts of those who attempted to deter her from feeling confident. He even held weekly family meetings in which he insisted that each of his children had much of which to be proud even though they were often viewed as different, poor, immigrants. He wanted no excuses, no bad behavior, and to his credit they all turned out to be exceptionally hard working and honest adults who passed down the notion of self reliance to their children and grandchildren.

Luckily I have seen very little Lawnmower Parent behavior in my own dealings with the education of students. I suppose that there have always been well meaning adults who over pampered their kids, but on the whole it has not really been a trend in my circles. I was once offered a bribe from a wealthy father if I would change his son’s final average in mathematics. Of course I adamantly declined the offer and then explained to the man why I believed that aiding his son in that manner was an horrific idea. By the end of the conversation the parent had realized that softening the blow of a subpar performance by his son would be the worst possible way of dealing with the disappointment. I had made it very clear that the student would learn far more from the experience if the full responsibility were placed at his feet rather than those of the adults. It was time to demonstrate that life is about hard work and self reflection, changing bad habits rather than covering them up.

All of us have been faced with situations that nearly broke our spirits. There will also be moments that are so difficult to face that our inclinations will be to run away. Still there are situations in which the only honorable thing to do is to show the world how tough we are. We have to work through the pain, the sorrow, the humiliation and keep moving forward.

The people that I most admire are imperfect beings, many of whom failed horribly at something. Rather than giving up or relying on someone else to fight for them, they picked themselves up and kept trying again and again until they ultimately succeeded. They overcame great problems at great prices. They were unwilling to be defeated. They showed all of us who were rooting for them just how tough they were.

I was quite excited about a post from a young woman who had attended one of the schools where I worked. She had become pregnant in her senior year and it seemed that she would not be able to fulfill her dreams with her new responsibility of raising a child. She remained undaunted and worked sometimes to the point of exhaustion while she held down a job, took care of her child, and studied at one of the local universities. She literally took one step at a time day by day, and ultimately earned a college degree. Knowing that her earning capacity would be improved with an advanced degree she continued her regimen of working, mothering and learning until she had also earned a Masters degree. She found a wonderful job, married the father of her child, and before long bought a beautiful custom built home. She showed us how tough she was, and we all celebrated her as an inspiration, a model of determination and grit.

I also know about certain instances when parents are compelled to stand up for their children. They are not being overly protective in such situations, but rather making certain that justice prevails. I have seen many occasions in which teachers were unmoving, even rude when students requested consideration for extenuating circumstances. They were so hard nosed that parents had to intervene. I’ve had such encounters with unfair teaching practices with my own two daughters. I felt compelled to speak out, particularly after my children had been ignored.

As educators we certainly hope that parents will not constantly make excuses for their youngsters, but at the same time we have to ask ourselves if we are somehow being unreasonable. Sometimes our hard and fast rules simply do not work for specific situations. We must be willing to demonstrate flexibility and a willingness to listen to our students’ pleas. When we don’t, it should not be too surprising if parents intervene.

Teaching is quite demanding, but so is being a student. Kids today seem to have virtually every hour of every day filled with tasks they must perform. We ask much of them, and sometimes forget that we are not the only ones piling assignments on them. We would do well to hear what they have to say before exhorting them to “deal with it.” We all reach a point after which we simply can do no more.

I’ve had to be tough throughout my life, but there have indeed been times when I knew that I was about to break. I often allowed myself the luxury of a bit of self pity, a mental health holiday, a pile of unfinished duties. It was how I built up the strength that I needed to keep moving forward, and because I understood how easily such a state of mind can appear I tried to be understanding with my students, my teachers, and the parents. Perhaps instead of pointing fingers at one another with insulting labels we just need to take the time to find out what is really going on. It is then that we will begin helping our young to learn how to show how tough they are.