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.

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.

And So It Begins Again

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Old habits die hard. I still find myself living by the school year calendar even though I have now been retired for seven years. It seems as though summer vacation gets shorter and shorter for my friends who are still giving it their all in classrooms. Their time off gets squeezed into little more than five or six weeks when training sessions and voluntary prep time are considered. Somehow in spite of the low pay, lack of respect and physically and emotionally draining environment of their jobs, they return August after August filled with hope, altruism and optimism. As they troop back to their stations I find myself empathizing with them, understanding just how demanding their occupations actually are. At this time of year my body reverts to a mode of insomnia, peppered with concern for my fellow teachers and the battles that they will face in the coming months. My thoughts are focused on sending them good vibrations in the hopes that all will go well for them and for their students. Even knowing how challenging their days will be, I still find myself quietly envying them for the wondrous feelings of accomplishment that they will no doubt feel as they educate yet another group of young people.

I laugh as I read comments from my teacher buddies as they sit through those first days of seemingly useless inservice sessions that keep them from doing what they really want to do. Their thoughts are on planning lessons and preparing their classrooms, not reinventing the educational wheel or climbing ropes to build relationships with their colleagues. For the most part they find most of the mandatory sessions to have little value in preparing them for what they are about to encounter. They feel anxious and care little about what is being said.

Ironically I spent the last several years of my career being that person charged with designing the district required meetings that every teacher was compelled to attend. I did my best to make them interesting and a bit fun even though I knew in my heart that I had a captive audience that would have rather been free to ready themselves for the exhausting road that lay ahead. It often felt like performing at a comedy club with a tough audience that refused to laugh at even my best jokes. I read the body language that was ever so polite, but far from being engaged. What they rarely knew was that I mostly agreed with them that those first days back at work needed to be spent tackling the nitty gritty of working inside their own classrooms, not considering recycled education theories. It was simply neither the time nor the place for such things.

When I think back on my forty odd years of returning to work each August I remember only a handful of inservice moments that somehow struck my fancy. All of the others were akin to the vacuous sound of the teacher in a Peanuts cartoon. Mostly they were lessons in how not to inspire, and reiterations of theories that came and went. Because so little time was allowed for the things that we actually had to accomplish before the students came the following week, most of us worked long after being dismissed from the sessions, often returning on the weekend just before the opening day of school. Generally we were exhausted before the first bell had even rung.

One year I heard a vivacious women speak. She was a true story teller and her remarks were both touching and funny. What I recall the most about her talk was her admonition that we understand that there never has been nor ever will be one best way of teaching. Because each person is unique she advised us to adapt to the individual needs of our students, and sometimes that meant stripping down our efforts to the most basic and primitive methods, requiring only a stick and a plot of wet sand. Mostly, she advised us, it meant connecting with our students in truly meaningful ways, understanding what they needed to feel confident and successful.

On another occasion we began the academic year by taking a brief personality test, eating a glorious breakfast, and then being set free to take care of the business of preparing for the arrival of our students. It was such a magnificent experience to be trusted by our superiors to do the right thing. Everyone worked hard and there was more team building that year than I ever before or since experienced. At the end of the week when the entire school was gleaming and fabulous lesson plans were in the books, we gathered once again to enjoy a deliciously catered lunch and to learn the results of our personality tests. The gifted principal used the occasion to stress that the faculty with its differing individuals was a microcosm of our own classrooms. She emphasized that each type of person brought particular talents to the table just as our pupils would.  She ended by insisting that we leave early and reserve the weekend for some final relaxation. She gave each of us a basket filled with supplies, snacks, coupons, and even a little bonus check. Somehow I still remember that school year as the best ever, and I suspect that it was mostly because of its glorious start.

Teachers do indeed sacrifice a great deal for their students. It is a ridiculous myth that they are mostly individuals who are not suited for better pursuits. Those without talent and intellect are lucky to last for a year. The ones who return again and again are generally the best of our society. They come because they are truly dedicated to a breathtaking cause. They will work for peanuts for twelve or more hours a day from August until June. They will spend their weekends planning and grading and worrying about their students. They are known for generously spending hundreds and even thousands of their own dollars to keep their classrooms stocked with supplies.They will develop weak bladders and problems with their feet, backs and knees from the abuse that comes from being on constant alert for the welfare of their charges. They will learn to ignore the never ending insults that are hurled at them from a public that has no idea how difficult their jobs actually are. They will soldier on because deep in their hearts that know how important their work is to our society. They are building the foundation upon which everything else depends, and accomplishing it without much respect or help.

So, yes, I think of all the teachers at this time each year. I feel the sense of anticipation, the worries, and the wish that just once our world might truly acknowledge the massive contributions of that all of these wonderful individuals give so freely. Perhaps one day we will learn how to treat them the way that they deserve.

The Sound of Love

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She was a big baby, nine pounds two and one half ounces. Her mama weighed only one hundred pounds so the nurses thought she belonged to the other woman in the semi-private hospital room. There was laughter and unmitigated pride that the child was so beautiful and healthy save for a broken clavicle that resulted during the final moments of birth. The little one wore a sling and the doctor assured the young mother that the girl would heal in a week or two which is exactly what happened.

She was a happy child who loved to sing and dance and run outside in the grass, but she always seemed to have a runny nose and ear infections. There were many visits to the pediatrician who soothed the mother with assurances that such things were normal for a little one. Still the worries increased when the tiny girl stopped singing and had uncharacteristic bouts of frustration and anger. The fevers and ear infections continued and on many long nights the mother held her child close to ease the pain that her baby was experiencing. Each time they visited the doctor he chided the mom for worrying so much, and even hinted that she was being neurotic with her concerns.

Time passed. The toddler years were gone and in a blink it was time for the child to go to school. She was terrified and clung to her mother with all of her might. The kindergarten teacher suggested that the girl was a bit slow and unsocial. She recommended counseling and perhaps even testing for special education. The mother did not know what to do. She knew that her little one was very bright, but exceedingly shy and quiet. The defiant mom insisted that they wait and see how things worked out once the child had adjusted to the demands of school. After all, it had been a tumultuous time for the whole family with deaths of loved ones and a string of serious illnesses that afflicted both parents. Somehow the mother believed that things would ultimately work out for the better.

First grade came for the little girl. She had a sweet and observant teacher who took great pains to get to know each of her students. The educator noticed that the child was carefully watching the lips of anyone who spoke. Her level of concentration for this task was intense. The thoughtful educator had an idea, and sent her student to the school nurse for a hearing test. Just as she had expected the results indicated a forty percent hearing loss. The child was not slow, quite the contrary. She was having to learn with an extreme handicap and still doing very well.

When the mother got the news about her beautiful little girl she cried. Everything suddenly made sense, the times when the child was surly, the frustrating moments when the girl appeared to be ignoring her, the sudden end of the singing. That beautiful baby could not hear.

A visit to a specialist supported the findings of the school nurse. The good news was that the condition was being caused by a build up of fluid in the ear canal. The doctor assured the mother that with a bit of surgery, the insertion of tubes and the removal of the tonsils and adenoids the child would soon be hearing quite well. A date was set for the procedures.

The mom’s heart beat quickly as she walked beside her daughter’s hospital bed that was being wheeled into the operating room. The wait for news felt like an eternity, but in a time much shorter than it seemed the prognosis was wonderful. All had gone well. The child’s future would be so much brighter.

As the mother and father drove their little girl home they were stunned by what happened next. The child’s eyes widened and she gasped while putting her hands near her ears. “What is that?” she exclaimed. “What is all that noise?”

The parents realized that their child was hearing normally for the first time in a very long time. They smiled and cried at the same time. They understood at that moment just how difficult it had been for their baby to navigate in a world full of voices that she could not hear.

Life did indeed change for the little girl. She proved to be an outstanding student, a bright girl who would achieve many great things. She began to sing and dance again and enjoy the sounds of the world that make life so much more pleasurable. The mother would always feel a special gratitude for the teacher who had so lovingly advocated for the little one rather than judging her to be slow and awkward. That educator had changed a life in a very special way.

The girl grew up, earned a college degree from a prestigious university, married and had a great big family of her own. She still had problems now again with her hearing, especially in big crowds or when listening on a phone. The wonderful world of texting has been a boon for her and she has learned to cope with the moments when she doesn’t quite catch what is being said. She still loves music as much as she did when she was barely walking when she would move her tiny feet to the beat while attempting to hum along. Thanks to her first grade teacher her life was enriched in a multitude of ways. Everyone knows that she is bright and capable and accomplished.

Today is that child’s birthday. Her name is Maryellen and she is my baby all grown up. I will be eternally grateful to the wonderful woman who took the time to unravel the paradox of Maryellen’s behavior. Today Maryellen is the incredible woman that she was meant to be. But for the intervention of her teacher things might have been very different. Because of that woman we were all able to hear the sound of love.

I wish Maryellen a very happy birthday on this morning, remembering what a beautiful infant she was, and feeling so thankful for the amazing woman she has become.