Walking Out

[Read Part One: Money Talks]

[Read Part Two: But You Get Summers Off]

 

It is fascinating how America views teachers.

In the last week I’ve been told, repeatedly and stridently, that parents support teachers. I’ve also been told that we should be grateful for that support, and we shouldn’t do anything to risk its continuance. That as long as parents support us, everything will be fine.

But I don’t think that’s true. I don’t think it’s really true that teachers have parents’ support, and I certainly don’t think that the support of parents is the most important thing teachers could ever, ever have.

I don’t think everything’s going to be fine. Not unless we are willing to do what is necessary to make things right, right now.

I don’t mean to complain. I want that to be clear. I’m writing this series because I want people to understand, not because I want you to pity me. There are things about my job that I love, and that’s why I still do it; that’s why I defend it as vigorously as I can, because I want to be able to continue doing the things I love, hopefully without also having to do the things I hate, like enforce sexist dress codes and assign meaningless and misleading grades, or give hours and hours of pointless, mind-breaking tests. Or survive on insufficient money, with insufficient funds available for my classroom and my school to allow me to do an adequate job.

If I cannot get the things I need to be happy here in this job, I will quit and move on; I will find another state that pays teachers better, and I will get a job there. But while that solves my problem, there will still be a million students in Arizona who need teachers: and if not me, then who? Shall I give them the same advice that I keep getting thrown in my face, namely, “If you don’t like it, go somewhere else?” Shall all one million Arizona students move with me to California and find school districts there with adequate resources, who pay their teachers a reasonable wage and so don’t have 40-50% turnover and hundreds of unfilled positions? That sounds like a solution, right?

It’s not. Of course not. Just like the other things that get spat at me and my colleagues on Twitter that are not solutions. But they do show how America views teachers: and it is fascinating.

So what should we do? What should teachers do about this funding crisis in Arizona, this decades-long slide into poverty and a broken, underfunded school system? To be specific, for those who haven’t been a part of this conversation up until now, Arizona cut more funding from schools than any other state during the Great Recession: funding went down 36.6% from 2008 to 2015. Some progress was made in the last three years, but the state is still spending almost 20% less now than ten years ago. About half of the new money since 2015 was mandated by a lawsuit brought against the state government by teachers, [NB: If you go to that link, Prop. 123 is the referendum I mention below. Please note where the lawsuit requires $300 million spent on capital improvements annually, and Governor Ducey promised $17 million.] because the legislature failed to follow through with an earlier state supreme court decision in another lawsuit; the first decision was that the state actually needed to fund schools, which apparently they did not want to. They were required to fund capital improvements to sites and facilities, and to provide funding for textbooks and supplies. They were also instructed to increase the funding yearly for inflation. That last part, they stopped doing; and so the teachers sued the second time, and the courts again decided that, according to the state constitution, Arizona does need to actually fund education. Rather than simply increase revenue to cover that expense, the state passed a referendum settling the lawsuit for 70% of what was owed; that money came from sales of state-owned land (Land which is already supposed to be used to fund education, a fact which made a judge rule the Proposition was illegal.). This is the source of the increased funding that our governor, Doug Ducey, has been crowing about for four years; and it still falls short of where we were a decade ago.

So essentially, the state of Arizona is a deadbeat dad: they do anything they can to get out of paying what they owe for their own children; up to and including just not handing over the money, refusing to pay the bill until the courts force the issue – and then grudgingly paying part of it, and demanding credit for what they did pay.

As I said: what should we teachers do about this problem? We are on the front lines, but though we do suffer because of this, in the form of absurdly low pay (Arizona ranks 48th in pay for high school teachers, 50th for elementary school) and insufficient resources to do the job properly, we are not the main victims: that would be the students themselves, who have to make do with not enough, not as much as other states, not as much as they deserve, in everything from school buildings to programs to textbooks to computer resources to good, stable teachers who stick around for more than a few years. We teachers see this, every day; we live this, every day; we try to make up for it, every day.

What should we do to fix it?

According to one fellow I talked with on Twitter, we should talk about walking out, but not actually do it.

“I support the need for more money in education,”

he said.

“I do not support the manner in which teachers are trying to get it. This hurts, kids and families. There is a much better way to accomplish this goal.”

So I asked, “How?” And because I’m a teacher, I added, “Please be specific.”

He replied,

“Here is how. Use this momentum from #RedforEd to force the Governor and legislators to the negotiating table with the threat of a walkout to start the 2018 – 19 school year. Parents will support you, Ducey will be motivated due to election. Kids and families not affected.”

We went back and forth a little more, but this was the gist. I did not say, though it is true, that the #RedforEd movement has been active since February, and so far the governor has refused to negotiate directly with the main group, Arizona Educators United. (By the way: that is not a union. It’s just a group of teachers who decided to do something more than try to make do with what we’re handed by the state.) I did say that I don’t understand why Ducey would feel more pressure to negotiate after the teachers decided to do nothing for four months; my Twitter friend didn’t have an answer other than he wanted us to wait. He wanted teachers to make sure that kids and families were not affected, because that way we would keep parents’ support. (Because his son is a high school junior, and apparently it would be catastrophic if he didn’t have school now.)

I’ve heard this from more than one person: they support the teachers, but not the walkout that the Arizona teachers have planned. They think we should continue threatening the walkout, but not actually do it, because that will hurt students and parents.

That’s right. It will. And that’s the idea.

I don’t want to do that. I want to believe that Americans like their teachers enough to understand what we’re asking for, and why. I’ve tried to make it clear with these blogs, but in case I haven’t, let me say it outright: we want to be able to do our jobs. That’s it. We don’t want to get rich: as everyone under the sun knows, teachers don’t become teachers to get rich. No one expects that. We don’t want someone else to do our job for us, and we don’t want to find a way out of work: that’s not the reason for the walkout. I think, actually, that parents sometimes forget that teachers are not their teenaged children; after all, we spend all of our time together, and the kids often tell their parents how much they like some of us, and how much they hate some of us; I’m sure in their anecdotes, teachers sound like – other teenagers. “My English teacher is so cool, all laid back and stuff. But my science teacher is a total loser. He thinks he’s funny, but he’s so lame!” And teenagers want a day off. Several days off, if possible. Because they’re teenagers: I had one of my students, very sweet girl, when someone mentioned a school district that was canceling classes because of the teacher walkout, say, “I’m so jealous!”

I’m not. I’d rather not be one of those people who have to take the risk, who have to dig in their heels and fight the entire community, simply because the community has ignored and neglected our needs for years and years, and a few years more. I’d really rather be one of the self-righteous people arguing against me, than me.

We don’t want days off, don’t want to get out of work; we want to be able to be successful in the work we are already doing. Teachers aren’t striking for fewer students (though we should) or lighter requirements in terms of preparation or training or testing or evaluations, or anything else related to working conditions: all we want is more money. And not just for ourselves: because Governor Ducey offered teachers a 19% raise over the next three years, and the teachers’ overwhelming response was to vote for the walkout.

Why did the teachers turn down the pay increase? Three reasons: one, we don’t trust the governor and the legislature, who have failed for years to provide legally mandated funding; two, the pay increases extended past the gubernatorial election this fall, and so who knows if the next governor will feel any need to keep Ducey’s promises (And I include the possibility that Ducey will get re-elected and then feel no need to keep his own promises afterwards); and three – and most important – the pay increase was only for teachers, according to the governor’s definition of “teacher.” It did not include teacher’s aides, or secretaries, or counselors, or janitors, or anyone else who is just as vital to education as the teachers are. It didn’t even include those who teach enrichment classes, like elementary school music and PE, because it was only for teachers who had their own roster. It did not include necessary increases to capital spending, where Arizona has cut 84% of funds compared to 2008, money that is needed for facilities and resources. The governor tried to throw money at the teachers – some of us – but he refused to fund education. And the teachers refused to accept the deal.

And yet we get called greedy. We are accused of taking extreme actions that will hurt children, because teachers are walking out across the state today, and classes are being canceled and schools are being closed, and parents have to find something to do with their kids. Wouldn’t it have been more greedy if we ignored what was best for students and schools and just took the payoff?

So let’s talk about the walkout, because I’ve been hearing a lot about it from people on Twitter. Comments like this:

I never said I don’t support the teachers, I do…but this is the wrong way to go about it. The community and parents have been very supportive of our teachers but this walk out only hurts the students and the community. For many students, they’ll have no where to go.

This particular person is insistent that she supports the teachers, in all things, in all ways, except in this one way: she says the walkout will hurt students and families. Because parents will have to take off work in order to watch their kids. That, apparently, is insupportably, unspeakably evil of the teachers to do. She also wants us to do nothing but wait, and know that we have the support of the parents. So long as we don’t walk out, that is.

I’ve also gotten comments like this:

Great example for your students, teachers. Akin to taking ball and going home.

#redforedaz is an evil movement founded by clowns WHO SIGNED CONTRACTS!! And your children are being left without an education! #MondayMotivaton

(Honestly, I’m curious about the hashtag at the end of that one. I’m supposed to be motivated by this? Also, the sheer number of typos in the anti-teacher tweets is both 100% amusing, and 1000% unsurprising. This is my favorite:

#redforedaz is another entitlement programme. Teachers are WELL PAID considering they work only 9 months. Average teachers salary is 35, 000 a year. Teachers are on a 45, 000 a year course! Wow!!! To think, these teachers are teaching you’re kids! #appalling

At least he spelled “appalling” correctly. He made it a thread, too:

Stop making teachers look like the victims. They are still paid whiner!

I believe this man has made his point.)

All right. First, the contract. Teachers do sign contracts, and those contracts determine our pay. It generally doesn’t change over the year, so we know what we’re signing up for – though there are performance bonuses and incentives, also known as merit pay; if my students’ test scores are high enough, my pay goes up, if they are lower, it goes down. If I’m a coach or I spend extra time helping students enter competitions, then I get paid more the better my students do and the more time I spend helping them. And sure, I suppose a teacher working hard and teaching well would be able to earn more thereby; but when my students intentionally tank the test because the schools have tested them to death and they just can’t care any more, or when the students this year aren’t interested in entering competitions, or this year’s volleyball team sucks, then all the good teaching or coaching in the world won’t earn me that money.

More importantly, the contract doesn’t really set working conditions: there’s nothing in there about a budget, or resources. There’s no guarantee that we will have textbooks, or enough paper to make copies for the whole year, and if we don’t, then I have to work harder: find new resources, create new resources, raise funds myself. There’s nothing in the contract about class sizes. So if I agree to take X dollars to teach for the year, and then my school doubles my student load, I have to work twice as much for the same salary. Which, of course, happens all the time. And if enrollment drops and a class loses too many students – especially if it’s an elective – then the class is canceled, and suddenly, my contract signed in the spring is worth less in the fall.

Tell me again about how contracts are binding agreements that I have a responsibility to follow through on.

No: it takes two parties living up to their agreement to make a contract binding. And if nothing else, the state of Arizona has not held up its end of the bargain, for years. I think there is no argument, legal or moral, that says that Arizona teachers can’t walk out on these contracts. I will also note that, unless the walkout lasts so long that the school year gets canceled, most school districts will extend their year for as many days as the walkout cost them; which means the same teachers who walk out will walk back into their classrooms and put in as many days of work as were agreed to, and without any increase in money, as any deal struck will not take effect until next school year at the earliest. And all of the teachers’ plans will be disrupted and delayed too, and our summer will be shorter, too.

So those who are arguing that we signed a contract and we have to live up to it, please understand: we will. We will do more to abide by the agreement than will the other side. If you want to uphold the rule of legal agreements and insist that people keep their word, then look to the state capitol.

I don’t know how much I need to address the direct ad hominem attacks; I’m sorry if the Monday Motivaton guy doesn’t like the leaders of the RedforEd movement, but it really is a grass-roots movement; thousands of teachers have joined voluntarily without any sort of pressure at all. I did, even though I was told I was being suckered by a 23-year-old Socialist, or that I had

“opted to follow a quasi-union led by DNC delivery boys. You sold freedom”

I don’t remember selling freedom. Didn’t get anything from the DNC, either. I’ve seen a couple of digs from teachers at the Republican party, but honestly, they have controlled the state government that shorted education for the last two decades, so they really do own this. But I have not seen the same calls for registering-and-then-voting-the-bums out that have characterized, say, the gun control movement led by the Marjory Stoneman Douglas students; these teachers just want our current government to fix this problem, right now, and if the government does so, I think they can wrap up the election in November, since this is a comfortably red state as it is. If they don’t help fix this problem, then they shouldn’t be re-elected, though I haven’t seen any of the RedforEd movement people agitating for replacement candidates: the election is too far away. We want this fixed now.

I also don’t feel the need to argue that we aren’t childish: childish would be throwing eggs at the governor and then trying to steal office supplies to make up for our insufficient pay. Or just quitting: for the guy who said we were taking our ball and going home, wouldn’t that be if all the teachers quit and walked off with our educations? If we’re fighting to get better working conditions so we can continue doing our job, isn’t that very much not “taking our ball and going home?” How about the bad example, is it that? Again, I don’t know how much students are going to absorb the desire to strike; I know that teachers hate the idea completely, and so I doubt many of us are talking it up to kids; I also know that it would be a worse example to set if we let ourselves get abused and devalued, and yet kept busting our asses for insufficient compensation. I have heard students say for years that they don’t ever want to be teachers, based on what they watch us deal with: so I don’t think it is the teachers who are setting a bad example.

But are we hurting them? Are we hurting our students and their families by walking out?

On some level, yes. We are. Some families will struggle to find child care during the strike (Though I know a whole state full of high school students/babysitters who are going to have a lot of free time…). There are students who are taking AP tests who will miss out on some last minute preparation before the tests, which start next week. I presume there are athletes who will lose their coaches, and performers who will miss opportunities, and some experiences that won’t happen because the teachers are not working.

But this is what has done the most harm at the school where I work: the first year I worked there, 2014-2015, there were two teachers who quit at the end of the year, our Spanish teacher and one of our best science teachers. Both because of pay. We also lost a PE teacher and a science/math teacher to budget cuts. The second year, there were six teachers who quit: science, math, art, two social studies, and English. Seven if you count the long-term sub who replaced one of the social studies teachers for half of the year; he got a job in California. They had different reasons for leaving, but pay was a factor for several of them. The school didn’t replace the science teacher. Third year, it was two math teachers and another science teacher – and one of those math teachers was the heart of our school, the best math teacher I’ve ever known, the reason why our STEM school has had such success. They didn’t replace one of the math teachers that year, either. Oh, we also lost our school psychologist. In three years, we’ve had thirteen teaching positions emptied: and I work at a small charter school with a total teaching faculty of 23. We’ve had more than 50% turnover in three years.

How many teachers are we going to lose this year? What are the chances that their replacements will be better? Who is more likely to leave to seek employment elsewhere, the good worker, the smart teacher, the capable employee — or the one who is already entrenched and doesn’t want to leave for fear they won’t be hired anywhere else? That’s not to say the teachers who have stayed at my school are like that – but our turnover rate is not unusual, so I think it’s a fair argument for the state as a whole. A lot of the best teachers are leaving. Even if good teachers replace them, then experience is lost, continuity is lost, relationships are lost. And as budgets continue to be cut, despite the funding increases touted by our governor, class sizes go up and good outcomes become less and less likely. And I don’t mean good outcomes for the teachers: I mean for the students. The students whom we are hurting by walking out.

Hurts pulling off a bandaid, too. But it’s better to do it, and better to do it quick and sudden.

I do know that the walkout will hurt people. Teachers will get fired, faculty members will get into bitter arguments and conflicts; students will lose out on education and some opportunities; parents are going to miss work and have enormous headaches dealing with child care. But when the only alternative is to go on as we’ve been doing, then it isn’t a choice. Parents who argue that their support for the teachers will be lost because of the strike have not been enough to fix the problem, despite their goodwill and support, because the problem is still here. The goal of the strike is to push other people: those who have done nothing but take advantage of the teachers willing to work and keep working without enough pay, those parents who are willing to keep sending their kids to less-than-ideal schools so long as they themselves don’t have to worry about it, and all those people who ignore the serious consequences of an inadequate education system just so long as they don’t have to pay more in taxes. Those are the ones we want to hurt. Those are the ones we want to push to take action, to inflict their ire, perhaps goaded by us, on those who actually merit it: the government, the deadbeats, the people in the state capitol who have let us sink to this level.

I am sorry it will hurt, and I have tried not to be too aggressive or insulting with this series, or with my Tweets. It helped that I am currently reading To Kill a Mockingbird with my 9th grade English class, because I got to read this scene, when Atticus Finch tells his daughter why she can’t haul off and punch anyone who insults her father because he is defending a black man accused of rape.

“Come here, Scout,” said Atticus. I crawled into his lap and tucked my head under his chin. He put his arms around me and rocked me gently. “It’s different this time,” he said. “This time we aren’t fighting the Yankees, we’re fighting our friends. But remember this, no matter how bitter things get, they’re still our friends and this is still our home.”

There are a million students in Arizona. There are tens of thousands of teachers. We all live together, and work together. After this fight is over, we will go back to teaching, and they will go back to learning. We will all go back to doing what we can, working together, supporting each other, for the sake of the children, of our students, of our future. Let’s try to remember that, and try not to let this get too vicious. We all need this resolved, in the right way, in the best way: quickly, and well. Please help make that happen. Please help us get what we need to do what we want to do: to teach. To teach as well as we can, for as long as we can.

You say you support the teachers? Are you just going to talk the talk?

Or will you walk the walk?

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2 thoughts on “Walking Out

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