Saturday, June 22, 2013

Setting the Record Straight

Many comments on a plethora of web sites have addressed the issues of education and specifically teachers lately.  In my observation, most of the comments are favorable toward public education and educators, but it seems a vocal minority repeats some common misconceptions that I would like to address. If you encounter any of these misguided statements, here are some factual counterarguments.

Misconception 1: Public schools are  government schools controlled by union thugs.  
Have you heard this one?  I chuckle when I hear brainwashed individuals making this comment.  First of all, the "government" schools are run by your locally elected Board members.  These are the "government" powers behind your local public school - the people you see at the grocery store and the bank.  The people you live beside and that you voted for from your own communities.  True, state and federal government keep intruding with ridiculous mandates, and I'm right behind you if you want to protest that kind of government control. But to call public schools "government" schools is a stretch.  Public schools are YOUR schools.

The next fallacy in this statement is the idea that teachers are somehow "union thugs."  Most teachers do belong to a professional association, true, but these "thugs" are the people to whom you entrust your children each and every day.  If you think teachers are union thugs, would you send your first grade child into their classrooms?  Do thugs routinely bake cookies, dry tears, tie shoes, provide encouragement, and look out for the well-being of children?  Because that's what I observe these "union thugs" doing.   In my 35-year career in public education,  I have had the opportunity to work with thousands of teachers in dozens of school districts.   I have never seen a school district that was controlled by the teachers.  In the better districts, teachers have more of a say than some others, but teachers are not the ones controlling your schools.  In short, your public school is not a "government school," not controlled by the teachers, and teachers are not union thugs.  How out of touch do you have to be to believe this misconception?

Misconception 2:  Teachers get paid for summer vacation and holidays.
Nope. Wrong again.  It's hard to take people seriously when they say things like this.  Teachers are paid for 184 days of work.  The salary is divided into equal payments for 12 months and so they take a reduced amount during the school year in order to receive a pay check during the summer.  In addition to this 184 days, teachers in Ohio must spend at least 180 hours every five years in order to renew their licenses.  That is equivalent to another week of work each year, and so let's say a teacher works an average of about 190 days per year.  If you hold a typical job, you work about 230 days a year, an additional 6-8 weeks more than teachers.  During that 8 weeks, they are expected to pay for licensing every 5 years, pay for fingerprinting and background checks, plan instruction, develop assessments, review curriculum, collect/purchase materials to use in their classrooms, stay current on all of the mandates and requirements for their job, and stay revived enough to inspire a passion for learning in students.  

This is not to say that we complain about the number of days we work.  Certainly not.  But please know that we are NOT being paid for summers and holiday....and that just because we have time off without pay doesn't mean we aren't working. 

Misconception 3:  Teachers are overpaid.
A four-year degree required to go into teaching costs about $160,000 (tuition, fees, room and board, books and supplies).  If we teach 30 years, we need to make over $5,000 more a year just to pay for the education.  The reality is that teachers make significantly less than those in professions that require a similar level of education.  Starting teachers in our district make $27,000 per year (median starting teaching salary in Ohio is $30,000) and have college loan payments of nearly $1000 per month to start with.  Current pay freezes have created situations where teachers have had to move back home with their parents or, if they have a family, some have had to resort to food stamp to make ends meet.  Try paying for college loans, rent, utilities, child care, groceries, car payment, insurance  when you take home $1800 per month.  

After 15-20 years, teachers are making $40,000-$50,000 a year - about the same as a college graduate or a manager at McDonald's would make.  By the end of their career, teachers top out at $60,000-$70,000, still significantly less than other professionals, even when we look at simply per diem rates.    Of course there are parts of the country and wealthy school districts that pay more, but these numbers are from my county, and the numbers I have quoted are in line with Ohio median teacher salaries.  Legislators across the country are trying to take away the automatic pay raises for years experience that are common in current teacher pay systems.  The effect of this ruling would leave most teachers at the $30,000 salary mark, or $2000 a month with $1000 of that going to college loan payments.  Difficult to attract talented individuals into the teaching profession when you can make substantially more as a manager at a WalMart (starting pay $40,000 with potential to make over $100,000).

Again, we are not complaining about our pay.  None of us went into the profession because of the money.  We just want to set the record straight for those of you who think we're raking in big money.

Misconception 4:  Teachers only work 6 hours a day.
Ha!  Show me a teacher who is only working 6-hour days and I'll show you a teacher who hasn't helped a student, coached a team, graded a paper, handed in required lesson plans or grade reports, attended required meetings, etc. etc.  In other words, a teacher who isn't teaching.  There may be some out there - every profession has it's duds - but I'm willing to bet that the vast majority of teachers put in well over 8 hours per day.  

You see, teaching isn't a job.  It's a way of life.  I'm not a teacher by vocation - I am a teacher by nature.  

Misconception 5:  Merit pay and competition work in the marketplace and they will work to make teachers better.
Anyone who thinks this has never been a teacher.  Even in the free market, there are product-delivery systems and service systems.  The way to make product delivery better is not necessarily the way to make service better.  In fact, the idea of competition and monetary rewards improving business isn't even a good business model.  It has been shown time and again that the "TQM" method of empowering workers and using teamwork and collaboration improves production better than top-down behavior modification and competition.  It doesn't work effectively in business.  Why would anyone think it would work for a service industry?  And it certainly will NOT work in education.  We teach because we care.  If money were our motivation, we wouldn't have gone into teaching for the very reasons addressed in misconception 3. Do you think nurses will keep more patients alive if we pay them more?  Or dentists will help more kids avoid cavities if we give them more money?  The whole idea is ludicrous and insulting.  

Teachers are trying their best  to instill a love of learning in your children and to provide them with the knowledge and skills they will need to be successful in life.  We do this in spite of declining resources, larger class sizes, standardized curriculum that is stifling creativity, and less and less appreciation and support from political and societal institutions.  We have been blamed for the debt crisis and national security concerns.  News reports and data have been skewed to make us look bad at all costs.  Our profession is under attack and we feel like we are personally under attack at times.  In spite of all of this, we are here, loving your kids. The heroism of teachers you witnessed in Newtown and in Moore, OK was above and beyond anything we evaluate on a rubric of teacher effectiveness, but it demonstrates a common commitment, a common passion that I see in educators every day.  We are not thugs.  We are not overpaid government bureaucrats.  We are teachers.  And that's a pretty special thing.

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