On Teachers

February 26, 2014 at 12:04am (With subsequent edits.  I am a compulsive reviser.)

As I write this, I am in my thirty fifth year of teaching music in the public schools of Oklahoma.   I have worked in very small school systems which had twenty to thirty students in their senior class.  I have worked for schools that were too small to field a football team.  My current school system is home of the largest high school in our fair state.  My experience includes five years in an urban school system, three of them in an at-risk school has since been closed.  And I have have taught, at one time or other, in grades 1-12.    Never Kindergarten.  Ah well.

I think I am qualified to make some observations about teachers.

If you are down on your luck and need a friend you are in really good shape if your friends are teachers.   They will care and care and help and help to the point of exhaustion.  And, in fact, during the school year many of them care so much they border on collapse much of the time.  They teach all day long, stay late answering emails, entering grades, and getting instructional materials ready for the next day, and then take a pile of papers home to grade.  Or videos to preview.  Or supplemental materials to read and evaluate.  They go home and prepare and eat dinner, talk to their own families, and then grade all those papers etc, and then go to bed.  After they go to bed they lay awake at night worrying about their students and how they are going to get them to learn anything.

They are teachers 24/7.   It is literally amazing that, to my knowledge, no one has ever been slapped silly after telling a teacher that they are lucky they only have to work nine months out of the year.  The fact that this has not happened also says a lot about teachers.  They would really rather avoid confrontation if they can because no one learns anything when there is fighting.  And even though you might not get slapped, you should (pardon my manners) really shut up about the thirty hours per week and summers off thing.

Teachers, are, at the center of it, all about doing what they can to teach students what they need to know.  I watched a teacher in the workroom in an urban middle school prepare a handout.  She was making a hand copy of a page from a workbook the school would not buy for her class.  This was in the old days of the evil spirit duplicator.  She carefully wrote out all the questions in long hand and then even drew in the attractive graphic in the upper right hand corner.    Then she ran it off for her students.  I noted that it seemed a little easy for middle school.  She said, “This is where my kids are so this is what we are going to work on.”  I was so impressed!

Many teachers, especially in elementary school, spend a lot of time in their rooms over the summer getting it ready for class.  Posters on the wall, things hanging from the ceiling…. Little by little they turn the entire room into a 3D work of art.   (I have no skill at this, being a music teacher, and I am constantly in awe.)  But students will learn better in a friendly environment, so they go to school in their “summers off” and make this happen.

Experienced teachers also have an amazing skill which is somewhat hard to label.  There are so many demands placed upon them to do things a certain way or to implement someone’s new idea of “the next big thing” that teachers must learn how to get their student’s taught in spite of all the education-ese garbage (nice way of saying it) that comes their way.   They have had to deal with Madeline Hunter, Marzano, New Math, Old Math, Thinking Skills, Outcome Based Education (Oh, that was a real winner!), No Child Left Behind, and now No Child’s Behind Left Untested (also called Common Core and many other things by teachers in private).    And they still manage to teach students to read, write, be nice, stay in line, and have a semblance of good manners.

No, not everyone learns all of these things, but if they do learn them it is because a teacher figured out how to teach them, hopefully with a little support from the parents and school system.

This is an example of how it works:   There is a professional development (“training”) meeting.  Teachers are given a large bag of oranges and some little cups and are told to go make lemonade for their students.   In a normal office people would throw a fit and point out that the bags were “full of oranges!! Hello?!?”  The teachers will send looks around the room and, if they are not facing the speaker, they roll their eyes.  But it is probably more subtle than that. Then they leave the meeting and start talking to each other about what to do.  They go to the grocery store and buy a bunch of lemons (with their own money), judiciously use some red food coloring to dye them orange, and sneak them into their room at school.  And on the appointed day they manage to actually make lemonade out of the “oranges.”  The powers that be rejoice that their idea worked out so well.   The teacher gets back to teaching things that students might even need to know.

If you do not work for a school you should know that the building level administrators are usually just passing the “oranges” down.  They are equally mystified about the purpose of the workshop and the teacher’s creativity and resourcefulness.

Teachers would much rather teach students than call their legislator to complain about education policy or funding.  They think that the work they are doing is important enough that someone else should take responsibility for making sure it gets funded while they give their lives to teaching.   They would rather make lemonade from oranges than confront people about how stupid it is that anyone would even ask them to do such a thing.

When they do get upset about the way things are going they do not always make the best politicians.   This is not what they do.  They teach.   But, if pushed, if classes get too large and the support what they do is just not there, then they will speak up.   As teachers, not as sound-byte politicians.   People should listen and ask questions.  Not try to shut them up by insulting their thirty-hour-a-week-overpaid life and profession.   People should listen to teachers about teaching.   I have heard businessmen get upset about EPA or financial regulations that were made by people who never bothered to ask the businessman for input.  I have heard doctors complain that national health policy is made without asking doctors OR patients.   Ditto for farmers on agriculture policy and economists on economic policy.

I think it would be a good idea to listen to all of the above about their areas of expertise.   And I think it is high time that the political class show teachers some respect for the work they have done teaching children and for the things they have learned about teaching and learning.  Listen to the teachers.  They know more about teaching than Jeb Bush or Bill Gates.  It should not be necessary for teachers to go to Oklahoma City (or any other state capitol or Washington, D.C.) and have a big rally to get this done.  But teachers will go. (See “lemonade” story…)

Some closing thoughts:  I am tired of hearing people say that you can’t solve the problems of public schools by “throwing money at them.”  We have never thrown money at the schools in Oklahoma.  When I first started teaching my superintendent bragged that 80% of the budget was spent on salaries.  Schools in Oklahoma now spend 90% on salaries and run the school with the remaining ten percent.   When I started, schools would normally purchase things like school buses or even build small buildings with general fund or building fund money.  Now even the “rich” schools have to borrow money with school bonds to do that.  And we seem to be getting ready to build storm shelters with borrowed money as well.   And as for all those “raises” for experience, I did some work with an online inflation calculator. (US Bureau of Labor Statistics)  I started teaching in 1978.    My salary was $12,500 per year.   Using an online calculator, I kept increasing the amount to find out how much more I am making now in 1978 dollars.  Guess what?  In 1978 dollars I am making almost exactly $2,000 more than I was when I started teaching.   All of the rest of the “raises” I got just covered the increase in the cost of living.   $2,000 in thirty six years.  (Yes, that’s right,.an average of $55.00 per year in 1978 dollars.)  Other teachers can tell similar stories, I am sure.  All those  experience raises the current crop of reformers are so worried about were mostly cost-of-living raises.

I know…  Since that isn’t insulting enough, let’s make teachers pay more for their retirement, invest their money in a risky market, and ultimately retire on less money.  Even though financial state of the teacher retirement system is improving each year and will be 100% funded in around twenty years.   Higher contribution, more risk, less money for teachers – That is sure to draw more talent into the classroom.  And it is all not needed because our system is improving each year.

Sure, there are some “bad” teachers.  And policemen.  And fireman.  And insurance salesmen.  CEO’s.  Politicians. Dentists.  (!!!)   Mechanics-cable guys-bakers-cooks-preachers andandandand.  But considering the low financial investment we have a lot of darned fine teachers in this state.  It is time we started focusing on them and showing a little appreciation.

I should stop now.

Post Script:  I know that some of this is Oklahoma centric.   Perhaps it will speak to teachers everywhere with their own unique challenges.