My mother was a public school teacher. She graduated college with a degree in elementary education and spent the rest of her life -- nearly up until the time of her death at age 50 -- teaching children. I remember the hours she spent at home working on projects, grading, and just making decorations for the classroom, and all this even though she spent most of those years as a substitute teacher.
Eventually she found a niche teaching children with learning disabilities how to read. My mother worked tirelessly to see that these kids had a leg-up and didn't fall through the cracks of the system. She knew how important it is to be able not only to read, but to read well.
Through all of the time spent, hours worked, problems tackled, gold stars given, lives changed, she barely made any money. I was too young to know her exact salary but I know it wasn't much, especially given that she had three kids of her own at home. We made do -- my parents took good care of us despite what I now know were some very rough financial times. And I never heard my mom complain, not in front of us, anyway. She loved her work and the kids she worked with, and that's what mattered.
And so I know it to be the same case, far more often than not, with teachers. Teaching is not a career that is entered into lightly. It's some of the hardest, if most rewarding, work around -- all for some pretty petty cash. They're not living in mansions. Average yearly salary is just $46,390 in Wisconsin, with an average starting salary of a mere $25,222, ranking us 20th in the nation. For some perspective, that starting salary would put you under the federal poverty line for a family of five, and just barely over it for a family of four.
For some strange reason we've decided that teachers aren't worth any more than that, though, and maybe now a lot less. While their pay has pretty much always been subpar it's only recently, as far as I can tell, that so many of the loudest voices in this country have decided to out-and-out vilify teachers.
The people who teach their kids all day, who come early and stay late to get the work done, who sometimes pay for supplies out of their own pockets so their students don't go without -- they're calling them thugs, moochers, bums. Politicians and pundits are telling their followers to show up at school board meetings to catcall and deride the teachers' honest concerns.
They're saying these people, these essential personnel for a better life for future generations, deserve to have thousands of dollars taken out of their pay, to lose the very right to have a voice in the debate over things like class sizes and working conditions.
What gives? When the hell did it become fashionable to demonize public school teachers more than, say, Wall Street executives (you know, the people most directly responsible for the recession)?
Since a good education has been a threat to the continued domination of a few of the very wealthy over everyone else. In addition to the steady erosion of public funding for schools, increasing difficulty of lower income students to actually afford higher education, push toward privatization and monetization, and overall anti-intellectual rhetoric of the far right-wing in this country, attacks on teachers themselves are just par for the overall course.
There are about 872,286 children enrolled in Wisconsin public schools -- and, thanks in large part to the efforts of Gov. Scott Walker and his allies, these kids have just lost the collected knowledge, talent, passion and skill of nearly 5,000 teachers.
This is, simply put, a travesty -- and one that could have been easily avoided.
According to data obtained by the Associated Press via an open records request there were double the number of teacher retirements in the first half of the year alone than in each of the previous two years.
The exodus is no fluke.
Walker's "budget repair bill" -- passed after much controversy, dissent, and Capitol-sleeping -- undid decades of established labor laws in the state and stripped state employees of their right and ability to collectively bargain. The bill also increased the amount of their paychecks that would go toward pensions and benefits, amounting to a significant pay decrease that, as of last week, those still in their jobs are just starting to feel.
Thousands of dollars lost from salaries already below the average of their private sector counterparts. Loss of the ability to sit down with school boards to determine basic workplace safety rules, classroom size, retirement and healthcare plans, and curriculum. Further battering of morale in general.
Some will argue that the teachers unions are to blame, that they wouldn't change to fit the needs of modern society, that they're too big for their britches. I'll be the first to concede that any large organization is likely to suffer from some institutional oxidization. There are certainly some needed reforms and better oversight in general. All of that is possible without destroying the central purpose of the union, however, which is to provide a voice for the workers on an equal footing with the employers.
Walker and his supporters have never seemed terribly interested in helping unions to be better, though, only deader.
And now Wisconsin has lost thousands of good teachers and there are real worries about the ability to refill those spots. The real-world consequences aren't limited to the loss of economic activity that results from every layoff or retirement. This impacts, very directly, the kids in schools across the state.
They lose out on the experience and knowledge of these teachers. They lose out in terms of the teacher to student ratio. They lose out on a curriculum lacking the input of people who have studied and trained to have good ideas about what should go into it.
There is something seriously askew with a society that doesn't elevate teachers, doesn't put every last cent available into funding public education, and doesn't value comprehensive learning environments more highly than, say, defense spending.
We should all be looking for ways to improve access to and the quality of our public schools state- and nationwide. That means working with teachers, not against them. Making sure they actually have a place at the negotiating table again is just the start.