February 19, 2019

FTV: A Slippery Slope

   One must tread carefully when making comments comparing the worth of employees in one profession to those in others. These days, any career involves some form of education, be it on the job, in a vocational program, or professional preparation. For one to truly understand what it takes to work in any field, the song lyric “Walk a mile in my shoes” seems more than appropriate.  Unfortunately, those with the most to say on subject of other people’s employment (and usually the ones making the loudest commentary) are rarely people who have any actual experience in whatever field of work being discussed.

    Why did I start pondering such weighty issues?  A few weeks ago, a contributor to a local talk show (who works out of Hancock) made some very pointed comments prompted by the rash of school closings due to a recent stretch of nasty weather.  Naturally, the discussion about schools taking days off swung around to the old tried and true, “Teachers are overpaid and get three months of vacation right out of the box!” myth that has been around since the dawn of education.  If my sixty one years in the field (thirteen as a public school student, six as a college student, forty three in the classroom and almost one year as a newly minted retiree) do not allow me to expound on the issue raised, then I do not know who else should talk about it.  I have no axe to grind and I am expressing my own opinions here, but the fact that people still love to thump on the teaching profession burns my cork. It is very hard for me to hear this kind of nonsense without saying something in defense of those who choose education as their profession. Let us examine some of the commonly held myths about those who teach.

    Teachers get three months of vacation.  The truth is, teachers have a period of three months without students in front of them, but none are ‘on vacation’ for three months.  When I got into the profession (yes, back when dinosaurs ruled the Earth), one had to earn at least eighteen advanced college credits within the first five years on the job to be granted what was known as a ‘Continuing Certificate’ in the state of Michigan.  When I finished my first year of teaching in June of 1976, I had been ‘in school’ continually for eighteen consecutive years. I had also worked full time juggling two jobs during the four summers prior to being hired in Ontonagon. Yes, I took ‘the whole summer off’ with an eye toward going back to school the summer after my second year.  After spending two summers back at Northern Michigan University and taking one evening class (traveling to Hancock one evening a week for a semester), I ended my fourth year on the job with enough credits to get my Continuing Education certificate. I also got a pink slip. The Ontonagon Area School District was beginning to shrink as the county population slowly declined.  I was the low man on the seniority list. Eventually enough bits and pieces of a schedule were offered to me so I could return the next year (think ‘leftovers’ that did not include my main science field), but I chose an unpaid leave of absence to return to NMU to finish enough credits to get my Masters Degree in Geography. These extra credits and my classroom teaching time allowed me to apply for and be granted a ‘Permanent Certificate’ to teach in the State of Michigan.  I would not need to pay for another credit to maintain my teaching license, but it did not mean that I did nothing to further my education during my subsequent summer vacations.

    Teachers get paid a yearly salary for nine months of work.  Again, this is just not the case.  TEACHERS GET PAID FOR NINE MONTHS OF WORK.  The ‘three months off’ are in reality a ‘three month unpaid furlough’ unless one chooses to spread their nine month pay over the full year (in which case it is still just NINE MONTHS of pay).  Years back, a higher court decision blocked teachers from collecting unemployment for the summer because they were ‘still under contract’ even though they weren’t being paid for those months. I decided to receive my pay over twelve months after my first full summer off.  When I ran out of money at the end of that first July, the wisdom of getting smaller paychecks to insure a summer income seemed to be a prudent idea, yet the myth of ‘twelve months pay for nine month’s work’ persists.

    I attended a college graduation party for a colleague’s son who had earned a degree in secondary education.  We teachers in attendance were kidding him that he better enjoy his ‘last summer of freedom’ before he got into the old ‘teachers get three months off’ grind that all of us knew doesn’t exist.  A wife of a former school board member heard this and piped in, “‘But you all do get three months off, don’t you?” I replied, “Yes, but it is unpaid vacation.” She looked perplexed so I tried to explain:  “When your husband still worked at the paper mill, what would it have been like if his twelve month salary was actually paid out over fifteen months instead over twelve?” She asked, “Why would he do that?” and I explained that I was just trying to give her an example of how some in the education game make ends meet during their unpaid summers.  She still didn’t understand my point and left the conversation by declaring, “Well, you still get three months off and a paycheck all summer.” Sigh.

    With my permanent teaching certificate in hand, I was not locked into the more recent trends in continuing education.  Newer educators must earn a set amount of credits every five years to keep their teaching credentials. By the time I retired, there were not very many of us left in the profession with the old ‘permanent’ designation.  I was lucky because I used summers to earn my ‘post-Masters degree in teaching’ by running science workshops. These came about when the State of Michigan began sponsoring science and math teaching workshops to help improve the State’s dismal science scores.  The coordinator at the Intermediate School District office in Bergland inquired if I would be interested in attending a training session so I could run the local science teacher workshops. At first I declined as it would have meant spending two days traveling to Lansing or Grand Rapids for a half day training session.  The reluctance of other U.P. teachers to get involved must have been universal because another session was soon organized in Escanaba and I jumped on it. This one training session opened up a new advanced summer learning option for me that lasted nearly twenty years. Facilitating these hands-on science workshops was a lot of work, but I maintain to this day that I learned a PhD’s worth of practical teaching techniques from my workshop ‘students’.  Getting paid to improve my teaching skills was not the normal path my colleagues faced through those years – they had to spend their time and money to take the courses needed to keep their credentials current.

    Teachers make a lot of money!  When I returned to Ontonagon in the fall of 1980 with my Master of Arts degree and permanent certificate in hand, my wife and I were expecting our first child. If we had already had two children in our household at that time, my fifth year teaching salary would have qualified us for food stamps.  The pay schedule rose slowly over the years, but inflation made each ‘raise’ we got worth a little less with each passing year. Many of my colleagues took summer jobs to help make ends meet, something I was spared because my wife was a nurse at the hospital. The smaller salary increases were also generated by the escalating cost of our medical insurance.  We took smaller raises to keep our insurance coverage. If one has had children, one knows that the normal run of childhood maladies can put a family in the poor house. Without the insurance, I am not all that sure I could have stayed in teaching and raised a family.

    Teachers have a ‘Cadillac’ insurance policy!  I blame this statement on one of our less visionary governors who wanted to be known for dismantling that dreaded enemy of the people:  The Teacher’s Union! My old neighbor was serving on the board of education when this ‘Cadillac’ nonsense started and he asked me how I would feel about the teachers “paying for their own insurance like the employees at the paper mill.”  I said, “Hey, I would be all for it.” He looked confused; “You would? Everyone says you guys would fight against this idea.” I explained that I would be for it as long as the teachers were paid the same hourly salary that the paper mill workers received.  He thought for a moment and said, “Oh, I see. There probably isn’t much chance of that happening.”

    There are more teachers in the school than they really need.  The same school board neighbor and I had earlier discussed moving the junior high students to the Mass City elementary school building so they wouldn’t be in the same building with the high schools students.  I agreed that it was a good idea, but added “You know that having a separate JH building would require at least five full time teachers more than we currently have on the school staff.” His response was exactly the same as it would later be about the insurance question:  “Not much chance of that happening.” The biggest expense required to operate a school is the staff, therefore, the number of people that a school employs must be balanced against the district’s budget. This is no easy feat for any school district in Michigan.

    Don’t get me wrong.  Running a school district (especially a small, rural district) in Michigan is no easy thing.  As costs continue to rise over the years, the state demands more and more things from the local school boards without providing the resources to accomplish these tasks.  They even had an official name for these items: “Unfunded mandates,” (or as we called them ‘you pays’). Running a small school district is even tougher because the per student aide allotment has not risen at the same rate as inflation nor is it as high here as it is in the larger districts downstate.  As rural school districts keep shrinking, they are forced to run the same school programs as larger districts, but with less resources. The easiest target to blame for this are the teachers on the front lines who come to work, do their jobs, and want the same things as everybody else: To earn a living wage so they can take care of themselves and their families.

    If you don’t like it, get out and someone else will gladly step into your cushy job.  We need to be very concerned about the future of education.  With the cost of a college education continuing to rise, we are already feeling the pinch in public education. Recent news stories speak of the current and future teacher shortage.  How many college students are getting in line for jobs with salaries that won’t allow them to pay off their student loans, let alone raise a family? Who will enter a profession which is becoming a “whipping boy” in the political (and public) eye?   Many young teachers have abandoned education because they can not afford to stay. Politicians do great lip service to the ‘we need to pay teachers a living wage as professionals’ theme when running for office, but in reality, educational funding reform isn’t being addressed.

    When I get my car fixed or my furnace serviced or (insert your latest cash outflow for something that needs to be done), you won’t hear me calling in to the local talk show to complain about what plumbers, car mechanics, etc. charge for their expertise.  No one doubts the value of educating children, yet some people are still complaining that teachers get overpaid AND get three months off every summer.

     I will follow my own advice and not criticize others for having their own opinions.  With that said, it is appropriate that people, including critics of the teaching profession, consider where they got the knowledge that has allowed them to earn a living.  No matter what vocation or profession they are engaged in, that foundation was laid by teachers.d

Top Piece Video:  The Beach Boys with guest star John Stamos . . . I almost posted Pete Seeger’s version of Tom Paxton’s song What did you learn in school today but that is more politically charged than I wanted to be to illustrate my point here – but you can look it up if you are curious!