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Pay no attention to the people behind the curtain

Thursday, December 22, 2005

"Shut up," he wrote, and almost immediately regretted it

This is the last long post from me for a little while. My guests should be picking up any minute now, and then, after I post my Friday Random Ten tomorrow, the place will be all theirs.

But I was reminded recently of something I promised I would do. In this post a few weeks back, I celebrated having a letter to the editor printed in the local rag. The letter was a sarcastic (me? sarcastic?) note about the Milwaukee Public Schools Board's approval of a contract extension for our superintendent, including a bigger raise than teachers got in the last contract, and "improvements" to his fringe benefits when teachers had our bennies cut.

In comments to that post, Stephen Paske--who will be stepping in here as a guest poster this coming week--challenged me:
Teachers in MPS are paid very fairly for the amount of work they are required to do. Job security is unmatched. And health benefits are still very good. Why did I leave? Not because of pay (I now teach in Bolivia for far less money), not because of benefits (my healthcare now only covers 80% of my cost the first $5000); why did I leave? Because I was tired of people like the guy who wrote this blog constantly complaining how terrible their lives are. They live outside reality and don't at all appreciate the difficulty most private sector workers face.
Like any other selfish bastard, I was quite offended that someone would stomp into my (internet) house and (metaphorically) pee on the (stretching it here) floor like that, former MPS teacher or no. So I replied in that comments thread, basically saying that no, I'm not just whining about the money. I pointed to a line from this post I did riffing off of Anna Quindlen's essay The Wages of Teaching trying to prove that.

The sub-headline for the Quindlen essay is, in part, "No school administrator should ever receive a percentage raise greater than the raise teachers get," which was a coincidentally perfect dovetail with the issue at hand: Our school administrator got a greater raise than we did. Quindlen's point is that "teachers should have the most powerful group of advocates in the nation: not their union, but we the people, their former students." These former students, she argues, should lobby at every turn not for regimented "accountability," but for support, fair wages, and respect for our most indispensable professionals, professionals who too often lack those three things. I used Quindlen's essay as a jumping off point to talk about the insidious myths that surround teaching: that our "summers off" and such mean we have it easy, and that we mindlessly program robotic students to be cogs in a machine. I don't want more money, I argued in that post, I want the myths to die and the public (and public institutions like Congress) to support the real work of promoting learning among my students. I summed it up this way, in words that, as the title above implies, may have been too strong:

So what do I want, if not money? It's simple: Shut up and let us do our jobs.

That's the line I threw back at Stephen. He responded:
I take issue with your quote from the post you directed me to. [. . .] By virtue of this quote you are saying all that you want is for people to be quiet and let you go about your business as a teacher in a dignified way. However, at the same time, you post a massive blog dedicated to trying to lambast any person that even insuates that teachers are compensated fairly.

You also say that teachers quit the profession because it is hard work. Within your writing it is implied that people might be willing to do such work for better wages (thus higher teacher salaries would attract better teachers), but if hard work is the issue, how is it that many private schools are able to attract talented teachers with far less competitive wages and benefits?

Where the problem lies, is in your allegience to a union that hurts the cause of qualified, hard-working teachers, more than it helps. Indeed, I do believe a math major with excellent grades would make $40,000 a year to start, if every other teacher in every other discipline wasn't required to make an equal amount.

I also believe that if the union didn't lock in every teacher to the same raises based on tenure and experience, and salary were tied to performance, that the district would have a much easier time attracting and retaining talented individuals, because those hard working teachers such as yourself, that are worth it would be fairly compensated, and those that weren't would quit.

As far as the health insurance issue goes, I would love to see the two proposals side by side, and see why the District, interested in saving money, would not accept "The Union's cheaper proposal." I'd also like to see why an independent arbitrator would also conclude that the plan you say is cheaper, would be less financially viable for the district to handle. Seems counter intuative. Personally, I think you've probably been putting a little too much faith in your union bretheren and what they tell you about the plans, and doing too little investigating of independent sources on your own. "The Sharpener" is not an unbiased news source, and therefore should not be where you get all of your information on the health-care plans.

And as far as money goes, and the viability of what I said? You were right, that my wife and I do not currently have children. However, you are quite wrong to insinuate that we had a poor quality of life. We had dinners out, movies, the trips that I mentioned, all while putting on a roof and new windows. Had we had children, yes we would have had to cut out the trips to Greece and Costa Rica and paid off our student loans at a ten year pace instead of early. But our quality of life was good. Better than many of our friends working in the private sector. I've been there Mr.Bullock. I've taught in MPS. I liked my job. So I don't know why everybody always is complaining.
There's a lot in there, and it happened while I was in Ottawa and dealing with coming back and then work and then gearing up for my absence here and . . . Well, I just never got to it. But I'm doing so now.

At the start, Stephen says I lambast those who claim teachers are compensated fairly. I've been at this for nearly three years, so maybe I've forgotten, but I don't think I do that--but only because I don't think I've ever heard anyone, besides Stephen, say that: People come here (and I find them elsewhere) saying that schools have too much money, teachers get too much money, teachers earn too much in benefits. It was a little odd, in fact, when Stephen showed up and said, You guys do just fine. Usually it's variations of the myths I wrote about before.

Private schools retain teachers for a number of reasons, depending on the school; for one, good private schools make it so much easier to do to the difficult job of teaching, primarily because of the freedom that comes from being private. If I could only teach the kids from the University School of Milwaukee, I would gladly do it for less money--though their endowment means that wouldn't happen. Teacher turnover is actually pretty high at some Milwaukee voucher schools.

Stephen's next point is more specifically about salary. Different starting salaries for high-demand teachers is something I've been wondering about, but the whole point of having a strong union is not to keep everyone equal, but to keep the district fair. How would the specialties given higher or lower salaries be determined? At what different rates? At the very least, the union needs to be a part of those negotiations. And as to merit pay--oh, how I wish it were that easy. I've worked with (almost exclusively, come to think of it) principals whom I would not trust to decide my "merit." Test scores? No dice. I often tell the story of my first year of teaching out in the suburbs where, I am ashamed to say, I sucked. Ironically, I am certain the students I taught that year tested far better than the students I'm teaching now that I have my stuff together. And it means an incredibly jacked-up testing schedule and overwhelming pressure to teach to the test. Not that have searched one out with vigor, but I haven't seen a merit-pay proposal that works.

I do like the idea of paying, for example, National Board-Certified teachers bonuses, and for state and federal programs to forgive student loan debt or pay bonuses to attract teachers to needy areas.

There's a question in there about the recent arbitration decision in which the arbitrator chose the district proposal over my union's proposal regarding health care. I won't rehash it all here, but you can read salient posts here, here, and here. In the first of those posts, I actually do the math showing that I'd contribute more toward my health care on the rejected union's plan. A decidedly non-union source, a Milwaukee Journal Sentinel reporter told me in an email, "it is true that teachers in general would have paid more under the union's proposal than under the management's proposal, at least in the near future." You can see another reason the union is important in the ongoing talks with other bargaining units, where the district is looking for greater concessions from those who can least afford it.

I'm glad that Stephen and his wife, both MPS teachers, were able live as they did. As I have written, I'm certainly not poor. But I know many teachers--more than a dozen at my school alone--who for whatever reason take second and third jobs. It should not be the case, and I can't say this more simply, that when you are doing the most important job in the country, you should not have to do other jobs, too.

Finally, Stephen implies that I do not like my job, or at least leaves it open to question. I do; I love what I do. What I do not like is the crap I have to wade through to get to the part where I teach the kids and they learn stuff. That's what I was talking about when I said "shut up"--I am sick of the myths and the NCLB testing and the politicians who think they know better and the superintendents who play shuffleboard with schools and principals who care more about planning socials than about curriculum.

Will "Shut up and let us do our jobs" come back to haunt me? I don't know. It certainly is inelegantly worded. There are days when all I want to do is close my classroom door and do my job without all the other stuff. But I usually can't; in the triad of love it, leave it, or change it, I feel compelled to change it. That's why I do this. That's why I persevere.

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