Wednesday, April 7, 2010

The Cost of Giving Up on Education.

Recently, I was reading a blog that questioned "What is the most foolish thing that you have ever done after having been inspired by a movie?" Mixed in with lots of Mary Poppins leaps with umbrellas from rooftops was this gem: "After seeing Dead Poets Society I became a teacher." All I could do was laugh along, because I was duped by this syndrome, too.

After taking out student loans to cover the cost of certification (after having obtained a Bachelor's and taken out an absurd amount of loans for graduate school and a Master's), I became eligible to compete for a job that pays approximately $43,000 per year. What I didn't know at the time was that teaching in Social Studies is incredibly competitive. In public education, the amount of education you have, coupled with the years you've been a part of the district, determines your salary. I was starting out as a first year teacher, but with my Master's degree, plus 36 hours. This made me an expensive chance, and one that didn't coach a sport. The first year I didn't even get an interview. The second year, now armed with both History and English certifications, it took me 13 interviews to land a job.
Clearly, it was incredibly important that I be a teacher because I love high school students. It was important because I wanted to make a difference in the lives of some really fantastic kids. Not for the money, and not for the hours. They say that the first year of teaching is the worst. You're constantly having to come up with new lessons, discover the best way to do things and teach yourself how to cross everything off of the massive check list you're handed each week. The crazy time crunch didn't end after my first year, though. I was still swamped my second, third, fourth and fifth year. Every year I got a different subject to teach, and usually had to create a class from nothing. With each new year, I also became increasingly involved in the district. Without realizing how, I found myself on five special committees. On one hand, it felt good to feel important and recognized by peers for elected positions. The flip side of this is that I usually had three two-hour meetings after school every week. It's not been uncommon to have a 16 hour day three or more days per week, just trying to fit in all of the things that need to be done. This made my salary amount to $9 an hour.

The state is now broke. Since the state cares for education, this means that a lot of districts across the state are struggling to recreate a budget that will work with what they'll receive in the forseeable future. The school that I work for has cut 8 positions so far, including mine. All the extra things I had done as a teacher had not mattered. The extra hours were important for me and my students, but not viewed as valuable by anyone else. The bottom line is that I am nearing tenure (you obtain it the first day of your sixth year; I will literally be one day short of accomplishing this,) and I am the most expensive non-tenured teacher in my department. I also took some extra time off this year to deal with illness. Result: Expendable.

I'm not feeling any bitterness about it. I'm somewhat disappointed, but it's with undertanding of the situation. I know that no one in my district wants to lose teachers, and that no one believes it is what is best for students. I am disappointed personally because despite the challenges of the profession, I genuinely love my job. I love the students I work for, I love the people I work with, I love the subjects I've taught and I love guiding students as they learn new things. The most important thing to me is always getting to know students and build a personal rapport with them. You don't find opportunities like that in other careers. The big picture disappointments I feel, however, have to do with the way that people regard education. It's ridiculous that education is ever a place where budgets can be cut, let alone the first place. If children are the future, and education is the only way to prepare them to become productive citizens, how is it even remotely conceivable that you can cut the funding that provides it?

There was a levy up for vote yesterday in the school district I am employed with (for a short time yet.) It amounted to $300 extra dollars per year in taxes for each family. It failed by 73%. This is a community with quite a bit of wealth. A lot of it has come from people that have been very successful in trades like construction or blue collar situations who have then become entrepreneurs. More power to these folks, but they never came to believe that education was key to their success. It's not a value that this community has. They believe the school should teach the basics, provide a great football team that will provide entertainment on Friday nights throughout the fall, and somehow keep all the local kids out of trouble. Three-quarters of the community could see no reason to support a levy that was the only way to keep staff, class options, technology, and programs. It leaves you speechless and sad. In my case, it gives me the very clear evidence I need to wholly grasp that my values and what I want to accomplish simply don't match with those people I've been trying to service. As much as it pains me to say it, it's most likely for the best that I'm leaving education for a while. There have been a reported 3000+ teacher jobs lost in this city over the last few months. It is a ridiculously flooded market. Who knows when teaching positions will exist again? Maybe by that time, the pendulum will have swung again, and people will be more appreciative of what goes into educating an individual and they will remember why it is important.

The numbers really say it all:
-Number of homes I could have purchased outright in place of student loans for degrees making me a "highly qualified teacher:" 1.2
-Percentage of paycheck I've actually seen after mandatory Retirement deposits, paying to increase our super-cheap provided insurance and NEA dues: 57%
- Total amount I've invested in resources and classroom supplies over five years:$5600
- Maximum amount I can take out of my contributions to a mandatory teacher's retirement account (to live off of since there are no available jobs to be found): 31%
-Savings: $0
- number of non-compensated hours given to the district over five years: 15,460
- number of times a parent's called or emailed my principal upset because their student was failing or because I "picked on their child": 7
- number of thank you's from parents: 23
- number of times I've been told, in some variation, to go fuck myself by a student: 9
- number of times a parent has removed an artificial limb during a conference: 1
Recognition from the community where I've worked that my time has been well spent: 27%

I'm not sure what I'm going to end up doing. I will find something, and hopefully it will be something that I love as much as I have loved teaching. Maybe I will return to teaching down the road. As of right now, however, I am simply feeling very disillusioned and impoverished. It's with rue that I recognize my inspiration from Dead Poets Society. It's perhaps a shame that I didn't find inspiration from another Robin Williams lead. I could've been a one hour photo stalker or a military dj much more cheaply.

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