In The Trenches With A Public School Teacher

When Rebecca graduated from college, she went to work in the business world.  By working hard, intelligence and the ability to get things done, Rebecca worked her way up quickly to a manager position.  Most of the people she managed were older men and members of a union.


Forward six years.  Rebecca’s husband has finished law school and lands a good job, the pay is good enough Rebecca can now think about doing something else, something that is more fulfilling and does not pay as well.  She decides on teaching elementary school.


At the time Rebecca entered the teaching program at the state university, teachers were in still in demand.  With the economy doing well and low unemployment, fewer people were looking at the relatively low pay and opportunities offered by the teaching profession. 


Forward again, to today, thirteen years later.  Rebecca has been at the school where she is teaching for ten years, the last seven years in third grade.  Parents who want their children to have the best teacher ask for her.   Some of the students love her, some think she is very strict.  She is tough, expecting each student to work up to their abilities, not to just what any standardized goal is set by the district or state.


Teachers in the grades above her know when they get one of her students.  They are well behaved and work to achieve more then what is asked for.  And they consistently produce standardized test scores above the rest of the students.  This is at a school consistently scoring in the top 5% of the state mandated standardized testing.


Rebecca’s day usually starts a little after 7:00 a.m. when she arrives at her school.  She arrives a few minutes early to get organized for the day.  Her day does not end when she returns home between 4:30 to 5:00 p.m.  There’s assignments to grade, planning to do and lesson materials that need to be prepared.  This usually takes another 2 hours or so most nights of the week.


Then there is the Saturdays or Sundays, most weekends she puts in at least 5 to 6 hours.  This is her schedule for most of the school year.


When Rebecca first started teaching her class sizes averaged 25 students each year.  Now she has between 34 and 35 students, each one with a different personality, intellect, abilities, level of progress and learning style.


There are also other factors that she must deal with.  She has children with emotional or physical issues.  She has children that are dealing with family problems at home.  And she has the parents.


According to Rebecca, it is the parents that can have the most impact on their child’s education performance.  She explains: 

“My best performing kids are the ones who do their homework and study.  Third grade is a transitional year in elementary school; the kids are going from learning the basics to having to learn how to apply what they learn.  This is really the first year that they do have to do homework and study.  And if a kid is leaving school and then going to little league or hockey practice and then going home and playing computer games or watching T.V. all night, he’s not getting it.


Regardless of what I do, if that kid has not studied or done his homework he’s not prepared.  Too often I see these kids that just have way too much going on in their lives that takes so much time of their day.  And, I’m also a parent, it’s just too easy to let them hit the computer or X-Box for a few hours or Cartoon Network rather than fight with them to sit down and spend the time to do what they should be doing, especially when you are tired and it’s been a full day.”


When asked what sort of impact a parent could have, she said: “Make your kid do one hour a day of solid study and homework.  That’s it.  Be aware of what your kid brings home.  Go through their backpack, I have kids that I have to continuously remind to do their homework and turn it in.  I’ve had students that I’ve given homework, I’ve dug it out of their backpack, still not done, two weeks after it went home.


I can tell you this is probably the main difference at this level.  I have no control when the kids leave the school.  The parents need to be encouraging good study habits.”


It’s 8:30 p.m. on a Monday night.  Rebecca is just getting home from a district wide science and math fair.  Her day started earlier than normal.  She had to meet with a parent at 7:00 a.m. to explain why her child did not qualify for the Gifted And Talented Education program.  She still has an hour or so of work to do for tomorrow.


As to overtime or extra pay for this: “No.  Most of that was cut out three or four years ago.  Even then if you did get paid for doing extra, it was usually just a token amount.  No end of the year bonuses or profit sharing.” 


About the pay she says: “You’ve got to remember that women make up the majority of the elementary school teachers because of the salaries.  Yes we do get 8 weeks off during the summers and spring breaks, but the bills don’t take breaks.  If you adjusted my salary and I worked a full year like you do, I’d make a decent salary.” 


What about these reports of teachers making six figure salaries? “Anecdotal.  I’ve got 11 years’ experience, an undergraduate degree, teaching credential, special credentials, multi-language credentials.  My salary is about 55 thousand a year.  And I also have to pay couple of hundred dollars a month into my pension contribution and health insurance.  I can’t go any higher.  My boss could not give me a raise if she wanted too.  That’s what your typical teacher makes at my level.”


Her opinion on what to do about the pension plans is simple.  “401(k).  Or something like that, you know they match what we put in to a certain amount.  Some sort of mutual funds or something we can choose from to put it into.  What is in there when I retire is what I get.  This thing about getting 80 or 90 percent of my salary when I retire is bunk, it’s just too expensive, that’s not what happens in the real world.  Just let us do some sort of Social Security program also.  Ask a teacher, most, if they think about it, would agree we need to change the retirement plans.”


While we are on a subject that is volatile, what about teacher tenure?  “First off, the districts have been circumventing tenure for a long time.  I know quite a few teachers that have been on temporary contracts for 3 or 4 or 5 years running.  That means no tenure, no benefits, nothing.

But when you talk about protecting the incompetents with tenure?  I know a few of those.  You get them in every business.  We need to do something that would allow a principal or district to release them or do something with them faster.  They hurt the rest of us trying to get our kids up, they drag down our test scores, you know and that affects the rest of us at the school.”


What about the test scores and standardized testing: “Everybody thinks test scores are the be-all to end-all and it’s not.  This “No Child Left Behind” is a slow burning disaster for our kids.  The kids in my class now are different from last year and the year before.  My class is different from a school across town or in the slum of a major city like New York.  Why am I teaching and testing the same way as those teachers?  I know my kids, I know what they need, each one of them.


Let’s be real.  Take a thousand people.  You have a curve of capabilities with those people.  90% are going to be in the middle, 5% at the top and 5% at the bottom.  With No Child we have to focus on the 5% on the bottom, they get special treatment, special programs, extra teachers and aids and materials.  We have to bring them up to proficiency standards.  Sorry, but you can’t teach a box of rocks to write a novel.”

It’s hurting the 90% in the middle.


Class sizes went down to the mid-twenties because it turns out that is the optimal size to get the biggest bang for the buck.  We’re in the mid-thirties now.  We know that doesn’t work.  What happens if it goes up some more?”


It’s Thursday evening, Rebecca is sitting in a conference room at a local hotel.  A few days before she received a letter that this was going to be an information session about the state budget and the possible impact on her school district.  She normally does not attend union events, but her “morbid curiosity” makes her attend this one.


 The presenters are officials from local and state teachers unions and officials from the state employee’s union.  The first speaker is from the local union, who’s brief speech leads to an introduction of the state teacher union official.  This speaker gives a summary analysis of the various proposals to balance the state budget.


The next speaker is another local union official.  She provides an analysis of the state budget proposals on the district and the teachers.  Next up is an official from the state workers union. 


His speech addresses one plan and just a few politicians.  He wants everybody to support this plan and the politicians who are pushing it.  The plan calls for higher taxes, small cuts to a few programs, borrowing and an increase in funding to education and public safety.  He calls on everybody to volunteer, make phone calls, donate money, whatever it takes to make this plan happen.


Rebecca has had enough, it’s been a long day and she leaves before the wrap up.  Her opinion of the speakers?  “Talking heads trying to serve Kool-Aid to the masses.  But their problem is, we are not really buying it anymore, most know changes need to be made.” 


What about what was said by the state union representative? “They are a bunch of parasites.  He represents people like the clerk at the motor vehicles department or the assistant paper pusher at some records office.  They are using us, and the police and fire departments to hide behind.


Think about it.  You cut budgets at motor vehicles and what happens?  Longer waits.  Same at some records office.  What happens when you cut police and fire?  People can die.


Cut budgets at school some more?  We don’t have waiting lines.  We can’t tell you sorry I can’t get to your child’s test until next month.


The state unions are using us big-time to protect some clerk in a cubicle someplace pushing papers and it really pisses me off.  At least he has copy paper.  I have to bring my own, or the parents donate it.  Sorry.”


Friday afternoon at 3:30 p.m.  Rebecca is sitting at her desk reading and grading book reports.  There is a stack of math assignments that will come next, then spelling tests.  She hopes to get through most before her meeting at 4:45.  The parents of a recent transfer from a private school are concerned about the poor performance of their child on the last standardized test and want to discuss it.


After the meeting she has to work on end of semester reports.  The district’s network security procedure allows only a small window of time to input the reports into the district’s system.  She has a couple of days starting on Monday to do her input and the majority of that time is after her normal work hours.


The system the district uses has been in place for over ten years.  It is slow, it takes several hours to finish about a third of what she needs to input.  She’s frequently logged out or the application locks up.  It’s frustrating for her, but she knows there is no money in the budget now, nor in the near future to upgrade.


“It took 4 months to get a $90 DVD player and have it installed in my class room last year.  The VCR player that was in here since I took over this room 5 years ago finally died.  The parent association at the school had to buy it.  The district would have taken close to a year, once it was approved.  I don’t think they have the money for much else.”


Rebecca is ready to quit for the day.  The parents with the concerns have left understanding what they need to focus on.  Rebecca feels good about the meeting “they obviously care about their kid.  They just assumed that private schooling means a better education and that’s not necessarily true.  She’ll do well, she’s a smart cookie.”


She finally leaves a little after 6:00 p.m.  Arriving at home she checks her district email, something she did not have time to do during the day.  One of the emails brings a smile to her face.  It’s from Emma, the student whose parents she had the conference with earlier that day.


In the email Emma thanks her and asks Rebecca to read a practice book report she had just finished.  “See, this is what I’ve been saying.  These parents care.  Emma has been raised to care and do her work.  She wants to succeed.  Good!”


Rebecca responds to Emma’s email and prints out the report.  She’ll read it later over the weekend.  Till then, there’s other papers to grade and planning still needed to be done.  


“This is what the politicians don’t see right now.” she says.  “They fight, use my kids as tools, all of them, the union leaders, politicians, managers, the kids get the short end of the stick.  I hate the politics.  I just want to do my job and teach my kids.  They deserve and want it.”


7:30 p.m. and Rebecca is reading a label on a bottle of Merlot.  Half a glass is gone.  Any more to be done today?  She says with a smile “Yes, but it’ll wait until tomorrow.  That’s about the only time I can really say that.”


And it will, and Rebecca will be there doing it, with what she has.