Teachers in Anchorage recently rejected a tentative agreement on a new contract that failed to include a sought-after 3 percent salary increase — but, according to news reports, money was not the only issue. Sagging morale was another factor.
KTUU in Anchorage quoted Corey Aist, a teacher in the Anchorage School District, as saying:
“Personally, I was at every board meeting, listened to all the stories being shared by the teachers. And they just want to be valued, they want to be heard, they want to be respected. That may have had a bigger consequence to the contract than the actual items within.”
If low morale was a factor, Anchorage would hardly be the only place where teachers are feeling a lack of respect. Surveys of teachers and growing teacher shortages have revealed a real cost to the teaching profession of low pay, unfair evaluation methods, assaults on due-process rights, high-stakes testing and insufficient resources.
In this post, Paul Murphy, a third-grade teacher in Michigan with 18 years of classroom experience, writes about why there is so much dissatisfaction among so many teachers today. Murphy writes about education at TeacherHabits.com, and he gave me permission to publish this.
By Paul Murphy
We teachers sure like to complain a lot. At least, that’s what I’m told by people who don’t teach. Here’s one comment left on an article I wrote:
“Quit complaining. Everybody has things they don’t like about the professions they chose but teachers are the biggest whiners.”
“I know about a dozen teachers. Every single one of them knew going in how much education they’d have to invest and the amount of effort expected.”
One of the most common refrains complaining teachers hear from non-educators is that we knew what we signed up for.
“Hey,” they say, “You knew the score going in, so no b—-ing about it now.” It’s an argument that, on its face, makes some sense. It’s true that teachers knew at the outset we weren’t going to get rich. We knew the job would be challenging. We understood that no matter how good we were, no one was going to build a monument to us.
But the truth is, the job of a teacher has changed a lot in a very short amount of time.
I started teaching in 2000. I thought I knew what to expect. I doubt I’m alone. Since many big changes to education have happened in the last 10 years, there are probably millions of teachers who are currently doing a job for which they did not sign up. So when our critics tire of hearing us complain and tell us that we knew the deal going in, they are often wrong. There is a lot of stuff we didn’t sign up for.
We didn’t sign up for a Department of Education that doesn’t actually believe in public education or actively supports alternatives.
We didn’t sign up for wage gaps and the “teacher pay penalty.” In 1996, while I was in college deciding to “sign up” to be a teacher, the average weekly wage of public-sector teachers was $1,122 (in 2015 dollars). In 2015, it had fallen to $1,092. Weekly pay for all college graduates rose by $124 per week over the same period. I might have signed on knowing I wouldn’t get rich, but I sure as hell didn’t sign on expecting to be paid less after 17 years on the job.
Part of that declining pay may have something to do with diminished political clout. Because when I signed up to be a teacher, teachers unions still had power. In the intervening years, Republican-controlled legislatures have done everything they can to erode the unions’ influence. My state, Michigan, became right-to-work in 2012. State legislatures around the country have also removed tenure protections, curtailed collective bargaining rights, abolished last-in, first-out policies that protected veteran (read, more expensive) teachers, and attacked pensions.
We also didn’t sign up for fewer resources. But according to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, in 2015, the latest year for which comprehensive spending data are available from the U.S. Census Bureau, 29 states were still providing less total school funding per student than they were in 2008.
We didn’t sign up for increasing federal intrusion. No Child Left Behind became law in 2002. Its goal of having all students proficient by the year 2014 was mocked by anyone who knew about the process of teaching and learning, but that didn’t stop the federal government from doubling down with an extremely poor rollout of the Common Core State Standards and what was effectively a bribery scheme called Race to the Top to get states to adopt those standards.
Teachers didn’t sign up for high-stakes teacher evaluation systems that rely on crummy data and the opinions of administrators whose motives may not always be pure.
We didn’t sign up to give students an ever-increasing number of flawed standardized tests that spit out unreliable data used to determine a meaningless teacher rating.
We didn’t sign up for value-added modeling, a statistical method used to evaluate teachers that the American Statistical Association says, “Typically measures correlation, not causation: Effects — positive or negative — attributed to a teacher may actually be caused by other factors that are not captured in the model.”
We didn’t sign up to be scapegoated by politicians. The staff of Central Falls High School in Rhode Island sure didn’t sign up expecting the president of the United States and the secretary of education to endorse their collective firing. While we may have expected to be treated like dirt by Republicans, we didn’t sign up knowing the Democratic Party would abandon us in such a publicly humiliating way.
We didn’t sign up for longer school years or balanced calendars.
We didn’t sign up for substitute teacher shortages.
We didn’t sign up for active shooter drills.
We didn’t sign up for higher poverty rates and needier students. In my state, there are 15 percent more kids in poverty today than there were in 2008.
We didn’t sign up for increased funding for charter and virtual schools. The same politicians who claim they can’t spend more on education manage to find billions of dollars for charter schools every year, in spite of their lackluster performance. Virtual schools are even worse, but legislators seem to love them anyway.
We didn’t sign up for declining autonomy in the classroom. We didn’t sign up to have our hands held — mistrusted, second-guessed and told to toe the line, to teach this content at this time in this way. We didn’t sign up for pacing guides, scripted lessons or strict fidelity to unproven programs.
We didn’t sign up for less planning time.
We didn’t sign up to implement policies we know are bad for kids. We didn’t sign up for less recess, less gym class, less art, less music and less fun.
We sure didn’t sign up to give 8-year-olds reading tests that could result in their retention.
We elementary teachers didn’t sign up to stress out 9-year-olds over their “college and career readiness” or to take the play out of kindergarten.
There’s an awful lot about our jobs today that we didn’t sign up to do.
In spite of this, most teachers will continue to do the job. Most will do their best. I’m not naive enough to expect those who call teachers whiners to join us in fighting for change. I have no illusions about any of the things I didn’t sign up for going away anytime soon. I won’t challenge our critics to get in the ring and become teachers themselves. After all, they now know what they’d be signing up for. But I will ask them to believe teachers when they tell them what needs fixing. And if they won’t do that, then I will kindly ask them to shut up, and quit telling teachers that they knew what they signed up for.
What do you think, teachers? What else didn’t you sign up for? What’s changed since you decided to become a teacher?
(Update: Adding latest budget figures)