My hometown of Chicago is all in a tizzy as public school teachers went on strike for the first time in 25 years. Growing up, I remember the teachers being on strike a lot, granted that is no comfort to the hundreds of thousands of parents scrambling today with their kids, many whom need to go to work.
In recent years it seems teachers have become public enemy number one in the minds of many, how dare they want things that those in the private sector don’t have, like good health care, pension, etc., the nerve of these damn teachers after all everyone knows they really only work part of the year and have short work days…those greedy assholes!
If only that were true! When I was a graduate student, I toyed with the idea of making a career change and going into teaching. Thankfully before I rearranged my entire professional tract and schooling, I decided to become a substitute teacher which as a degree holder was fairly easy. Yet, let me tell, you, teaching is one of the hardest jobs ever. For starters I learned in that year of subbing that teachers in many places at least in Maine and apparently back in my hometown, don’t get social security benefits when they retire. Instead they pay into the Teachers Retirement System, by paying a portion of their salary into that system, in Illinois in 2011 that was 9.4% of their salary. Now us average stiffs either have 401K’s or something (maybe nothing) but if all else fails we know we will have a meager Social Security check when we get too old to work, granted Social Security may not be around but hey, let’s believe that it will. What that means is even so-called well paid teachers aren’t taking home as much money as many of us assume and why things like raises are sort of nice. After all teachers don’t catch a break at the pump, they have to pay full price for shit just like the rest of the stiffs.
Next up, do people really think teachers only work the length of the school day? Sure school might be 8:30-2:30, but really teachers aren’t out the door at 2:31. For starters teachers get to school well before the kids arrive, many stay well after the kids have left and once you are in the grades where kids have actual homework, how do you think it gets graded? Never mind that as the old model of life in America has all but disappeared, it means when a teacher actually needs to speak with a parent, they have to call a kid’s home at 7-8pm at night. In today’s world where classroom sizes can easily reach 30+ kids that could be quite a few calls. By the way when you are teaching as I learned, you don’t exactly get to take a break when you want to, in many ways my brief experience of teaching showed me just how rough teaching conditions can be and it can be worse. In my hometown, most of the schools still don’t have air conditioning and now that seasons are reduced to hot as hell and really cold, AC would be nice.
More and more teachers are being told that their job performance will be evaluated on the basis of how well kids do on standardized testing. That might sound good on the surface, but in places like my hometown where the vast majority of kids are coming from low income families that means kids coming to school who in many instances are not ready to learn. I am not a teacher but I know at the community center I run, in our summer program, more than half the kids come to the program, hungry, irritable and frankly not ready to participate, I suspect teachers see the same thing. The best teacher in the world can’t fix all the social ills that plague kids and can affect their performance and to ask a teachers livelihood to be based on things outside of their control is insane.
Sure there are some bad teachers out there, but teaching has a high rate of burnout, most new teachers will be gone not long after starting. Shit, my one year of subbing primarily at a middle school, pretty much opened my eyes to what teachers really do.
Never mind that most teachers are not “off” during the summer, most are working someplace else to make ends meet.
While it’s easy to come up with average teachers’ salaries and determine they are high, the reality is they aren’t high enough. Not when we live in a time when schools now ask parents in many parts of the country including my own to bring in paper towels and Kleenex in addition to the paper, pencils and other stuff. While I gripe a little, the reality is I am happy to assist especially when I know not every parent can supply necessary materials and I really don’t feel my kid’s teacher should have to reach into her own pocket. It’s why when we received our property tax bill recently and saw a rather huge increase, I didn’t grumble too much.
Outside of parents, teachers have the ability to make a real difference in the life of a kid; a good teacher will lay a foundation that will live with a child forever. I am almost 40 and still remember the ones that inspired me. Too many times we and that’s a collective we treat teachers as if they are merely babysitters instead of recognizing them for what they really do.
A teacher’s strike is inconvenient, no doubt but teachers are more than overpaid babysitters, they are shaping our future and as molders of the next generation, they deserve nothing less than the best. So yeah, I stand with the teachers and hope for the sake of the kids of Chicago, this strike will be brief. That said, even in the midst of this mess, there is a valuable teaching moment for kids on the power of collective organizing but that’s a post for another time.