Friday, June 13, 2014

A Dog in This Fight

 I can count on one hand the number of posts about school in the past year. Heads up today,  it is about school. If you are local and know the events that have happened with public education and want to skip reading, I understand.  If not, all I ask is that what worth do you assign to the person that spends more waking hours a day with your kids if they attend school? This is a long post today, because it has been a very, very long school year.  Thank you for reading if you choose to today.  

I typically give the same two word answer when people ask how work is going, "it's rolling."  The reality is it has been a year like no other.  It is a year that leaves me wondering what is next and on what timeline is my own exit plan?  The bottom line (if you want to skip to my bottom line, head to the italics at the end) is that I love what I do. I love working with students, even the ones that are challenging beyond measure. It has taken me a long time to get to a point where I can honestly say that I think I was put on this Earth because I do this job well.  Being able to teach subjects I love and working with students is at the core of why I get up everyday and keep going back.

Yesterday was the end to the school year.  And yes, I am using the SAME end of school photo as last year. Nothing sums up this year better than when I returned to my room earlier in the week, after giving a 3 1/2 hour End of Course math exam I found that the teacher giving an exam in my room took EVERY.SINGLE.THING off the walls for a class not even taught this year (and not what the kids were taking a test!)

It this year had a theme song it would be "one step forward and about 912 steps  backward (in mud, loosing your shoes, with someone asking you do do three other things at the same time everyday for 10 straight months.)" There is no temporary "crunch time" in teaching when it reverts back to normal.  Everyday feels like a bigger and bigger fire that rages and when you feel it might be under control, it returns.  You hit the year running in August and likely you don't stop until you are literally running to your car in June.

I digress, which fair warning, I'm going to do today and today only on this topic. I'm tired.  Beyond it's the end of the school tired.  Tired in a way that only if you have walked a day in my shoes do you really and truly understand  working in a public school in under the political conditions of this state is tired.  Bill and I abide by the "no work talk at home rule." I try and keep the same rule for friends.  I don't want to sound like negative Nelly, but I will tell you that I have a dog in this fight. I cannot finish off this year without a post about what the last ten months have looked like in this profession.  

We finished this year with students still testing yesterday after loosing nine school days due to weather. We had not one single workday to finish up and pack up the year.  I have been working late for the last weeks to avoid being the last car in the parking lot. For the first time ever my car is not loaded down with files and binders to work on over the summer.  I took only the bare minimum needed for the first week of school, but little else. I need the next few weeks to recoup and frankly not think about school.

What did end of the school year look like in 2014? It looks like going to the mat in the final days for students with legit medical exemptions due to hospitalizations (three in fact, a record for one semester) to not take finals, making phone calls to parents on the drive home about returning books as not to have their kid's graduation tickets pulled, it looks like jaw dropping revelations about real reasons reveled as to why someone was out over 30 days in class then playing interference with her counselor and the dean of students so that they still graduate. It looked like a 6:30 am arrival time in downtown Raleigh to set up for 8 am graduation earlier this week. It looked like hauling books, moving furniture, scraping gum off desks and all the physical tasks that relate nothing to teaching content but must be done.

It looks like the exhausting year that was 2013-2014.

Again, allow me to once again say that I love what I do.  I honest to God appreciate an email from a few days ago from a parent thanking me for going the extra mile to follow up with their daughter to get her exam date changed not to be the day before her baby was due.  Or the parents that found me after graduation to thank me for Congrats on Graduation card I wrote them about their son that had to drop my class due to a severe head injury received at a varsity game in the spring.  I advocated that he come back if possible to finish to graduate and helped facilitate the who, where, when to get him out of my class as it was not needed and an extra burden to his recovery.  This student lived for Friday debate and when I saw him post school return and welcomed him with a big hug, he asked me clear as day if I had ever taught him, that he didn't know me.

It is a recognition that every student is a valued son or daughter.  You treat students and their families how you would want to be treated, communicated with, supported, because getting some students across a graduation stage is a community effort of Herculean effort.    

I've been media silent for most of this year as item after item about education reform in NC has worked its way through the news cycle.   From public school tax dollars funding private school tuition, uncapping the number of new charter schools, many with few guidelines allowed other than they are funding with state money, dumping Common Core after only a year of implementation and oodles of time planning and prepping new lessons, new grading and attendance software that wasn't fully tested and crashed continuously (including for most of yesterday when final grades were due.)  It is the fact the district didn't buy the part of the software that compiled parent data so I've been keeping paper records like it was 1989 all year.  It was the message from our state Legislature sent loud and clear that we don't value you. Period. *Unless we want to stand next to you and film a campaign ad, and in that case we are all about some lip service.

One of the current issues being considered is teacher tenure.  In NC we do not have teacher unions as we are a right to work state. After 4 years in NC you earn "career status" and have a right to a hearing before you are dismissed.  You are still evaluated multiple times yearly by all your administrators, you still have to submit evidence of your effectiveness, you still have to maintain professional behavior, positive test scores, the list goes on.  To be lead to believe that I am some fat cat soaking up a paycheck while doing nothing doesn't jive the number of hours I work long past the 40 I'm contracted to work. It doesn't reflect the committees, the meetings, the professional development that mostly happens after the contractual workday is over. Most of the work outside actually teaching is non paid work that must be done for a school and their stakeholders to be served.  Without IEP meetings, planning graduation meetings, and sitting through testing administration meetings as well as all the other meetings, school does not happen just like in any other business.

I'm in a very tight spot.  To resign at this point means that every bit of retirement that I've put back is forfeited. I can retire on a partial amount I saved at 20 years vested AND at a minimum age 50, essentially keeping me in the classroom for 10 more years.  I want to say, "oh, it will pass quickly" but in my heart of hearts I know that if the last year is any indicator I think my health is going to be the determining factor if I make it another decade."  I can still keep and move any 401 k contributions which I am maxing out as much as possible each month.

Several proposals in our current Legislature is an unheard of 11% raise but to give up tenure, another is a smaller raise with no give up of tenure, yet another is subject specific for raises (math, science, and hard to fill ares only.) Yet another only gives raising to teachers in their first years as NC is in the bottom of new teacher salary in the Southeast.  Yes, SC is the better Carolina when it comes to teacher compensation.

Given I am making the same frozen salary from 2008 and that my salary is not inflation indexed, I'm stuck. Given that the current climate has taken away pay for advanced degrees, I'm stuck (although I am grandfathered in under current law.)  Given that accepting a pay raise is akin to likely being forced out early with a non renewed contract because I have become too expensive. This seems like a risky option to forfeiting all retirement savings if I haven't reached age 50.  At service year 20, the projected 11% raise is flat for the final ten years of service if you want to retire on full benefits after 30 years.  Most teachers like me in the 10-15 year range are sticking it out at our same frozen salaries and trying to get to 20 years and not take any offer that strips tenure from our contract.

I can't and won't give up tenure, not for any amount of money.  I'm not cocky and don't fear that at some point I won't be renewed. Yesterday one year contracts rolled out to anyone without tenure meaning that you can be non renewed for any reason or no reason at all.  This is what will become of my job without tenure, a year to year contract that is at the Principal/District's will.

Granted, this is a better plan than the "25% law" floated for much of this year that gave a $500 raise for 4 years to those teachers deemed the top 25% of their school in return for giving up tenure by June 30th.  In addition EVERYONE lost tenure by 2018.  No criteria was set by the law passed to decide who would be in the pool, and in my county, 75% of teachers met the top 25% turning into a Hunger Games mentality pitting teachers against one another in not sharing materials or best practices in an effort to be competitive. In the final weeks of the school year, the law passed by the Legislature was deemed unconstitutional by the State court system.  To say that education in NC is a total mess is the understatement of the year.

Sadly, I knew multiple teachers who did opt in for 25% consideration.  The same ones that don't have a spouse with a salary to carry their family income.  Ones that work 2nd and some 3rd jobs to make ends meet.  Ones that when I see them in the hall, they look like death warmed over from lack of sleep and utter exhaustion.  This could be your child's teacher.  The same one that you want to make fireworks happen, ensure learning, and love on your child in your absence for 8+ hours a day.  I totally agree when someone complemented me earlier this year that "all I have to do when I do home it focus on my one job" that I am a kept woman by their standards.

Don't mistaken honesty in this post with bitterness.  I could walk tomorrow with Bill's support and find I'm sure something that would pay the same.  I likely would be bored to tears, but would have less stress.  I am not bitter. Not at all, I am disappointed that the profession I started in 2000 feels like a bait and switch of epic proportion. All I want is to be paid like the professional I am and have earned the right to be recognized due to years of experience and education. Falling from around 24th in teacher compensation fifteen years ago to the bottom five states would be hard for anyone to swallow.  I recognize that no one enters this profession for the money.  I didn't leave a job in banking for the money, I left for the sole reason I started in the profession, to teach something I love to students.

The Students
The Students
The Students times a million, gazillion times, it always comes down to the Students. 

Give me a chance to plant seeds, to acknowledge that a student who didn't then did, students that are the bain of your existence until they (and also you) finally realize the sweet spot of mutual respect.   It is students who tell you give you hugs and high fives and all the other cheesy moments that movies and tv and only half get it right.  I again will tell you to listen to the Harper High School Series from This American Life if you really want to know why it is a job like no other and one that is impossible to walk away from easily.   

Teaching at the heart is about the relationships you cultivate between you, students, and their families.  A complement from a student stays with me through the hardest of days, all the ones I told you I was "rolling along" on.  "Mrs. Vinson, You did more to help me and it had nothing to do with anything you actually taught me."  Those are words to live by in this profession.

I will be renewing my national board certification on my own dime over the next year.  The outlay in expense is worth the bump in salary for the 10 years the certification buys me.  This salary bump has yet to be on the Legislature cutting block and from all indicators I have until January to opt out with only a small penalty.  Those are chances I am willing to take while the dust settles around the NC Legislature and their ever changing decisions about how to reform education. 

I have a dog in this fight, and if you have children in school, or a taxpayer whose money is funding schooling you do too.  Think back to what teachers you remember and why.  Some I'm sure were not great, but what about the ones that pushed you, wrote college and scholarship letters on your behalf, believed in you, treated you like an adult for the first time ever.

What is their worth to you now as an adult? What is their worth to you as a parent of a student? 

As I write this, I've now been able to get the first night of full sleep in a good two weeks.  I'm beach bound over the weekend to see my dear friend that I met as a 1st year teacher with the boys.   
A much, much needed change of pace and a renewal of perspective for the next few weeks.  


LauraC said...

It's just shameful what NC has done this year. I have no other words for it, it's made us reconsider whether we even want to be in NC or in this area.

Michele said...

Agreed. My favorite high school teacher retired from Cary High at the beginning of this school year, only one year after finally getting her Masters in English.

I'm continually frustrated by the number of parents at our school and Facebook friends who think the answer is pulling their kids out into charter schools.

The colleges and universities in NC are AMAZING, and I've never understood how they could care so little about public education. (We were ranked 48th in the nation when I moved here in 1987 and can't imagine it's improved.)