Thursday, November 4, 2010

How I was an Overpaid Slacker

My husband works with a number of extremely outspoken social and political conservatives.  One day he came home and shared that he’d been informed my colleagues and I were being overpaid.
My first reaction was, “Say WHAT?”  At the time, I was working in an urban high school for less than $30,000 a year.  I was routinely putting in 50-60-hour weeks, between contracted work hours and additional time spent communicating with parents, making lesson plans, and grading student assignments.  Somehow, I did not feel overpaid.
“It’s all that vacation time you get,” he informed me, taking his co-workers’ line.
“You mean those ten weeks in the summer, when I need to pick up some credit hours to get a raise?” I asked, thinking that two months of graduate studies hardly equated with lounging on the beach, in terms of a “vacation.”
“Of course,” he said.  “And all those ‘school improvement’ days.”
“But I’m working then.  We’re having meetings.”
He shrugged.  “The kids aren’t there—how hard can it be?  And how about that short workday?  You get paid way more per hour than most people.”
“Five a.m. to midnight is ‘short?’” I asked, thinking of my past week.
“No, you just choose to do all that extra work.  Classes only run from eight to three.”
My head began to hurt.  “I can’t write lesson plans or grade papers during class.”
“You can do all that stuff on your plan period.”
“The same plan period they fill up with ‘voluntary’ hall duty?  Where do they get this stuff?  By the way, I helped break up a fight during hall duty, today.”  It had been between two very large juniors.  They’d have made great linebackers, if they’d had clean enough records to make the team.
“You can’t fool my co-workers.  They know you’re really just sitting up in the teachers’ lounge, gossiping and eating cupcakes on your plan period.  Besides, your job is less risky than that of other professionals.”
“Really?  Less risky, how?”  I was still thinking about those two juniors.
“Sure, with tenure and all, you can’t be fired.”
“I don’t have tenure.  Anyway, tenure just means they’d have to give me due process before firing me.”
“No, you’re set, because your union is too strong.”
I squeezed my eyes shut.  “They really believe all this, don’t they?”
“Oh, yes—another way you’re overpaid is your health care benefits and retirement.  They should be factored into any discussion of your pay.”
“But why?  You also have health care and retirement benefits, thank God.  So do they.  Should we figure those things into their pay?  Are they ‘overpaid,’ too?” 
“No, we shouldn’t.  That wouldn’t be fair, you see.  And actually, they’re underpaid, not overpaid.  They do hard, important work.”
“I’d like to see them give my job a try!” 
He shook his head.  “Besides, you teach art.  Everybody knows that’s a fluff class.  Next round of budget cuts, they really should consider not funding it.” 
This conversation happened in 2003.  We had a rather uneasy laugh about it, and I got back to my lesson planning.  It’s probably just as well we couldn’t see into the future.

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Happy European Invasion Day!

In the US we celebrated Columbus Day yesterday, but today is the traditional date.  Whenever we celebrate this holiday, I believe we ought to think back to what we were taught in school about the history of our country. I was taught that Columbus “discovered” America, despite the fact that in 1994 James Loewen was able to document fourteen earlier explorations, including several responsible for the presence of humans in the “New World” at the time Columbus arrived (See Chapter Two of his book, Lies My Teacher Told Me).
Textbooks today no longer claim “discovery”—yet they still do not talk much about the human toll of the European expansion into the New World.  It has been variously estimated that between 40 and 80% of the indigenous population died as a result of the ever-growing number of Europeans who brought their diseases, weapons, cultural concepts of property, and policies of forced assimilation.  But how much emphasis do we give in our schools to a New World Holocaust that cost tens of millions of lives?
Do we tell first graders that Columbus was welcomed, and even rescued from shipwreck, by the Taíno people—and that he then went home to get more ships and soldiers, so he could enslave them to work in gold mines?  Not usually!  But it’s what he did.
For the Americans who already lived here, the arrival of the Europeans was nothing short of a catastrophe.  Yet I’ve seen it defended as a source of salvation (via Christianity), as “Manifest Destiny,” or as an “inevitable” outcome that it’s really a waste of time to fret over, now.
I think we owe it to our students (descendants from both sides of that struggle) to fret a bit.  We should tell more truth, less myth.  Happy Columbus Day.

Saturday, October 2, 2010

On Merit Pay for Teachers

I believe that excellence should be rewarded, and that teachers routinely go unrecognized and seriously under-rewarded in the monetary sense. 

But do the people who advocate merit pay as an “incentive” actually think that somehow teachers are “holding back”?  Do they imagine that we’ll “teach harder” if we are offered extra money?  If so, they have some really weird ideas about what motivates teachers!

There’s currently a popular mythology about “bad teachers” who need to be gotten rid of.  This is an ugly, distracting distortion.  It’s true some don’t live up to the calling, but the vast majority of us are here because we care, and we are doing the best job we know how to do. 

If you truly want to help educators teach children better, give us adequate funding across the board—with better salaries and professional development, and with quality materials and equipment.  Make sure our students have reliable access to good health care and nutritious food, and that they have safe places to live, in supportive communities where they all receive encouragement to learn (think “Harlem Children’s Zone”).

Sure, it’ll be nice for a few of my excellent colleagues to get more money because they teach well.  But don’t expect “merit pay” to make a discernable difference in outcomes, because it won’t.

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

The Artdog has a soft spot.

No, this is not my usual kind of education topic!  But I think we should all learn more about the problems of some of our homeless four-footed neighbors, and lend them a hand when they need it.  A well-run shelter is a community treasure.  If you know of one, please vote for them.  If you don't, please consider supporting my favorite with your vote: Animal Haven in Merriam, KS.