Teacher protests symbolize desperation

After stoically accepting increasing demands without commensurate salary increases for years, teachers are fed up (“Arizona Teachers Are Out On the Largest Strike in State History. Here’s Why,” In These Times, Apr. 26). They’re showing their disaffection by engaging in more work stoppages so far this year than in any full year since 1993, according to the Bureau of Labor.

The combination of accountability demands, coupled with lack of adjustment in their salaries as adjusted for inflation, has resulted in revolts in West Virginia, Oklahoma, Kentucky, and Arizona.  Critics of such demonstrations say that if teachers don’t like what has happened since 1992, they can always quit.  That’s the same argument used when workers attempt to organize in any field: No one is forcing them to stay.

But there’s one difference. It’s one thing to recruit workers in factories and quite another to recruit college graduates to become teachers.  If the situation doesn’t improve, who will teach the young?  We’re already seeing this happen.  According to the California Commission on Teacher Credentialing, the number of people entering teacher preparation programs dropped by more than 55 percent between 2008 and 2012.  Nationally, the drop was 30 percent between 2010 and 2014, according to federal data. If teaching is such a plum, as some charge, why aren’t college grads flocking to the field?

Critics of strikes by teachers counter that college grads avoid making teaching a career because of the lack of opportunity to advance professionally.  But nothing has changed in this regard.  What has changed, however, is the growing gap between salaries and the cost of living.  Teachers are often forced to moonlight in order to make ends meet.  Dedication doesn’t pay the bills.

What about the argument that there is no money to pay teachers more? For example, Arizona hands out approximately $14 billion in tax exemptions, while taking in $9.8 billion in its general fund.  The latter is how the state pays for its schools. The difference accounts in large part for the state’s present situation regarding schools. Teachers there want per-student spending to reach the national average. I don’t think that demand is unreasonable.

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8 Replies to “Teacher protests symbolize desperation”

  1. Since the 1980s, middle/working-class wages adjusted for inflation have been pretty much flat. During that same time, teachers’ salaries — that back in the 1950s and early 1960s were below what we would consider “middle-class” — have increased to the point that by the early 2000s teachers’ salaries were above working-class and were at or approaching middle-class. In other words, today, when middle/working-class voters see the teachers’ salary scales as reported in the media, they see people who are earning as much or more than they are, often with better benefits than they have. And, of course, voters see teachers working a shorter day/year than the voters do.

    This is why, I think, voters today are much less supportive of teacher salary increases than they were back in the 1970s, 1980s and even 1990s. Back then, voters viewed teachers as good human beings doing an important job while earning lower salaries than the voters were earning. Today, voters may still view teachers as good human beings, but they also view teachers as earning the same or higher salaries than the voters are earning and with better benefits than the voters enjoy. So, the voters are less willing to pay higher taxes to support teacher salary increases.

    Of course, voters do not take into account that teachers today have a much tougher job than teachers did decades ago — teachers today must do much more, deal with more student misbehavior, walk on political eggshells and live with less job security. Likewise, voters, in viewing the teachers’ shorter work day/year, do not take into account the many hours that teachers work outside contract hours during the contract year.

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  2. Labor Lawyer: I understand the anger and frustration that so many people feel about teachers’ salaries. But a closer look reveals that much of their attitude is based on a vision of the job that no longer exists. Teaching used to be fun. But since the accountability movement began, teachers have lost autonomy. Every year it seems they are asked to do more with less. If teaching is such a lark, then why are fewer college grads than ever before enrolling in licensing programs? I’ve yet to hear a reasonable answer.

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  3. Mr/Ms Labor Lawyer – you don’t have a clue. For the next five years come out of your fancy office and teach. The only salary you will receive is from the school district. No more billable hours. Just straight teacher pay with all the dwindling benefits. Also, teach at a school with struggling students with many needs. Instead of reading about salaries in the media, see it in your paycheck.
    Then you can spend the summers paying for required professional development if you want to keep your job.
    I have a son, who as an electrician, has always made 2 or 3 times what I made as a teacher.
    With a family I had to work 2 and sometimes 3 jobs. For ten years I worked part-time for a transportation company who gave me better benefits than my school district, and they were free.
    I have a relative who at the age of 22 is making the same salary as a teacher in my county in FL at the age of 52.
    Do you have any idea how many hours a teacher spends after school and outside the classroom?
    Teachers would love to be able to charge billable hours and get the same hourly rate as lawyers.
    Unfortunately, you can’t buy groceries with dedication.

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    1. I am not arguing that teachers are overpaid or even fairly paid; teachers are definitely underpaid. In my above comment, I am arguing that in the 1950s/1960s, teacher salaries were significantly less than the median working/middle-class annual earnings and that now teacher salaries are much closer to the median working/middle-class annual earnings — sometimes higher than the working/middle-class worker’s annual earnings. This causes the working/middle-class voters, who previously viewed teachers as being underpaid, to now view teachers as being fairly or over-paid. Again, I’m not arguing that these voters are correct; they are not; teachers are underpaid for the quantity/quality of work they do.

      What has happened over the past 40 years is that the US working/middle-class has been “hollowed out”. Many relatively high-paying blue-collar jobs have been eliminated (due to the demise of private-sector unions, to technological advances, to globalization and to increased immigration — legal and illegal). Those jobs have been replaced by relatively low-paying retail and service-industry jobs. During the same 40 years, the number of college graduates has increased faster than the number of high-paying white-collar jobs. This has resulted in downward pressure on salaries in non-professional white-collar jobs that had previously been relatively well-paying. Teacher salaries over the past 40 years have increased at a faster rate than blue-collar wages and non-professional white-collar salaries — not fast enough to reflect the demands placed on teachers today but fast enough that many blue-collar and non-professional white-collar employees see teachers earning more than they do.

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      1. Labor Lawyer: One of the reasons that people resent teachers striking is that they see themselves falling behind. Perhaps it’s that unions no longer provide them with the raises they once enjoyed. It may also be that they think teachers have it too good when pensions and benefits are factored in. But I keep coming back to the same argument: What’s stopping them from becoming teachers if teaching is such a plum?

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  4. John: Although some suburban districts have been paying teachers $100,000 for years, they are outliers. The average teacher salary is well below that mark. That’s why so many teachers are forced to moonlight. Whatever autonomy they once had is now gone, replaced by standards imposed on them from on high. As a result, morale is shot. It’s a bleak picture that I expect to get worse. Little wonder that college grads are avoiding enrolling in teacher preparation classes.

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  5. I have a granddaughter in first grade this year. I am impressed, astounded, amazed….at the amount of work her teacher must do just to keep up with all the personal comments and attention she gives to my granddaughter which means she does the same for the other twenty-one kids in the classroom.
    Teaching as a profession, and I taught for a while as a high school English teacher, chugs along because many people enjoy it, get satisfaction from it, or maybe don’t know what else to do.
    Just as a curiosity I looked up the average starting salary for elementary teachers in the US and it is under $45,000. (I happen to think the first grade teacher is the most important of all.)
    Once respected, even revered, teachers are not so much anymore. When did that happen and when does it happen? When will my granddaughter stop looking at her teacher as an iconic figure and begin to wonder why her teacher isn’t doing something that pays more?
    This is such a complicated question but the respect teachers once had wasn’t all passively lost, was it? I have to believe that teachers played some part in the deterioration of the perception of the profession, didn’t they? What can they do now? Anything?

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  6. DK Hatton: You make some very important points. There have been several explanations for the loss of respect that teachers in this country once enjoyed. I think one of the reasons is that when teachers stood up by striking they began to be seen less sympathetically. In other words, they were perceived more as mercenaries than missionaries. Of course, both characterizations are exaggerations. But people tend to form stereotypes. I don’t think education will be recognizable here in the next decade. There is too much on the line to allow for the status quo.

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