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Wednesday, August 31, 2011

My Thoughts At The Start Of This School Year

As September approaches, all of the families and schools in Wisconsin are preparing for another school year. I would like to say that the start of this school year is like any other I've experienced; the reality, however, is that we are only starting to understand the impact of the "tools" Governor Walker gave to local school boards. When I think about work, my mind sinks into these two familiar tracks: Why does our school board hate those who work closest with students? Why has our union abandoned us? When I am at school preparing for the students who will be walking through my door this fall, I have to continually shove these thoughts out of my mind. I have yet to find an effective way to ease the feeling of being disrespected and used by both organizations.

On March 14, 2011, teachers in the School District of Mauston received a document titled “Acceptance of Contract Renewal To Teach And/Or Provide Educational Services” from the School District of Mauston. One line on this document was in bold: “Failure to return the written notice of acceptance of the employment offer on or before April 15, 2011, will be construed as a rejection of the offered employment and will result in loss of your position.” We had to sign on and agree to take a job for which we knew no details: “...at this time, we are unable to advise you about your salary, benefits, and assignment for the 2011-2012 school year. Please be advised that an individual teaching contract will be transmitted to you at a later date.” To put it simply, this was a combination of a loyalty oath and a yellow-dog contract. We were agreeing to accept a job that would be contracted on an “individual” basis.

Though we were signing a document that attested to our willingness to act as individuals, the union advised us to add a paragraph to the document that, in part, indicated that we were agreeing to employment terms subject to negotiations between the school district and the Mauston Education Association. I remember thinking at that time how futile it was to write this passage on the document. This was after several visits to Madison, including one in which I saw 100,000 plus people surrounding the capitol. I came home after the last few visits not renewed with union spirit or buoyed up by solidarity; I was depressed that such a large demonstration of opposition was having no effect on what was happening in the capitol (aside from it being locked-down). Clearly I wasn't alone in being hurt by Walker's “budgetary” changes; but, it was just as clear that it didn't matter how many people showed up to express their distress. In the later visits I couldn't escape the feeling that we were begging for any scrap of recognition.

At the end of the school year (June 6, 2011) we received a letter from Steven Smolek, Superintendent of the School District of Mauston that promised us “[our] gross wages (before taxes, or other required deductions) will not be less than they are currently. In addition, once the dust settles in Madison and there is resolution to the status of Act 10, an individual contract will be provided to you prior to the start of the 2011-2012 school year.” And indeed when a contract was mailed to me on July 5, 2011 it placed my gross salary a few hundred dollars higher than last year's salary. However, it also contained another step reduction that puts me back at step one after ten calendar years and six years on contract with the district. In the letter attached we were informed that “The board members believe this schedule reflects a fair plan for all teachers.” This is just another indication that if we don't work together, details are missed. The board failed to understand that reducing staff members in steps (again) creates situations in which people are payed more simply by being new to the district. We no longer reward loyalty; we reward novelty. In our inservice we have been asked to have patience over this salary schedule issue. When final numbers of students are in we might get back some of the steps lost to get a “raise.” No promises, just more uncertainty.

There are many other changes at the start of this school year. One change actually hit us starting July 1, 2011. Our insurance program was changed so that we will have to pay more out of pocket for office visits and prescription drugs. This is just another form of pay reduction. All employees here in Mauston are trying to figure out how to live with take home pay that has been reduced by about 18% to pay Walker's tax on public sector workers. Now, with less money to begin with, we have to also figure out how to pay more for health care.

In addition to the salary issues, the school board has also distributed an employee handbook that they are repeatedly reminding us can and will be changed whenever they see fit. The us-versus-them mentality has been reinforced and now one side is at a great disadvantage. Instead of sitting down to work with us, our school board took Walker's "tools" in hand and quickly destroyed lines of communication, avenues of collaboration, and foundations of trust that had been built over the past decades. Any mutual respect that existed has been sacrificed on the fiscal altar to the false god of tax savings. It is also exceptionally transparent and disingenuous when our board tries to blame Walker; the school board could have chosen many options but they chose this path and now they need to live with the consequences. Also, the more times you say, “So, it isn't that much different than before,” the more you point out how wrong you were to choose the path you have taken. The message we received in our inservice about this new handbook is that only time will show us whether it is a resource that facilitates employee/management relationships or a “tool” that will be used to abuse employees. With our current board and administrative team I am not immediately assuming they will try to abuse us. But who knows what future boards or administrative teams will do. Especially in light of what happened in New Berlin last night, this stance about our own handbook doesn't instill confidence.

Through all of this I have had one nagging question in my mind: Where is our union? Another repercussion of Walker's "budgetary" changes is that the mission of the teacher's union is clearly no longer the furthering of public education; it is too busy trying to preserve itself. I understand that from WEAC's point of view this is necessary. The tactics, however, have been enough to make me question my continued membership. A public shaming of those who hadn't signed up by the end of the last school year (lead by one of our local co-presidents) and the fact that our district was in turmoil at the end of last year and state level WEAC representatives and UniServ workers only came by to give us a sales pitch makes it clear what the priorities are there. I know they didn't have answers, and I know that there were many schools going through the same turmoil. Yet, I can't help but feel ignored and under-served.

In May the teachers of Mauston received the second loyalty pledge of the year. This one came from WEAC in the form of an “Outstanding Balance” statement for a 2011-2012 membership. This document also contains a break down of where my $822 will go. Only $85 of that stays with the local union. Now, when we need to focus on what is happening at the local level so intently why is so much of the money for our dues going to the state and national level? I understand that there is work being done at those levels that this money finances. Some of that work I strongly disagree with though (such as NEA and WEAC embracing teacher evaluations).

I have signed up to maintain my membership for this year primarily because of fear of social stigmatization and because of the "pre-paid legal" aspect of WEAC membership. I have seen the quality of that legal service, and I'm not convinced that it is worth $85 let alone $822. I am seriously considering pulling my membership before the school year is out; I know I am not alone. It also needs to be said that with my reduced pay, the $70 per month is now even more significant. If I saw my investment in WEAC paying dividends, I could make due with the loss; paying for representation at any level that doesn't support my beliefs seems ridiculous.

If/when I do pull my membership, it is very important that my fellow teachers understand something. I will always stand beside them -- if they will allow me to. I do not support my colleagues because we are all WEAC card holders. I support them because we are all doing a difficult job that demands we support each other or be completely ineffective.

More importantly, we are all navigating a life full of infinite complexity. What more than that do we need in common? As many of you know, I experienced two great losses in the last year and a half. My fellow teachers where there to support me through it all. I was struck by a simple truth this summer as I worked on the task of organizing and editing ten years of collected digital images. One image from the February 16, 2011 rally in Madison caught my eye. The woman in the picture is holding a sign that reads: "I'm a member of the union of human beings; I stand with you." This is exactly the feeling that has grown in me over the last few months. I support the people I work with because we are all in this together.

At our recent union meeting, biting language and judgmental expressions were aimed at teachers who have dropped their union membership; this was distasteful and seems misdirected. People were being judged based upon a different belief or set of priorities; their interpretation of the facts of their life pointed away from union membership. They aren't wrong, just different. If MEA/WEAC/NEA continue down this path, we won't have to worry about administrators or school boards destroying the profession. We will accomplish that on our own.

I have also found reasons to question my continued support of WEAC because of the history of WEAC and Wisconsin's labor movements. The most important event is the the Hortonville teacher strike of 1974. The teachers who went on strike and stayed on strike (84 of 88) were fired by the school board. In 1978, the United States Supreme Court ruled that it was not a conflict of interest for the Hortonville school board to act as arbitrator in the disciplinary hearings against the striking teachers. The ruling states that the due process clause of the Fourteenth Amendment was not violated by the process the Hortonville school board used.

This decision sealed the fate of our union. In the decades since then, local teacher unions have been recognized as the body capable of negotiating work conditions and pay packages for its members. Binding arbitration meant that both parties had to sit down and negotiate. There was no other option aside from bringing in an outside arbitrator. This system worked well for the local school boards and the state because they didn't have to worry any more about teachers going on strike (as it is illegal) and as long as they gave teachers a little bit of a raise every couple years no one complained. Not until the Qualified Economic Offer (QEO) were there teacher strikes again. Those strikes were also far less divisive to the communities they happened in. The QEO limited yearly total package increases to 3.8% per year. With only few exceptions, negotiations in this time rarely went beyond whether the teachers wanted the 3.8% to go to benefits or salary. Typically, most of the 3.8% was used up in maintaining existing benefit packages. Rising health care costs meant that those benefits were also slowly eaten away (especially in the last 15 years). Strikes and other work actions are simply no longer an option; most people can't afford to get fired and the union has no way to protect teachers from that consequence.

Aside from violence (which is almost always counterproductive), the only true "tool" a union has is work stoppage. With that off the table we are left with only one avenue for changing our lot. We need to educate the people about the necessity and importance of education. People need to know why we have chosen to go into education. The value of an educated populace needs to be made clear. Those kinds of lessons can really only be taught over time while being in close contact with people. WEAC's mission is noble but the burden to maintain itself and the complexity of this new situation makes it ineffective. We need to be acting systematically at a local level; I see WEAC not being able to support that mission.

WEAC talks about advocacy and they spent quite a sum on a big advertising campaign last year (a planned campaign that started before Walker's shenanigans) that boasted of its 98,000 members. Those behaviors, however, are more typical of a professional organization or a marketing board. Perhaps another reason I am considering whether or not I will continue to be a member is that it isn't clear to me what WEAC will become. Or will they continue to try to be some blend of marketing board, professional organization, and union.

A marketing board does just that; they promote the group or industry they represent. The Cattlemen's Beef Board for example brings you the "Beef, It's What's For Dinner" advertisements. WEAC, then WEA, started as a third type of group in 1853; it was a professional organization. A professional organization can be much more than a simple marketing machine. They can be involved in regulation and licensing of professionals in a career field for example. Perhaps WEAC and NEA will take on this role since they have been so quick to embrace the teacher evaluation/merit pay approach. Regardless of what it becomes, WEAC is no longer purely a union and it hasn't been since 1978 when the right to strike was stripped away and never regained.

WEAC and NEA are still politically significant and have the potential to influence a lot of decisions that will happen in the years to come. That power, however, does not come from individuals standing together at the local level; the power comes primarily from marketing and lobbying. Embracing “teacher evaluation and accountability” has little to do with what is best for educators, schools, students, or communities and everything to do with political maneuvering. Perhaps another question I have is what influence can I have over the direction of WEAC/NEA? I do not support the direction WEAC and NEA are heading right now. How can I change that? The existing evidence tells me that I cannot.

The union I feel abandoned me, never really existed. When I was longing for action I was hoping for something that was never going to happen. Until or unless the situation gets so bad that we all are willing to risk losing our jobs we cannot and will not have a true union. I wish I could go back to the feeling I had last January when WEAC was like a security blanket. The true fight for union rights didn't start in February of 2011. It was started in 1974 and mostly abandoned in 1978. Instead of demanding our rights we have been settling for various forms of political compromise for over three decades.

I can pay my $822 and pretend that the union will do what is right or I can keep the money and actually work with my fellow teachers on the issues that affect us locally. When I see a fellow teacher being treated poorly, I can keep my head down and say, “oh the union will take care of it.” Or worse yet, “Serves her right for dropping her union membership.” I feel guilty about responding this way in the past. We all know teachers who were driven out of a job while we sat silent; we sat silent, in part, because our “union” told us not to worry or take any risk by getting involved. My guilt alone, however, isn't likely to make me speak out in the future; I know I cannot live up to this high ideal because the potential risks still outweigh any potential benefits I might achieve. A union requires that self preservation be inextricably linked to preservation of the group and all of the individuals in it. The economic, political, and societal realities of today make this difficult to achieve.

I understand that I haven't presented answers here. I don't have any feasible plans for how we should proceed. I simply know that what we are doing now will not get us where we want to go; bottling up my feelings and trying to ignore them would only make me bitter. Trying to ignore the systemic problems we have will only make them worse as well. My local school board and my union aren't helping me to achieve my professional or career goals. I don't think I have ever been less certain about the future of education or about my role as an educator than I am at the start of this school year. Amy Tan wrote about her difficulty in returning to writing after a serious illness: “I wanted to feel grateful again to be part of the world. Gratitude led to a generosity of spirit, and that was what my soul required so I could write.” I will have to dig deep to find things to be grateful about so that when I am standing in front of my students on Thursday (and every day this year) I can freely give my best.

Bibliography:

Big Labor In A Small Town: The Hortonville Teachers' Strike
(-This link seems to be dead and I cannot find another link on the UW-GB site for this article. I have a saved copy.  If you want to read it, let me know.)

Ending Collective Bargaining Would Risk Return To Teacher Strikes
WEAC History Book

Wisconsin Labor History

Wisconsin State Statutes Chapter 111: Employment Relations

Wisconsin State Statutes Chapter 118: General School Operations

Tuesday, August 02, 2011

Playing The Game With New Rules

One of my high school teachers gave me a piece of advice that helped me get through many difficult situations: “You have to learn how to play the game. You have to figure out what the person in charge wants and do that.” In the last six months, the game of teaching has become much more difficult. Yesterday I signed and turned in my contract for the 2011-2012 school year. The form of this year's contract is very much like those I have signed in the past. This time, however, there was no negotiation or discussion between me (or a party that represents me) and the school district. The only choice was sign the contract and agree to the prescribed loss in income, the unilateral work rules, and the worrisome potential of future changes or don't sign and be unemployed. Contrary to the popular rhetoric, the changes in Wisconsin's public sector employment rules have not freed me from the "bonds of a union" to allow me to "negotiate" with my employer one-on-one as equals. These changes have allowed my employer to dictate pay and work rules on a take it or leave it basis. These rules can also be changed at any time and I will only have a 30 day notice of the change (and that 30 day notice isn't a certainty either).

This contract signing was drastically different from my first contract signing at the start of my years in the classroom. Then, I was excited and happy; I was grateful for the opportunity. I felt a little bit of ownership. I now had classes to make mine and students to help as they prepared for their futures; I was overwhelmed and yet eager to take on a position that gave me such a grand purpose and an important mission. I still have that drive to fulfill a purpose and I know that it is still an important mission. This time, though, it felt like I was signing my contract at gunpoint. I feel powerless and marginalized. I know that to preserve my employment I have to resign myself to not speaking what I know to be the truth about education in order to play political games, so much for being a respected professional.

While our school board (with the help of Governor Walker's "tools") can't take away my right to speak, they have created a situation in which I have every reason to remain silent. For example, if a new initiative that I know to be educationally unsound is introduced by the principal of my school or the superintendent of the district, I have to consider the relative value of speaking up and making myself a target for future retaliation. I don't have any particular reason to believe that the current administration is this vindictive or reactionary; however, they might not always be here, and how can I ever truly know that my challenge will not have conscious or unconscious consequences somewhere down the line. This risk has, of course, always existed, but now the nature of the possible consequences is much harsher.
If our mission is the education of children, don't we need everyone actively involved in both the decision making and the day to day operations of the school? The people who actually work with the children now have a reason to no longer seek out support, advice, and cooperation from their administrators. Politically difficult situations will now arise many times in every school day. Student discipline, student grading and assessment, supervision of clubs, coaching, and many other daily activities now become a game of balancing what I know to be right versus what the politics of the situation dictate. Most often, staying silent and going with the flow will be the choice made. How can I encourage students to embrace what they know to be true about themselves as they plan for their adult lives when I have to forgo my own professional and personal truths in order to maintain my employment?

I have learned over the years that my teacher's advice to “play the game” didn't mean that I had to just be a follower. As a professional, part of playing the game is having both the expectation and freedom to give input based on my knowledge and experience. The rules have clearly changed. “Playing the game” now could mean either doing away with important personal and professional values or putting my career and livelihood on the line. I have always been a calculated risk taker; the calculations have become far to complicated to be certain of anymore.

Monday, July 11, 2011

A Letter: "Seeds Of Disharmony"

I submitted the following letter to the school board and most of the administrators in the Mauston School District on July 11, 2011.

----------------------------------------

Dear Leaders of the Mauston School District,

I am grateful for my job in the Mauston School District.  I have become a better teacher and a better person because of the experiences I have had here.  Some life-long friendships and life changing lessons would not have come to me if I had never been employed here.  I have been given so much, AND I have also given much back.  However, even before Walker's new tax on public workers I was starting to feel like I was giving more than I was getting back.

I am as reasonable and rational as anyone.  I understand that Governor Walker has put every school district in the state in a position of having to make difficult decisions.  However, I am deeply troubled by the choices that have been made in Mauston regarding the salary schedule.  I am also troubled that the educators in the district are being asked to sign a contract without any details relating to working environment, hours, sick days, etc.  I will, however, limit the rest of my comments here to the salary schedule.

As rational and reasonable as I am it is difficult to completely disconnect myself from my emotional reaction to all of this.  I cannot help but feel that I am being penalized twice:  once by Walker's new tax on public sector workers and a second time by a Mauston School District policy decision that punishes people for being loyal to the district.

I graduated from college in December of 2001 and in January of 2002 I started substitute teaching in Mauston and continued to do so the following school year.  I was hired under contract for a part time teaching position for the 2003-2004 school year.  I then went back to subbing and also worked as a tutor and after school alternative education teacher (not under contract).  I was then rehired full time under contract for the 2006-2007 school year.  I have been a full time employee since then.  My nine years of experience in the district (five under contract) apparently don't count for anything to those making decisions about pay.

I know that my gross pay is actually a few hundred dollars more than it was last year.  However, I have been moved back down to step one.  This is the result of two rounds of step reductions.  This means that someone new to the district also with five years of contract experience will make approximately $3,000.00 more than I will.  How much will that amount to over a career?  I know it might be petty thinking and may be pure jealousy at work, but I cannot help what I feel.  I know that this move will plant the seeds of disharmony.  I would like to pretend that I am a better human being than that.  I strive to rise above such pettiness.  However, I'm also very honest, and I know that I will not be the only one struggling with such feelings FOR THE REST OF MY TIME HERE IN MAUSTON.

On a more rational level, I find another problem with this salary schedule.  It is great that it benefits new hires to the district.  We have for too long paid too little to those just entering the district.  But that correction has come at the expense of everyone else in the middle of the pay schedule.  This decision has given educators an incentive to leave the district.  The only way I can benefit financially from my years of experience is to leave this district for another. 

Governor Walker certainly created a difficult situation for our district.  This was supposed to be the first year in quite some time without significant cuts to our budget.  The financial rug was yanked out from under the district.  That should not mean that we alter what we value.  I will remind you that our mission statement is as follows:  "The School District of Mauston, in partnership with families and community, is committed to educating students to set goals, think critically, act responsibly, and work cooperatively to become successful citizens."

We certainly have failed at working cooperatively, and it seems that critical thinking and responsible actions are also lacking.  I will not even argue that the leaders of the district have a responsibility to the employees; however, as an extension of the responsibility you have to the children of this community you need to consider how your policies effect the teachers in front of those children.  How is it a benefit to have teachers playing musical chairs from district to district?  With the direction we are heading, that will become common.  This is already the standard in the private sector. 

Thank you for taking the time to read this.  I hope you all will give serious consideration to these issues and will engage in a dialogue with teachers to help prevent such issues in the future. 

Sincerely,
Carney A. Lentz
Mauston High School English Teacher,
6-12 English/Language Arts CCC Representative

Friday, July 08, 2011

Poem - When I Tell You

Introductory Note:

Today, Colleen would have turned 52.  I have been searching for words to put down on this day; nothing profound or even pedestrian came to me.

So I started looking through my poetry scrap heap and I found this poem.  Colleen and I had a very good relationship, better than most.  That doesn't mean that we didn't have our rough spots.  I have long since forgotten the specific circumstances that led me to write this poem but I remember the feelings that inspired it.
 
No relationship is flawless, and the flaws that any couple must deal with are particular to that couple.  It would be a disservice to not remember the hardships that Colleen and I did overcome.  Rose colored glasses make everything look fake and unreal.   They cheapen a life's actual value by making everything less satisfying and rewarding.  Colleen was no saint and neither am I; we were two equally flawed people who happened to find a little bit of happiness in our time together.  Learning to cope with or forgive each others' flaws made us better people.
-----

When I tell you the
small details of my day
I am looking for validation;
I am looking for someone
to say that I’m not crazy for feeling
the things that I feel.

You get angry,
you get overwhelmed by my over analysis
(is that like saying that you
don’t care?);
it is saying that I am
wrong.

I touch you with love
and the hurt and pain
come from somewhere,
somewhere other than me
and yet the anger
and fear are
aimed at me.

I get angry,
I get confused,
it is like saying that you
don’t love me;
it is saying that I am
wrong.

Can what we will never
have be replaced by
what we do have?
The ongoing discussion
leads me to believe;
it all leads me to believe…

We get angry,
we get confused,
it is like saying we
don’t matter;
it is saying that I am
wrong.

Sunday, May 22, 2011

Photo & Poem - Speak, Girl, Speak

I hold my brindle
best friend in my arms
as you did so often.

I ask her if she
remembers any secrets
you told her.

I know you had
conversations
with the animals.

I loved that
about you;

I try to talk to them
too, but
they don't speak to me.

When I call,
"Hi there little birds,"
the flock flies away.

I also still
tend to hug
the cats till
they cry.

Our dog
is always by my side.
The cats
rush to climb
on me when
I come home.

Am I sad for them,
or me,
or you
that I am only
a suitable substitute
for you
in their minds?

They are full of life
and love,

but I must
prepare for
the day
I have to hold them
in my arms and

lie

to them

the way

I lied

to you.

Friday, May 13, 2011

Poem - My Righteous Kill

I killed
a spider this morning.
It fell
twitchingly to ground
from door frame, and
the blunt end of
my pen was
covered with its
soft tissues.

I killed
it in retaliation for
the brown recluse who
bit my mother;
I killed
it to keep others from
suffering.

I rinsed
off my pen in the
water fountain and upon reflection,
understand
how fortunate
men are that
spiders do not
behave like men.

Sunday, May 08, 2011

Poem - The Mother Of Certainty

In Mother's home
there will always be a kettle
of hot water for tea on the stove
(or a pitcher of iced tea in the fridge),
a jar of peanut butter
on the table, and
a container of the tempting results
of a recent baking session.

It may be unwise to take
comfort in these few bits of
certainty when life is so
unsure. How else do you
drown out the ticking of the
death clocks winding
down all around?
The loudest of which is
our own.

I was grief stricken and
wallowing when she said,
"Now you have to do only
what Carney wants.
You have to figure out
what you want."
Of course this was said with
love; it was also said with
an appropriate amount of
sadness and anticipation.

Mom has shown me that
life is to be enjoyed,
loved ones are to be held close, and
acceptance of a truth is always
the first step. Doubt your choices
while moving on;
life is meant to be lived
and remembered.

Sunday, April 17, 2011

So, You Want To Be A Teacher?

Last week a colleague of mine was drafting a speech that she would deliver to a group of college students planning on going into education.  She asked a simple question of the teachers who crossed her path on the day the speech was to be presented: "What can I say to them that is positive?  I don't feel I can be a cheerleader for education anymore."

I have been personally struggling with this very question.  Well before the mess that Governor Walker made of my career I was questioning the direction of education and the way public education was perceived and portrayed in our society.

Public education has unfairly become an easy target for blame in all societal, economic, and political debates.  Every politician claims that he will be the one to finally "fix" education.  Unfortunately, those politicians are "fixing" education in a way that is more like a puppy in for spaying than an automobile in for a tune-up.

Wrapped up in my colleague's question is a chain of other questions inspired by such an environment.  Why did I go into teaching?  How do I stay positive with my students when I don't feel valued?  Can I still make a difference?  Is it still worth it?

The short answer to the questions above is that I perceived education as valuable to the future, valued in the present, and a worthwhile way to spend a life.  I also understood that I would be making enough to pay my bills and have benefits there for me to help me through the worst times.

Experience has made me aware of both my naiveté and my insight.  It is from this experience I would draw upon to try to inspire future teachers while also doing my best to be honest with them:

What you do to make a living should reflect what it is you value most. 

Education is, indeed, a worthwhile activity.  Regardless of where I actually wound up working I would have personally valued the situations in which my job allowed me to train, teach, and help another human being grow.  I value the story of a life; I know that lives take the most dramatic turns as a response to new information, understandings, and experiences.  Teachers often talk about this as the "light bulb" or "aha" moment.

Teaching can provide a lot of these moments.

I have also learned that I should have gotten out of the academic bubble as soon as I was hired.  It was too easy to focus only on what was happening in my classroom because I believed that the union would take care of the politics, my salary, and my benefits. The union can be helpful but as an uninformed and uninvolved teacher I was implying consent to many policies and practices that I don't agree with.

A teacher must accept that he has little control over what he will earn.  Part of the reason I chose to go into education was that it was supposed to be a guarantee of financial stability.  I chose stability over the potential for excess wealth.  Unfortunately, this choice isn't valid anymore (or is at least far less universal and certain). 

I know that teacher salaries will be cut, and I fear that those cuts will be drastic now that the possibility is there.  I also understand, though, that the people making this choice will have to be realistic as well.  There will likely be some bad years, but unless we do away with public education, salaries will have to provide a living (and hopefully incentives) to dedicated teachers.   

Going into education today means that you have to accept that you will make less than similarly educated peers with equivalent experience.  This is nothing new; I had to accept this as well.  Now, however, you will also have to settle for a much more limited benefit and retirement package.  This means that you have to be more careful in planning medical expenses and retirement benefits.  In other words, this is just one more thing you can't ignorantly let someone else manage for you. 

Remember that you should pick a career based upon what you value most.  I'm reminded of the old saying about marriage: "a person who marries for money will earn every penny."  A profession is like that as well.  If you chose a profession simply because it pays well, you will leave work every day with a full wallet and an empty heart knowing that the next day will be just as unfulfilling.  Can you live with that?

Since February 11th I have had many difficult days.  I have had days where my profession and my person have been misrepresented and maligned.  There are times when the unknowns become overwhelming and I have to withdraw from the fray to restore my sanity and see the bigger picture:  I have always done the best I am capable of with my students and I can be proud of that.  Even with a cut to my salary I will still be living better off than 90% of the world's population.  While I cannot change what is happening in the politics related to my profession, I can still work to change for the better the lives of the students in my classroom.  While "What will happen in my future?" is always an unknown, I always have control over "What will I teach today?"

***** 

I have a bonus piece of advice for future teachers:  seek out the advice of the "senior" members of the staff.  This, in itself, is a political minefield.  However, an experienced teacher you know can be trusted will be your best ally.  They will not judge you harshly for your weaknesses and they will likely confess to their own.  If you are moving to a new town, they will have advice on everything from who is the best mechanic to how to handle that difficult student in third block.  Age does not automatically equate to wisdom or integrity, but those who have all three are worth taking the time to get to know.

Sunday, April 03, 2011

Re-Strung Necklace

Poem - Four Views of Your Hands

I
Woven between my fingers,
your essence and
your power. You are
the warp; I am the weft.
When our hands move
we make a pattern
that rivals the rarest
Persian rug.

II
I hear your music and
soul in the clicking keys;
your fingers make deep,
moving currents of your
love on the page.
I am amazed at the
way pain and love can
be conveyed by such a
singular, monotone that
only changes in frequency,
not in quality.

III
With one hand you are
able to control the car;
I hold the other so
that I can distract you
from your driving.
We roll along in ecstasy.

IV
There is wisdom and experience
in your perpetually cold hand;
Rubbing, and kissing only warms
it for a moment. As I trace the
contours and lines around the
nails, I see a flush come to your
face; I know your hand will be
warm for some time now.

Note: This is an old poem. I'm not certain when I wrote it; I do
know it had to be early in my relationship with Colleen. I don't
remember if I shared it with her either. I hope I did.

Viterbo & La Crosse 3/31/11

Thursday, March 17, 2011

Letter to the Editor 3-17-11

I have submitted this to the local newspapers.  I'm not sure that they will publish it so I am also posting it here:
*****
For me, being proud, frustrated, and exhausted is all part of a profession I love.

I have worked in education since I graduated from Viterbo University in December of 2001.  I cannot describe the pride I felt five years ago when I signed my first full-time contract with Mauston. 

I am frequently frustrated as a teacher; certainly every job has its frustrations.  Students, colleagues, administrators, and parents all have their ways of creating “problems” for a teacher.  I learned that dealing with those frustrations was one of the challenges of the job.  While I have never looked forward to frustrations, I have learned to deal with them and learn from them.  I have become a professional.

Part of being a professional is that you are able to make plans to achieve the best possible outcome while coping with the reality that plans are often disrupted.  That ability comes only with experience. 

Being exhausted at the end of a day of teaching is perfectly natural.  Teaching requires a person to be "on stage" from the time he enters the building to the time he leaves.  As much as I loathe the modern thinking that we must entertain to educate, there is a bit of truth to that idea.  It might not be immediately evident that my job is physically taxing, but it is mentally and emotionally draining every day.

Lately, however, my sense of pride is fleeting.  Even before Governor Walker's budget bills targeted public workers (and education specifically) for cuts, I was becoming overwhelmed with an understanding that our society looks down upon teachers.

I am frustrated that my professional voice, the one that I have worked long to develop, is being ignored in so many ways.  I am also frustrated that those in a position to demonstrate support for me and my fellow teachers have done little to let us know what we are worth.

I am exhausted bordering on depression everyday now that it has been made perfectly clear how little my contributions to society are valued.  This goes beyond money and benefits; this also goes beyond the town of Mauston.

 A few people with the right amount of power and influence have for far too long portrayed my profession as populated with “slobs,” “those who can't,” and the “lazy”.  These are all too ridiculous to even consider.

Everyday that passes without a substantial show of support from the community plants more seeds of doubt and despair in every teacher's heart.  Good people will leave this profession because all of the evidence tells them they are not valued.  Others will have to leave because they cannot financially support their families on what is eventually left to us.

What gives me hope is that I know that this disregard for my profession isn’t universally felt.  In the last year, I experienced some terrible times.  I know that I am valued because in those moments many people supported me, including my students.

A former student stopped by school last week.  This visit meant the world to me.  That is what I ask you all to do.  Let the teachers you remember know that you value them.  Email, call, snail mail, or visit.  Do more if you can; but please do at least one of these.

4/1/11 UPDATE: My letter was published in the Juneau County Messenger on 3/24 and received a response on 3/31.

Friday, February 25, 2011

Welcome to The Real World

I had a colleague ask me what she should say to family members who reply with “welcome to the real world” in answer to her concerns over this budget bill and the drastic decrease to school funding coming in the 2012-2013 budget. I feel sad that these people have had to accept work conditions that make them resent someone who has only slightly better working conditions.

First of all, she could encourage them to explore the history of unions. Labor battles were violent and bloody in the early days of the union movement. Both employers and unionists were responsible for this violence. The workers, however, were responding to generations of mistreatment, working conditions that threatened lives, and pay that kept them in poverty.
Unions help set the standards for all jobs; the 40 hour work week, weekends, and employer benefit programs are just some of the benefits everyone gains from the labor movement. So, anyone who is in a work environment that makes them feel envious should look into forming a union in their own work place. Start by contacting the National Labor Relations Board (nlrb.gov) or the national union organization appropriate to the specific trade. They should do so while private sector unions are still allowed.

In a world where the state dictates working conditions in “civil servant” rules (yet unwritten by the way) the ability of local governments (city boards and school district boards) to establish a work environment suitable for their individual needs will be limited.

For example, this will limit the ability of a school board to control class sizes. Since state funding (which is being cut as well) will be tied to limits on taxes, the ability to hire adequate teaching staff will be gone. Think you child is getting an okay education now? How good of an education will it be when the class sizes are doubled or tripled? I shudder to think what the consequences will be if the rumor is true that Walker is also looking to reject SAGE and Title I funding.

Our school district's board met on Wednseday, February 23 to give preliminary lay off notices. These layoffs were rushed and had to be made with little consideration of how they would impact student learning. We all know that education really isn't free; taxes are collected from various sources and used to pay for the teachers, buildings, and resources needed to provide this education. It is only “free” in that we don't collect admission at the door.

And that will likely be changing too. One of the ideas being considered to make our school's budget balance is to start charging fees for more classes.

These same reductions will likely happen in all areas. What happens when we hire fewer snow plow drivers? What happens when those who help people in need are cut?

One answer is that we will hire private contractors to do the work. This is ridiculous because we are still paying them money. When we had a snow plow driver who lived in this town and was paid by the town to do the work, his money went right back into the local economy. Okay, we might be able to pay a contractor a percentage less, but they are in turn hiring people at reduced wages. The only people who benefit from privatization are the ones who run the companies providing the service, and they will likely take that money out of the local economy.

Paying people you know a good wage to do a job they are good at shouldn't be seen as some sort of commie/socialist evil. This is the way the world should work.

Sunday, February 20, 2011

Moving Forward In Spite Of The Anti-Union Bill

Some teachers chose to go and protest. Others chose not to protest. There were those who chose to call in “sick” to go and protest; some chose to call in “sick” as a protest. Many chose to stay and teach. All of these voices have been “heard” in some way. Any one of these choices cannot be used as a ruler to measure an individual teacher's dedication to the profession or their commitment to the classroom.
Choosing to sacrifice a few days of school now is seen by many as insignificant when compared to the long term impact of this legislation. That is just as easy to understand as the counter argument that the inconveniences caused to parents is counter productive to our cause. I believe that we can agree there is valid reasoning on all sides.

Yet I'm also certain that there are teachers amongst us who support Governor Walker and this bill; these are the people who probably feel most alone right now. This controversy has brought the rest of us together to a degree that I've never seen before, while this group is excluded.

While I cannot agree with this last group on their politics, I also cannot agree that they are less worthy of respect or of having their voice heard. We cannot let this issue be yet another wedge to divide us. Instead we have to support each other as much as possible. We have to try to understand our colleagues whatever their position. We still have to work together, we all still (for now) have a job to do, and we do that job more effectively when we work together.

As a personal example of this, I had to resist greatly the urge to remove contacts from Facebook who expressed an opinion counter to mine on this issue. It is unhealthy to shut out anyone who disagrees with you. As long as it is done in a respectful way, it is good to have people willing to call you on you opinions and make you back them up.

Many of these same issues come up in connection with the students we work with. Some support the effort to stop the bill while others support Governor Walker. There have even been groups of students who have walked out in protest over this bill. While I am personally very grateful to these students, I cannot allow a political issue to influence the quality of education I give to individual students.

In fact, this very issue provides a great teachable moment. I have talked with many colleagues who are finding ways to deal with their personal political stance while still instructing students about the political mechanisms at work. I am very proud to work with so many people who care so much about the students they work with and endeavor to respect all of them.

I first want to make my students understand the importance of the democratic process; elections have consequences so it is incredibly important to get to know the candidates. More importantly, I want to emphasize to my students that life is complex, not simple.

This is not an issue of blue versus red or Democrat against Republican or liberal and conservative. The reasons Governor Walker proposed this bill are complex and the reasons it is being opposed so historically are equally complex. Since my discipline is English, I don't really have the chance to work through these complex issues with students in my curriculum. I can, however, encourage my students to reject any overly simplistic explanation as they try to understand the complexity of what is happening.

I can also model an acceptance of and attempt to understand differing opinions that they will all need (for this issue and for many to come the remainder of their lives); we need a generation that can rise above petty squabbles and make real progress. I can show them that a hardship (as the passage of this bill will be) should not interfere with obligations. I will show them what it means to do a job you are proud of even when that job is in jeopardy.

Trying to Accept That This Bill Shall Pass Too

I have had more opportunities to learn about the difficulty of moving on this past year than I had ever expected. The death of my wife, the death of my father, and now the attempted assassination of my profession individually have caused a crushing grief; all together, they make life very grim. Whether this bill passes or not, education in Wisconsin has changed forever; my life, and the lives of many people I know, will have also changed forever.

To be completely clear, I think that this bill should not be passed. However, I am realistic enough and have a great enough respect for the legislative process to recognize that this bill will likely pass without many changes to it. So, I have to start trying to understand how this will change my life.
The first thing to cope with is the unknown. We are all left with questions about work environment, income, and job security. I have heard rumors that Governor Walker's budget proposal for the next two years will contain even more drastic cuts in funding to education. We will have even more layoffs and even less income. I have found myself wondering: “How will I survive?”

So, while the protests are really about the bigger issue of workers' rights, all teachers in the state will have significantly less income in the very near future. I will share how this will affect me personally. My total salary package is $50,320.08. My gross income is $32,495.04. My take home pay is $24,465.36. With a 10% loss that take home pay becomes $21,215.86. That $3,000 loss will cause gigantic changes to my life. I also know that other teachers (and other public workers) will be hit even harder. People have made long term plans based on their salary. When they are no longer receiving that salary, they will lose homes, cars, and any sense of financial security.

The decision to become a teacher is complex and rarely made because of the salary. On the other hand, people definitely factor into that decision a desire to work in a professional environment that provides benefits and retirement that guarantee their families will be taken care of. Being a teacher also involves having input into the best way to achieve the goals of education. A lose of this professional voice is likely if this bill passes. The job of teaching becomes much more political and complicated. All that once provided security has now come into question.

I wish I had some great answer to all of this uncertainty. All I have to offer right now is something my brother-in-law said: “Anyone good at their job will always find work.” This is probably true. But even the potential changes suggested by this bit of encouragement are intimidating. Perhaps the only bit of wisdom I have to hold onto is: “This too shall pass.”

Saturday, February 12, 2011

A Deep Desire to Be Reviled is Not Why I Chose to Become a Teacher

I started writing this article under the title of “WEAC Has Let Me Down (and Why You Should Feel the Same)” after the announcement of the “'Moving Education Forward: Bold Reforms' Platform” by WEAC (Wisconsin Education Association Council) president, Mary Bell on Tuesday, February 8. You can find information about this proposal from this link:  http://www.weac.org/Libraries/PDF/WEAC_UNVEILS_MOVING_EDUCATION_FORWARD_-_BOLD_REFORMS_PLATFORM.sflb.ashx

The proposal by Bell was almost completely eclipsed by Governor Scott Walker's announcement on Friday, February 11 that he wants to make severe changes to the relationship between all unionized public employees and their employers. It is still important to take a look back at Bell's proposal as it emphasizes the sweeping significance of what Walker is proposing.

“Moving Education Forward: Bold Reforms” dealt with two of the most popular political topics in education: teacher evaluation and performance pay. It also included a plan to divide the Milwaukee Public Schools into several smaller sections; while this third component raises concerns as well, I want to focus on the first two reforms proposed.

In the press release linked above, Bell is quoted as saying, "The union is accepting our responsibility for improving the quality of the profession, not just for protecting the due process rights of our members. Our goal is to have the highest-quality teachers at the front of every classroom across the state.”

I disagree on a fundamental level; the only purpose of a union is to protect the rights of and secure benefits for its members. I understand the argument that the union can and maybe even should be involved in discussions about teacher quality as it might relate to helping preserve jobs. This proposal was, however, a very unsuccessful and near sighted attempt to insinuate the union into this process.

The proposal laid out by WEAC for teacher evaluation includes a component of teachers evaluating other teachers. Once you are passing judgment on a colleague you are no longer a colleague. While I understand the logic of having someone who is a classroom teacher be part of the evaluation process, I am all too familiar with the realities of human nature that will cause this program (if it is adopted) to allow teachers to be targeted unfairly for termination.

More over, this proposal might cause people to avoid actual constructive collaboration. I seek out the advice of colleagues all the time on classroom management issues, curriculum development, and specific teaching activities. In a future where my colleagues are in a position to judge the quality of my work, seeking such advice might give them reason to consider me a flawed teacher. Or if they have a personality conflict with me, they could use my genuine desire to improve my teaching as false evidence of my inability to do the job.

Such a radical change in position should have been put to a vote of the members. These proposals add considerably to the role of the union and alter the relationships between locals and school districts.

In the press release Bell goes on to say, “This is a pivotal time in public education and we’re in an era of tight resources. We must have systems in place to ensure high standards for accountability – that means those working in the system must be held accountable to high standards of excellence.”

I will interpret this quote sentence by sentence: The state legislature has made it clear they are not going to live up to their obligation to fund education. So, we have to figure out how to make all of these changes they want on the limited budgets we have - that means we are going to focus on the only thing the politicians care about, test scores.

All of these evaluations (test scores, evaluations, etc.) would be part of a pay for performance plan. These plans simply make no sense. It has been proven many times over the last 50 years that trying to pay someone for creative and/or cognitively challenging tasks is counter productive. On the other hand, pay for repetitive, manual tasks can encourage a slight improvement in output. So, are we believing the lie that we can pay for performance or are we saying that it is okay to dumb down the profession of teaching to the point where little cognitive effort is required?

Dan Pink explains the findings that prove the disincentive that pay for performance represents in this video from the TED Talks: http://www.ted.com/talks/dan_pink_on_motivation.html.

When you ask people to do the unlikely sometimes they are able to succeed; however, when you demand people do the impossible they will either cheat or resign themselves to defeat. We have already seen ample evidence of teachers and administrators altering test, removing failing students from rolls, and coaching students on test answers in order to meet the impossible to reach goals of No Child Left Behind.

Governor Walker's proposal adds just one more layer of difficulty to an already difficult job. No one does their best work when they feel they are under constant threat.

Mary Bell seems sincerely distraught in her response to Governor Walker's proposal: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LTfy8ZTEjzQ. I believe her when she talks about the reasons she got into teaching and became involved with the union. I also suspect that she is upset because her big political gambit failed and the impact of that failure is settling in.

I believe that Bell got into education for much of the same reasons I did. Becoming a teacher provided (what I used to believe was) a stable job in a community where I could build a life. It doesn't provide pay that will make me rich, but it pays the bills. Teaching allows me to be involved in a field I am passionate about while also working with young people. I have come to greatly appreciate the chance to see adolescents mature into young men and women.

In his own biography, Walker boasts about the small town values that he learned going through “lean times” in Delavan, WI. He seems to only remember the values of balanced budgets and “small government.” I suspect he must have learned a lot more than that.

Though times were tough Walker still got a good enough education to be selected for Badger Boys Nation, attend Marquette University (though he didn't graduate), and work for IBM. The proposal he has made will guarantee every student in this state receives a lower quality education than they should. As a teacher in another small town in Wisconsin, I wonder how Walker has forgotten other small town values such as the importance of an education that allowed him to “escape” that small town. I can't imagine what his former teachers at Delavan-Darien High School are thinking today.

Wednesday, February 02, 2011

Problems With Public School Choice

One of the many transformations happening in public education today (brought about by a corporate approach to running schools) is the increased "necessity" of marketing public schools. While also disturbing, I'm not talking about the use of public schools as places to market to children; I am referring to the practice of using public relations tactics and advertising campaigns to encourage students to attend a school/district other than their "home" school/district.
Most states now have some version of public school choice or "open enrollment." While this program existed before No Child Left Behind (NCLB), the language around it was very similar to ideas later reflected in NCLB. "Why should a student have to stay with a failing school?" "If a private school can provide a better education, why shouldn't it be an option?" NCLB made it a requirement that public schools notify parents of public school choice as part of the consequences for not meeting growth requirements for two years in a row. Most of the choice programs states have adopted make “open enrollment” possible even when a school hasn't demonstrated a history of “poor performance.”

From the point of view of citizens, choice programs have taken on several different roles over recent history. While voucher and choice programs might have initially been about allowing parents to choose a school that is the best fit for their child's abilities or that is more in line with their religious beliefs, NCLB made choice programs punishment for “failing” schools. Now, the near universal adoption of choice programs have made public schools develop bumper sticker slogans and take part in advertising competitions. Look at almost any Wisconsin school district website in the months of January and February and you will find open enrollment pitches prominently displayed. It is unfortunate but easy to understand why.
According to the frequently asked questions about open enrollment listed at the Wisconsin DPI website (http://dpi.state.wi.us/sms/psctoc.html) the following is what a student was/is worth to a school for a given school year:

1998-99 $4,543
1999-00 $4,703
2000-01 $4,828
2001-02 $5,059
2002-03 $5,241
2003-04 $5,446
2004-05 $5,496
2005-06 $5,682
2006-07 $5,845
2007-08 $6,007
2008-09 $6,225
2009-10 $6,498
2010-11 $6,796 (estimate)

In times like these, when local school budgets are so constrained, that “income” per student is undeniably attractive to administrators trying to make ends meet. At $6,796 per student, approximately every seven students who enter a district will pay for a teacher (approximately 22 students will pay for a district administrator and about 13 will pay for a building level administrator). While open enrollment (and districts' focus on it) might be argued to be a good thing, the negative consequences of this program need to be considered.

There are bad teachers. There are even bad schools. Open enrollment, however, encourages people to look for these two situations in too many places where it doesn't exist. Running away becomes an option when confronting the actual problems would be much more beneficial to the student. Not only is the grass rarely greener on the other side of the fence, sometimes your grass looks worse because you are neglecting it. Growing up is difficult and filled with hardships; learning from those hardships comes by confronting them not by running away.

Yes, maybe you have a terrible teacher. How can you learn from them anyway? Yes, maybe your school is struggling. How can you make sure that you learn from it anyway? Can you maybe even be part of making it better? Are there other people dealing with the same issues? Maybe you can work together to bring about changes. This might sound idealistic; it is, however, much more realistic than thinking a system that puts a price on each student's head will fix the problem.

Another problem with this system is the time it takes away from the true goal of public education. Administrators taking time to develop advertising campaigns and carry out public relations work lose time to lead curriculum development, maintain school environment, encourage professional skills in teachers, and maintain relationships with parents and community. Securing funding should not be the primary concern of people in these positions. With educational leadership receiving lower priority, teachers and students cannot be as successful as they should be.

If you look at the problem of school funding from a distance greater than the local school's balance sheet, you can observe the greatest insanity of the system. School funding is a zero sum game; there is a limited number of students to go around. More importantly there is a limited amount of money provisioned for funding education. The problem is not how many students attend your school; the problem is how much money the district is given for each resident student You can get a series of reports that show how the dollars and cents of open enrollment works in the state of Wisconsin from the DPI website (http://dpi.state.wi.us/sms/oedatrpt.html). This kind of spread sheet number crunching is great in the corporate world and it appeals to some school administrators as well. There are clear winners and losers. The problem with this approach is that we are not talking about producing widgets. What is a well educated person worth? How much should a K-12 education cost?

Fortunately, the solution is simple. Parents need to stop pulling their children out of a school unless there is an extreme circumstance. Schools need to stop chasing after the carrots that the politicians are dangling in front of them. The teachers' unions need to move beyond holding hands with the politicians and start having the difficult conversations with them about the consequences of what they are doing. Politicians need to find a new way to fund education that allows for local control and adequate funding while taking away the purse-strings control the federal government has over education. Okay, maybe these solutions aren't that simple; maybe they just makes sense.