#371 – Mary Ellen Weller: Reflecting on Teachers, Teaching and the current situation in Wisconsin

UPDATE: Note response at end of this post.
Mary Ellen Weller is a retired teacher whose career was spent in Minnesota schools, and who presently lives in Madison WI. She responds to Dick Bernards National Teacher Day Reflection.
I read the text of your letter concerning teaching and the current attacks on teachers in general and our contracts in particular.
AND, I am inspired to share some thoughts. Here goes.
Teachers are nearly all people who are motivated to share, and not very motivated by money. We go into this profession because we enjoy learning ourselves and because we want to share our learning, and our enthusiasm for learning, with the next generation. We make this decision with our eyes open, knowing we are never going to be rich.
In the 1990s, when the economy was more robust, a younger friend said to me that she couldn’t understand why anyone would choose to be a teacher. She observed that I worked very hard and noted that “Teachers don’t make any money and they have to put up with all those squirrely kids”. She also said, “well, thank God someone’s willing to do it”. At the time she was approaching 30 and her salary was more than double mine. She worked for a large corporation.
About the same time I had colleagues who looked enviously at the greener grass of corporate jobs with starting salaries that equaled the top pay step in our teaching contract. Some actually left teaching to join the economic boom, or the real estate bubble. The rest of us kept on making lesson plans and exploring ways to improve our teaching. We often reminded ourselves that we did have a good bit of security, good benefits, and a dependable retirement. After several of the mining companies on the Range went bankrupt and employees lost even those supposedly secure retirement programs, it was a solid consolation. People like my young friend always continue to deride teaching as a profession. They often think we are saps or perhaps unable to ‘make it’ anywhere else. I Thank God those people are not licensed to be in my grandchildren’s classrooms!
In 2011, it seems to me that some of these corporate people are now the envious ones. Some have learned the hard way that along with the tremendous opportunity of the corporate ladder, there is also tremendous risk. Unemployment is up, salaries are down, benefits are not as freely and readily available as before. Suddenly, those saps who are teaching seem to have a good deal and the attack is on. The proposals explain that teachers and public employees should share in the economic downturn. Never mind that we did not share in the boom times.
Nonetheless, I still think that teachers and other public employees are motivated to share. Rather than cut excellent programs like Social Security, Medicare, state healthcare programs like Wisconsin’s BadgerCare program, we should be extending them to the entire population. Some say we can’t afford it. The truth is we can’t afford not to do it. Continuing to develop policy based on envy and resentment will harm our society in very fundamental ways. It should be just plain impossible to loot retirement funds. Tax cuts? This is not the time. Rather than fight each other we all need to share.
Sooooo, I’d be happy if you would comment and continue this dialog.
Mary Ellen’s e-mail is her first, middle, last name as one word AT aol.com
She has previously written for this blog: here.
Her background: First teaching assignment was as a Teaching Assistant for the level one French classes at the University of Minnesota in 1968.
BA-French, BS-French and Spanish certification, and MA-French all from the University of Minnesota; 19 years at Apple Valley (MN) HS and 7 years at Mesabi Range Community and Technical College in Virginia MN.
She took a few years off from teaching when her son was little; and did a year as a Fulbright Exchange Teacher in a suburb of Paris.
She now substitute teaches in the Madison WI Public Schools.

Dick Bernard
: To Mary Ellen: speaking in general, from lifelong experience growing up in a family of teachers, being a teacher myself, and then serving a long career representing teachers, I agree with your analysis.
Very, very briefly: collective bargaining issues were almost always framed by both ‘sides’ in economic terms (things with an economic cost) that the local newspaper could understand and report, but the true underlying issues – the ones which got a contract ratified or rejected – were, in my opinion, more often than not around issues of basic respect, often on what most would consider tiny items such as, can the teacher be trusted to take personal leave only when necessary, that sort of thing. Money was important, yes; but, when a package was ratified, almost always there was some “respect” provision included.
Business notions of teachers and teaching, on the other hand, seem most often to be based on the traditional business model: put someone in charge, pay him or her well and make them CEO of the school district, or of the school or of the Department. “Respect” comes from raising test scores, getting rid of ‘dead wood’, or such….)
It was rare, in my experience, to find a teacher who lusted after CEO status (and salary); or to find a CEO type who successfully could manage a school, or teach. Still, the factory paradigm still seems to prevail in judging schools and teachers: hire somebody who’s willing to manage as if the school is a manufacturer of widgets; increase “productivity” (test scores); identify and get rid of the “ineffective” or “bad” workers on the floor of the shop.
Personally, I find myself most offended by the critics labeling teachers as “ineffective”. First of all, every day every classroom teacher is faced by numerous “judges” in students, parents, peers and – worst – themselves. Not all of these judges are fair or balanced (including the self-criticism). And they all have power to punish, whether deserved or not. Then comes the current mantra: make at least part of the evaluation the aggregate test scores of the students. This presumes that students can be forced to do their best on tests, when this is never true.
There is, I would agree, a lot of room for improvement. But the current method of threatening punishment is not the way to reform.