Tuesday, March 1, 2011

Teachers and Unions

My “day job” is counselor at a public high school. It’s always been gauche to talk about salaries, but I think maybe it’s time in America that we did. After sixteen years with my district, I reached the top of the salary scale four years ago—meaning I can’t get any more raises, no matter how long I work or how many credits I accumulate. My base salary is just over $64,000. (The salary scale is lower in many states, and nationwide, starting salaries for new teachers with bachelor’s degrees average just over $30,000 a year.)

I have good insurance, and my employer helps to make it affordable—but I still pay more than $800 a month. With only twenty years’ experience in public education (despite a good deal of previous experience teaching in colleges and private schools), my retirement income would be only a few hundred dollars a month, if it weren’t for my own investments. I have a master’s degree and enough additional credits for a second master’s and a Ph.D. I have paid for all those credits and educational clock hours out of my take-home pay—which, after taxes and all the various deductions, has averaged about $2,600 a month in recent years.

Compared to many people in the private sector, I do get generous vacations—a week in the spring, two weeks during the holidays, and as much as seven weeks during the summer. However, I’m always as close to my job as the nearest computer and—like the vast majority of my colleagues in education—I have spent many a summer taking classes, working in study groups, and otherwise honing my skills and working to improve education for our kids.

When I chose education as a career, I knew I’d never be rich. But like most people in my profession, I don’t do it for the money.

For the past two or three decades, members of the general public have heard very little good about American public education. Much of what they think they know is untrue. (I urge anyone who really wants to be informed about this topic to read an excellent book entitled The Manufactured Crisis, which is as relevant today as when it was published fifteen years ago.) Lately, one more negative myth has been added to the compendium of public misinformation about public education: that teachers and others who work with kids are spoiled, wasteful, and a burden to beleaguered state and municipal governments.

It’s not true, folks. From what I know as an “insider,” most school districts are about as lean as any bureaucracy can possibly be, and nobody in public education gets rich on the basis of their income. (There is ample evidence, too, for anyone who cares to look, that the same is true of public employers in general, including police and fire departments, public maintenance workers, and local governments.)

What we get from our unions—and it’s well worth the hundreds of dollars I pay annually in dues to my local, state, and national affiliations—is respect. In my district, as in many I know of, the relationship between district administrators and the staff who work with kids (including members of other unions, such as classified and secretarial staff) is an easy, simple, respectful way to communicate our needs, desires, and observations.

If I have a gripe or a good suggestion, I pass it on to my building representative, who passes it on to the local union president, who brings it up in regular meetings with district superintendants. The superintendants, in turn, may consult the elected school board. Questions are asked and answered, compromises are made. As with all compromises, people don’t always get everything they ask for—but they do get a respectful hearing and the opportunity to bargain for incremental improvements in benefits or working conditions. Morale is good, and everyone is able to focus most of their energy at work on the one thing that matters—our kids.

Virtually all the married teachers I know have spouses who also work, and almost all the single ones have second jobs. Education is no way to get rich—unless you’re talking about something other than money.

In general those us in public education get most of what we need to continue to serve kids and communities and very little beyond that. It’s a no frills kind of business. But if it weren’t for our unions, many more of us would get less—perhaps much less—than we really need to be fulfilled—personally and professionally—and to keep the focus where it belongs.

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