You’ve heard the expression, “I’ll shout it until I’m blue in the face,” well, public school teachers are blue in the face. We’ve been shouting for many years now—shouting about the attack on public education by Republican controlled state legislatures—shouting about the unfair and inequitable high stakes testing being tied to teacher compensation—shouting about pay that lags far behind other professional careers that require similar levels of education—shouting about how school choice vouchers take from the poor and give to the rich and how they are tantamount to a modern-day form of segregation—shouting about how all of these factors have been leading to a critical teacher shortage—we are blue in the face and we are tired of shouting…because, in many states, nothing has changed in all those years. In fact, it’s only gotten worse.
Teachers have just about had it and things are quickly reaching the breaking point. Any education insider reading my words understands me completely. A non-insider might be surprised, but you shouldn’t be…have you not heard us shouting? I’m beyond being angry. I have been scarred and hardened by the PTSD of the politics of education for so long that nothing even shocks me anymore. To teachers who’ve been around for the last 15 years or so, it sometimes feels like we’ve been hostages, battered for so long that there is no place left to hit us that isn’t already scarred. Our calls for help have stirred up temporary support for brief moments, filling us with false hope until the moment is gone and everything slams shut and locks us back into our desperate reality.
I’ve come here, once again, to shout to the four winds—hoping that my words will somehow reach enough people to make a difference. I’m here to warn you, and mark my words well, if things don’t change—and change drastically—within the next handful of years, public education could be in complete ruins. When that happens, ask yourself who will teach your children? For the rest of this article, I’m going to lay out several things that you may not realize are going on unless you’re an education insider. I am going to be frank and blunt. I am going to be brutally honest. If you already know about these things, please pass my words along to people you know that may not know about them. This information needs to get to everyone who is at all concerned about the future of education. Since I live and work in Indiana, much of what I’ll share next will focus on issues here in the Hoosier state, but you should also know that many other states are in a similar boat, I am just not as well-informed about their specifics to speak directly to them.
Let me begin to paint you a picture by revealing to you what a typical day in a typical public school is like right now, as many schools have returned to a full-time schedule for all students. Throughout the first semester of this school year, most schools I am aware of were in session on a limited basis (although I understand that some districts in more rural areas have been full time since day one). Hybrid schedules were used where half the students would come one day, then the other half the next. The students who were not at school in person would do virtual lessons at home. Even though this added a great deal more work for teachers to try and juggle in-person and virtual students simultaneously (a task that proved to be nearly impossible) at least that system kept class sizes low enough so that some degree social distancing could at least be attempted. Then, near the end of the first semester, we began hearing hopeful news about the vaccines that would be coming. And teachers were told by our government leaders that we were “essential front-line workers” who would be a high priority to be among the first in line to get vaccinated before schools would be opened back up for full scale attendance. But, after the second semester got going, we began to hear that schools would be allowed to reopen full-time without teachers having been vaccinated. And so it went. Now classes are full, social distancing was basically thrown out the window, and teachers were told to deal with it—that it could be done safely—and still we wait for vaccines to be made available to us “essential front-line workers. These are the kind of things that have been hanging over teachers’ heads for many years now, just another in a series of events where we are told that we are valued while being shown that in reality, that doesn’t seem to be the case.
There is more to the story of the reopening of schools that the general public should know about. It is just about impossible right now to get substitute teachers to cover classes. So what happens when a teacher is out sick and there is no substitute? There are several options and none of them are good. Often, instructional assistants, vital in helping teachers see that the special needs of students with IEPs are met, are pulled from their assignments and forced to cover an absent teacher’s class for the whole day. The negative ripple effect of that ends up harming many different classrooms instead of just the one. Another option that is being used is that teachers are being asked to double up on classes and take not just their own class, but the absent teacher’s class as well, thus creating an environment where there could be 50-60 or more students in one class. That’s way too much stress on any teacher, but many are stepping up to the plate for the good of students and doing it anyway. This is a factor that is not being addressed nearly enough when we talk about education reform. We need to pay our support staffs and substitutes better. It’s a thankless job and it is clearly not financially rewarding enough to get enough people to sign up to do it. It’s a very serious problem.
As the state of Indiana continues to rank dead last in increases in teacher pay, our governor and super-majority GOP led legislature continue to make hollow promises to increase funding for education. But as the details come out about their plans, it remains clear that their agenda is still to undercut public education and pour more funds into school choice vouchers. In an AP story released last week, it was revealed that more than a third of the proposed increased education spending in Indiana is earmarked for the school choice voucher system, which will be increased by almost 50% in the next two years. Make no mistake, this is a reverse Robin Hood scenario which, at its core, is a push toward the resegregation of schools. It might not be the completely blatant racial segregation of the past, but it is certainly financial segregation with plenty of racial undertones. If you don’t believe me, just consider what happened on the Indiana Statehouse floor this past week. The issue on the table was a township in St. Joseph County that wanted to defect from the racially diverse South Bend Community school system in order to join a nearby system that is more rural and predominantly white. When some black members of the Indiana House of Representatives took the floor to object to this proposed bill on the grounds of racial discrimination, they were actually booed by some Republican House members and at least one Republican representative later had to be physically restrained from angrily going after a female Democrat representative outside the House chamber. That entire scenario smacks of the 1950s all over again.
The weight put on teachers to make all students clear the same bar regardless of their unique starting points, abilities, and psycho-social make up by tying teacher pay directly to standardized test results began a chain reaction that has taken states like Indiana to the brink of a catastrophic teacher shortage. The state has made it very difficult for teachers in impoverished districts with loads of trauma-affected clientele to make a living wage because their low starting salaries remain stagnant year after year. Meanwhile, older, more seasoned teachers who taught for years before the game changed had their much better salaries grandfathered in. The result has created many schools across the state wherein veteran teachers might make twice the salary of their younger colleagues and those newer teachers see no hope of ever climbing the pay scale to even approach what thee older teachers make. I ask you, what would make you want to be a teacher if you were considering a career? Teacher turnover in underprivileged schools is ridiculously high. As the aging veterans like myself begin to retire, there will not be many lined up to take our places as schools of education around the nation are struggling mightily to recruit prospective new teachers. What we are seeing already with regard to the teacher shortage is only the beginning, it will get much worse, and soon.
And still, the super-majority GOP led legislature continues to look for more subtle ways to chip away at the rights of public school teachers. Just last week, Proposed Indiana Senate Bill 251 (and there are similar bills in the works in other states), if it passed, would singled out teachers’ unions by not allowing them to automatically renew members each year. Instead, teachers would have to go to the trouble of re-enrolling every year and personally requesting that their dues be automatically taken out of their paychecks. There is no other reason for such a law other than trying to reduce and weaken union membership. The fact that this was aimed only at teachers speaks volumes about what teachers have been dealing with for more than 15 years now.
I could go on and on here, but I’ve said it all before. I’ve been screaming it until I’m blue in the face.
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