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Tom | March 11, 2012

Mood Indigo

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ImagesCATDUPK1By Tom

According to a recent survey, teachers are unhappy. They’re more dissatisfied now than they’ve been at any time in the last twenty years.

Speaking for myself, I think it has to do with a certain coincidence. On the one hand, we’re feeling pressure from lawmakers and the business community to perform at a higher level; to increase student achievement across the board, regardless of student demographics. State legislatures - and the economists who inform them - have locked onto the fact that teacher quality is the most important factor in a child’s education: any child can learn, in any classroom, in any school, in any neighborhood, as long as they have a great teacher. With this mindset, school reform becomes a matter of passing rigorous teacher evaluation bills and simplifying the process of firing ineffective teachers.

On the other hand, the weak economy has meant budget cuts to education. Teacher salaries and in-class support have been reduced, while class sizes have gone up. The weak economy has also had an effect on the student populations that many of us serve. Over the last five years, my school’s free-and-reduced lunch rate has climbed from 30% to 50%.

In other words, we’re expected to do more with less; the perfect recipe for frustration, discouragement and dissatisfaction.

But so what? Who said we’re supposed to have it easy? Why shouldn’t we be expected to deliver a high-quality product for as low a cost as possible? I mean, from what I hear, things are tough all over. Why should education be the exception?

It shouldn’t. But at some point something has to give. You can't demand better and better results with less and less support.

And when the system begins to break down (if it hasn't already) guess where the first cracks will show up? To find out, you need to drill down about halfway into the report: “Teachers with low job satisfaction are more likely to teach in urban schools and in schools with larger proportions of minority students. Teachers likely to leave the profession are more likely than others to teach in schools with more than two-thirds minority students.”

In other words, our legislative squeeze play – demanding more for less – will ultimately hurt our most fragile students. It will hit them first and it will hit them hardest.

Me? I’ll be fine. I might gripe from time to time, but when the bell rings and the students walk in the door, I can put it aside and focus on my job. Don’t worry about me.

Worry instead about the students down the street. The poor students. The students who get a new faculty every five years because their frustrated and discouraged teachers give up and leave.

Comments

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I understand that teachers suffer a lot of pressure, now more than ever. Demands in terms of what the respective countries want from their students (depending on types of work available) shape the educational syllabus, restrictive laws do not help the educational system, and children themselves rarely appreciate what teachers do for them during their educational years. Not to mention some parents' excessive pressure on the teachers. The difficult economic climate contributes to more pressure on education with spending cuts. Dedicated teachers must be kept motivated to perform their duties as perfectly as reasonably possible. Great analysis of the situation in the United States, but I can assure you that the situation is very similar in Europe and elsewhere. It's not easy being a teacher.

Kristin

I think building tone and leadership make a big difference, too.

If you're in a building where people are constantly complaining, or where there's a high level of fear about how we're getting undercut, undersupported, and there's too much asked of us, it's a lot harder.

If you're in a building - regardless of FRL numbers or class size - where everyone's working together and is willing to meet the challenge as best they can, it feels totally different.

I had much bigger class sizes 15 years ago when I taught in Microsoft Country on the Sammammish Plateau than I do now, in Seattle. Class sizes haven't gone up in every classroom.

And I've gone from buildings that got rid of staff members who supported fragile kids to a building that is adding staff to support these students, so the building-level budgeting can do a lot to mitigate the workload of a teacher.

I have spent my entire decade+ career teaching "the poor kids down the street". Wouldn't have it any other way. They are the kids who appreciate you, look to you as a model of professionalism rather than the snide look down the nose or comments about "just being a teacher" (attitude and comments my husband has gotten at his non-title school). The thing is, that street of the have nots is getting longer-as you pointed out Tom, with the increased free and reduced lunch numbers. Families who cannot bear to self-identify as working poor are experiencing a level of stress that is opening the fault line of our whole social contract. We in the education system happen to be close enough in the ground to see the breaks first.
I'm guessing right about now many of our state legislators are feeling as undervalued and stuck in a thankless postion as many of us do. Does that excuse them from hard decisions? Absolutely not! No matter how polarized income equity may become in this country, I will never be able to give up the idea that a good education is the one investment no one can take away from you. I hope our legislators agree.

Kate Sipe

Tom, I swear I can feel a difference at the local level that seems to match the tone of the national education conversation. My morale is low but my fight is high. I feel second guessed and incredibly undervalued - daily - on the front lines.

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