Dirty Boots: “Year 17 in the Classroom”

This has become a spotty, barely kept tradition for me to write about the school years as they pass. It began at a dozen years, then this tendency to rumination appeared again at the start of year fifteen. Now, here I am about to begin my seventeenth year in the classroom and feel like I have something to say about it again.

What I’m thinking about these days is: what has happened to the teaching profession since I got into this racket in 2003. I started teaching the year that No Child Left Behind took effect and instigated the testing frenzy that still looms over everything we do. I’ve also taught through and since the Great Recession and have watched as jobs, benefits, and classroom funding were all cut. Now, a decade-and-a-half after NCLB and a decade after the Recession, teachers are so harried by the cultural and political effects of those two catastrophes that we’ve seen strikes and walkouts all over the nation. Even though politicians and other leaders don’t boil it down like this, I will: all working people are struggling these days and don’t want their taxes raised, but most still want a good education for their children, so we’re left with having to demand that schools provide high-quality services with inadequate resources, which doesn’t work. In the Grateful Dead song “New Speedway Boogie,” Jerry Garcia sang, “Now I don’t know, but I been told / If the horse don’t pull, you got to carry the load. / I don’t know whose back’s that strong. / Maybe find out before too long.” In education, we’ve found out— it’s teachers.

Notwithstanding those national factors, I teach in Alabama, a state that consistently ranks among the lowest in education. Back in 2016, then-governor Robert Bentley got a few chuckles and raised more than a few eyebrows when he said in public that “our education system in this state sucks.” He was referring to Alabama ranking dead-last in NAEP scores: “51st? And we ain’t got but 50 states? That’s pretty sad,” he remarked. Since the Recession, Alabama has made the second most severe cuts to education of any state, and we weren’t exactly in a good place before that.

Those cuts have meant that teachers have born the brunt of the hardships. Last April, US News & World Report ran an article bluntly titled “Teacher Salaries Fell 4.5% over the last decade.” In fairness, it’s not that our paychecks have gotten smaller; the dollar amounts of our gross pay have actually grown, but the cost of living has outpaced the increases in pay. So, we’re doing more work for less money in harsher conditions. The article goes on to explain that fewer college students are majoring in education because they don’t see it as a viable way to make a living and that teachers earn 21% less than workers in other fields who have similar levels of education and experience.

Despite the public rhetoric, what’s seldom discussed is: most Americans do value teachers. One August 2018 article about teacher shortages explained:

In a new nationwide study, 49% of the public said they believe teacher pay should be raised in their states from current levels. In six states where teacher strikes were held in 2018, 63% agreed that teacher pay should increase, the Education Next study found.

However, ponying up the money is another matter. We have chosen to believe rhetoric from politicians who want our votes, who tell us that they will improve education, and who don’t ask us to raise our taxes. Common sense should tell anyone that getting something better for the same or less money doesn’t sound right. To buy into that incongruity, a voter would have to believe that schools don’t need more money, they need more “accountability,” which would lead that voter to believe that teachers have been wasting the public’s money and time. If a person cares to do the research and can face the facts, he or she can look into how those policies have worked out.

Back in 1977, country singer Johnny Paycheck made the phrase “Take This Job and Shove It” famous, and though the song was about the job and about the woman who had left him, it’s the hook that people remember. Sadly, lots of teachers and would-be teachers have said that about working in this field. Teachers whose jobs were cut during the Recession went out and found new careers, and between 2009 and 2014, the number of young people studying to become teachers dropped by one-third. That’s how the teacher shortage came about. This may be startling, but isn’t new. One March 2019 article title from the nonpartisan Economic Policy Institute put our conundrum well: “The teacher shortage is real, large and growing, and worse than we thought.”

While hearing about a teacher shortage may incite thoughts of larger class sizes and more paper grading, the peripheral effects are significant, too. Having fewer teachers in a school means that there are not as many adults monitoring hallways and parking lots, which is a security issue, and that teachers have required supervision duties more often, which takes us away from tasks like planning and grading. It also means that fewer extracurricular activities have sponsors, which matters a great deal. Last March, The New York Times ran an opinion piece titled “High School Doesn’t Have to be Boring,” in which its two authors wrote this:

After the final bell — in newspaper, debate, theater, athletics and more — we treat students as people who learn by doing, people who can teach as well as learn, and people whose passions and ideas are worth cultivating. It should come as no surprise that when we asked students to reflect on their high school experiences, it was most often experiences like theater and debate that they cited as having influenced them in profound ways.

Some high school students’ only motivation to come to school and tolerate what they find dull is to participate in an extracurricular: sports, the arts, a club. Cut the job of the teacher who sponsors it, remove its funding as “non-necessity,” and you’ve got students whose interest in school just went away. And “accountability” won’t solve that.

Seventeen years in, I’m confident in my ability to teach and in my ability to work with scant resources. I’ve been teaching longer under this post-Recession situation than I did under the situation before it. I know that I can do it— and so do the people who craft policy and budgets. Because we don’t have what we need, they count on me and other conscientious teachers to continue working hard. But there’s only one way to get our schools to where we say we want them to be: to support education with funding and action, not just words.


“Dirty Boots: A Column of Critical Thinking, Border Crossing, and Noblesse Oblige,” a weekly column published every Tuesday afternoon, offers a Deep Southern, Generation X perspective on life in the 21st century. To find and read previous posts, click here for a full list.

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