I am a teacher. Recently, there has been a lot of news about why teachers are upset in Arizona. There have been walk-ins and demands and video posts and blogs and opinion pieces. Teachers have weighed in far and wide about the conditions of education in the state of Arizona. I thought I should weigh in too.
I am a public high school teacher. I do not speak for my school or my district or my peers. I can only speak for myself. But I need people to know what it means to be a teacher in Arizona. I need them to know what my day looks like and how I spend my time and what I do to help students. It is not always fun. It is not always easy. It is always gratifying. So please don’t see this as a complaint. I merely want to add some light to the plight of teachers in Arizona.
I am a public high school teacher in a Title I school. What does that mean? Here’s the definition from U.S. Department of Education: “Title I, Part A (Title I) of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, as amended (ESEA) provides financial assistance to local educational agencies (LEAs) and schools with high numbers or high percentages of children from low-income families to help ensure that all children meet challenging state academic standards.” So, what does that mean, exactly? Well, to be blunt, it means that many of my students are from families who live near, at, or below the poverty line. Many students qualify for free or reduced price lunch because their families, for whatever reason, don’t make enough money. How many students qualify for this service? From the same website: “Schools enrolling at least 40 percent of children from low-income families are eligible to use Title I funds for schoolwide programs designed to upgrade their entire educational programs to improve achievement for all students, particularly the lowest-achieving students.” To qualify for Title I funds, almost half. The school I teach at is slightly more than that.
Great, I hear you say, your school gets more money from Title I funds, right? Well… much like most things in education, it’s complicated. I am not a finical expert on how to use Title I funds and I won’t even pretend to be, but the funds must be used for certain things and only those things. And they are monitored. Schools can get into a lot of trouble for misusing those funds. There are several very long documents here if you want to read up on it yourself. But the actual point is that I have a lot of students who can’t afford basic school supplies. Here’s what I require for my class: a binder ($3.59), a composition notebook ($2.64), 100 index cards ($1.72), notebook paper ($2.50), and a calculator ($12.97) (walmart.com). All together, with tax, this comes out to around $25.00. My students can buy everything they need for my class for under $30, maybe cheaper if they find it on sale at “back to school” time. And yet, every year, I have multiple students who can’t even afford those things.
Now, $30 would not break my bank if I had to do this for one student. Heck, I could even swing two. But it is not one or two students who need it help. Every year I have 3-4 students per class (that’s 24 students a year) who can’t afford the materials. If I were to purchase supplies for every needing student, it would be over $700 out of my pocket just for basic class supplies. That is just for basic supplies. That doesn’t include markers, colored pencils, dry erase markers, dry erase erasers, construction paper, scissors, rulers, or Kleenex. Luckily, there are some great students at my school who are willing to help and share with their classmates, but I will end up buying about $500 of supplies for my students every year. True, I get $50 to spend at Office Depot every year, but that money doesn’t buy a lot.
I am a public science teacher. This is important because I buy a lot of science materials. I am fortunate enough to be in a district that wants to see students doing science. So we have things like beakers, thermometers, meter sticks, stir rods, microscopes, and even some pH meters that sort of, kind of work (as long as you don’t stand too close to them while getting your readings). We also have a lot of supplies in the form of microscope slides, chemicals, and fetal pigs. But our tap water is awful for chemistry and I have to buy DI water if I want to use anything that would react with the minerals in our tap water. It is also expensive to get concentrate hydrochloric acid every year, so I use it sparingly. That means a lot of experiments with vinegar and baking soda, that I also purchase. There are other things, too, like lima beans and pony beads and paper clips and plastic cups that get used for various lab and hands-on activities. So that adds to my yearly expenses because those materials come out of that same $50 classroom supply budget.
Being a science teacher also means lab reports, practice problems, quizzes, and answering endless questions about how to do this or that. It means being involved with students, it means offering tutoring hours, it means being available for them when they are struggling. It means grading. This is one of those things that I definitely struggle with because I feel like if I make a student do something in class to help them learn, then I should give them feedback on it. Right now, I have a stack of papers on my desk that I didn’t get to last week (we’re coming up to meetings, don’t you worry). I was at school at 6:00 am this morning and I didn’t leave until 4:00 pm. That is a normal day. Every day. I spend 6-8 hours every Sunday grading and planning and prepping for the coming week. I spend this time because I care. I read every answer and make comments. I cross out and make draw lines and annotate their assignments so that they can learn what they did wrong and do it correctly next time. Again, I’m not complaining. But I am trying to enlighten people who think teaching is a 40 hour/week job. It’s not.
But I like numbers. Let’s look at the numbers: ~60 hr/week for 38 weeks (the average school year – fall break, spring break, and wine break) = 2,280 hrs. Let’s divide that by 50 weeks (I am just assuming that most people get 2 weeks off/year) = 45.6 hours per week. So, can we please stop this “it’s only 9 months” and “teachers get all these breaks” comments. Everyone gets breaks and days off and can take time off. It all evens out in the end.
I am a public high school teacher for all students. This means that I have students who are on individual education plans and 504 plans. I have students who want to doctors and engineers and lawyers and students who don’t even want to graduate high school. I have students who can’t stay awake because they work until 11:00 pm every day to help pay the bills. I have students who can’t focus because they are going through hard times in their personal life. And I have to teach them all. So there are meetings with parents and with counselors and with students and with other teachers. There are phone calls and emails to try to get these kids on track to graduate or to understand why a student earned a B on a test instead of an A. This takes up a larger part of my day than you think. Two of my classes took a test today so tomorrow, I will email all 60 parents about their students’ current grade in the class and if they are on track to pass. Technology has made this easier (thank you, Mail Merge, the teacher’s best friend) but there are still many parents who do not have email. And since everyone has a cell phone, there are also many parents with an out of state phone number. Since districts are underfunded, we don’t have out of state calling abilities from our classrooms. Instead, I have to use the one phone in the office that can make out of state calls.
Here’s the bottom line: TL;DR edition: I love my job. I really do. I love talking to students and learning about them. I love it when they get it. I love it when they want to be my friend on FB and follow me on Twitter. It can’t put into words how I feel when they come back and tell me how my class affected them. I have a wall of student pictures and letters and notes that fill me with joy every day. But, I would also like to have the funded to do my job better. What other job requires their employees to shell out their own money to supply their clients? My dad worked in sales for many years and was never expected to use his own money for client interactions. He was always paid back if he did. Yet we expect teachers to just give and give and give without getting a lot in return. And we have. Because we love what do. But enough is enough. It’s time for teachers to get a little back for all that do.