Cranky Blogger Warning! This post is a heavy dose of emotion mixed with a splash of rational thinking. Take it for what it's worth, which may be next to nothing when I look at it again in a week. I'm too worked up to tell right now.
Not long ago, NEA President Dennis Van Roekel (aka: Ol' Denny) took some time to wax poetic about his first days as a classroom teacher in Iowa. He wrote:
As I entered my first classroom in Iowa, I recall the anticipation, anxiety, and fun in store! The learning curve was steep—I remember feeling overwhelmed by all the paperwork and forms. And there were 160 students counting on me—quite a culture shock from my student teaching days.
So I jumped in with both feet.
I took seating charts home every night and by the end of the first week of school, I had memorized every student's name. I was more tired after my first week of teaching than after working 2 full-time jobs all summer. It's a tough job, but it's also where I loved to be.
Today, I work in new surroundings as NEA President. But I still get the same rush from being part of such a unique and awesome profession. My new experiences will be special in their own way.
But those "first days" are always memorable!
Beautiful, ain't it? Ol' Denny almost brought a tear to my eye.
Heck, I could almost smell the chalk as little Hawkeyes pounded classroom erasers trying to please their heroic teacher, who sat smiling behind a desk littered with apple knick-knacks and graded papers sporting enough "You're Just Plain Super!" stickers to make an entire grade level beam with twelve-year-old pride.
You'd have to be a cold-hearted soul NOT to love warm reminiscences from a school teacher—especially when that one-time teacher now leads the most powerful organization representing educators in the nation, right?
Wrong. You'd just have to be a first year teacher in districts like mine in 2009. Faced with almost impossible budget numbers, schools across the country are cutting the contracts of non-tenured colleagues—-including those who are the newest to our profession—faster than the Little Ceaser's guy preparing $5 pizzas in Munchietown.
Don't get me wrong: We can't blame school districts for letting people go. After all, state revenues provide the bulk of revenue for schoool districts and most states haven't got two nickels to rub together right now. Budgets simply have to be cut—-and like most knowledge based service industries, cutting budgets in education almost inevitably means cutting people.
It's just that our profession cuts people so freaking carelessly!
Take my friend Lucy—a REMARKABLE first year teacher here in North Carolina who found out the other day that her school hasn't got a teaching spot for her next year. She had a first year that could easily have rivalled Ol' Denny's. Her lessons were amazing, her kids were learning, and she completely loved what she was doing.
She'd impressed her colleagues completely, but she's getting deep-sixed for no other reason than she's got one year of experience in a district that has to cut almost 700 teaching positions in order to balance the budget.
What's even crazier is that if you were to ask Lucy's principals, they'd probably tell you that they'd RATHER keep her than some of the other faculty members that they're stuck with. After all, it wasn't too long ago that they spent dozens of hours sifting through applications and suffering through job fairs to find the perfect match for their buildings.
Sadly, they haven't got any kind of wiggle room in situations like Lucy's and she's been told to pack her stuff and keep her fingers crossed for next year. Those first days ARE always memorable, aren't they Denny?!
Thanks to Union leaders who defend antiquated tenure practices, education as a profession is sending incredibly disheartening messages to teachers like Lucy that go a little something like this:
"Gosh, that was great, wasn't it kid?! You sure did a bang up job. Got a real taste of the ol' apple-dust, didn't ya? And dagummit, you're a natural!
"But that don't matter, see. We're sorry and all, but you're getting canned because we ain't got the cash to keep you around. It ain't nothin' that you did, though. You were incredibly competent. It's just that competence don't matter in this profession. Heck, you could be Superwoman, but you'd still be Superwoman with one year's experience.
"Instead, we're going to jack up class sizes a bit and give your position to someone who's been around here for awhile. And here's the real kicker: We KNOW that the person who gets your job might just be a miserable old fart making three times what your making who doesn't give two rips about kids and who beats the busses out of the parking lot.
"But one thing's for sure: That miserable old fart is going to have more years in the system than you. I guarantee it!
Good times, Denny. Good times indeed.
Do you really expect young, intelligent educators like Lucy to wait around for another TEACHING job?
If you do, you must have been mainlining chalk dust for just a LITTLE too long. Lucy's already told me she's done with a backwards profession that refuses to recognize merit. "I was willing to work forever for next to nothing," she told me, close to tears over a career that she loved but that didn't love her back.
In the end, Lucy will get hired by some company or another that recognizes that she's a heckuva bargain. Business tends to see talented young workers as the best of both worlds, don't they? Sure, their rolodexes might be thin, but they often bring twice the passion while working for half the paycheck.
And we'll be left with a handful of overpriced retreads working towards retirement.
How does this make sense for kids? How does this make sense for advancing our profession in the eyes of the general population? When will we get to the point where EDUCATORS begin to insist that staffing decisions be made on merit rather than years of experience?
Tough questions, huh Denny.
My answer: Not soon enough. I'm tired of losing Lucies.