An overview of public education from the trenches

Public Education
"Grover Cleveland Public School" by reallyboring is licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

A few years ago, I made a tough decision to change careers from a profession I loved – journalism – to teaching. Over time, I’ve come to love the profession, especially spending time in the classroom.

Teaching has proven to be an unexpected leadership challenge, one in which I’ve learned so much about today’s youth.

I’ve also learned a little something about education in general. Here are a few lessons.

Public education is freaking expensive. Metro Nashville Public Schools where I teach serves over 80,000 students and is only the 42nd largest school district in the country. Its budget is over $900 million and that isn’t enough. Certain important positions are being eliminated and nominal raises raises (when your raise is $800 or $900 is it really a raise?) and step increases are often off the table, though it looks like we’ll get 4.5 percent raises in the coming school year.

The simple fact is school districts are ridiculously expensive to run. We have more than 5,700 teachers and more than 4,200 staff. Plus all the buildings (electric bills), buses, bus drivers, custodians, insurance, books, wifi, and the list goes on and on.

I think people forget the real costs of running a school district that must adhere to all manner of state and federal laws, and serve and entire population.

I don’t think people get the challenges. On any given day, my classroom consists of a wide range of students whose skill levels are all over the board. Some are high performers, some are struggling to get the material. Some could care less.

Then there are students who have IEPs, individual education plans. These come with required – as in by law – accommodations and modifications to ensure the students, who technically are under special education services, can succeed.

We have the ELL (English Language Learner) students. This year, I had students whose first language was Spanish, Arabic, and Nepali. Guess what? With some of those students Spanish, Arabic, and Nepali was their ONLY language as their English skills wouldn’t rival a kindergartener’s. And I need to teach them.

I recall one class in which I had students with IEPs and ELL students. I had to provide tests and quizzes in four languages, and four additional different versions of the test to meet the IEP accommodations. This is beyond the test the bulk of the students would take.

It’s not easy.

They money sucks. You don’t get into education to get rich, but far too many teachers can’t even make a living off their teaching salaries. I know a lot of teachers who take on extra assignments (yearbook, coaching, band, etc.), teach summer school (I often do this), and/or have part-time jobs.

Now let me be clear. You look out in the parking lot and there are more than a few fancy new cars out there. But living beyond one’s means isn’t the issue here.

Here’s the deal. The 2018-2019 salary for a first year teacher in Metro Nashville Public Schools, with a bachelor’s degree, makes $43,363. I’m a little above that now due to experience, but when I added my master’s degree, I added less than $800 per year to my salary. Is it worth it to pursue the higher education everyone wants you to have?

In Maury County, just down the road, that first-year, bachelor’s degree teacher made under $37,000 in the 2018-2019 school year. In Maury County Schools, the highest salary you can make as a teacher – and you need 19 years experience and a PhD to do it – is $63,242.

We don’t do it for the money, but across America a lot of good people are not going into education, or they are leaving after a few years, because the ability to make a very good living doesn’t exist.

That takes me to the point that the public does not support education.

To be clear, most people try to offer at least some nominal support of their school. However, I don’t know a single elected official who got into office campaigning to increase your property taxes to give teachers raises.

And then there are the comments.

“Yea, you should get more money, but your benefits are great.”

“Sure teachers should get a raise, but you know, they have summers off.”

“Hey, cops deserve more money, but you know they just ride around in a car all day.”

Oh wait. Yea.

That “but” is huge. It indicates that you are OK with a teacher (or police officer, or firefighter) being paid more, but you accept some antiquated reason why they’re not. That’s not support and it certainly isn’t support of the alleged impact on the community.

You can’t run it like a business.

Government has an inherent need to quantify things and it seems “run it like a business” is all the rage.

How do you measure the reasons for success in a classroom? If a student and I literally cannot speak the same language, and that happens regularly, what is success? What if a student has a learning disorder or intellectual disability? What if the student is from a broken home, has no clue who his dad is, and has no family support? What if the student lives with his family in a mini-van and his only meals are the free breakfast and lunch at school?

What is success? And if they struggle academically, what does that mean for me as a teacher? For my evaluations? My job? My getting renewed? If a student in these situations fails, the blame is entirely on me. If they succeed, there is no raise, no commendation, and no bonus for me.

Nice! Sometimes, you need to step away from measurement, other than to determine if growth is taking place. It’s not always the parents’ fault, nor is it always the teacher’s fault. Hard and fast “criteria for success” simply don’t work in education.

Final note. I’ve stayed away from politicians, school board members, bureaucrats, and administration (where I’m actually lucky). Maybe more on those things later.

Don’t get me wrong. I love my job. I have no intention of leaving education. The satisfaction of seeing a kid succeed, in spite of some pretty insurmountable odds, is immense. And I love the hugs and hand shakes at graduation.

But there’s work to do. Lots of it.

Public Education
“Grover Cleveland Public School” by reallyboring is licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

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