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Who Wants to Be a Teacher? 

Between the low pay and the meddling of the Legislature, it's no wonder no one wants the job

It was one of those "You've got to be freakin' kidding me!" moments that happen all too frequently when listening to political talk radio. Former Arizona State Senator Frank Antenori was on the air talking about how his son's teacher had been in education, but had left because he couldn't make a decent living at it.

The blunt-speaking Antenori has been called many things, but hardly ever is he disingenuous. I just assumed that he had somehow compartmentalized things in his head. Back when he was in the State Legislature, he was one of the grunts leading the assault on public education. He and his fellow haters—all dressed up in ideological camouflage and spouting vapid battle cries about charter schools and vouchers—managed to gut Arizona's public school system, destroying teachers' unions (and teacher morale) in the process. Using a bad economy as an all-purpose excuse, the Legislature openly disobeyed the law which their members had sworn to uphold. They withheld hundreds of millions of dollars to which the public-education system was entitled while, at the same time, finding enough money in the budget to fund pet projects, including one that would help their rich buddies send their kids to private school for free.

It's not surprising that Antenori's son's teacher would run away from the wasteland that their dad had helped create. The real question is: Why would anybody want to be a teacher in Arizona these days?

History

In the 1990s, Arizona's public schools were muddling along, about halfway up (or down) the list of state systems throughout the country. Across America, schools were faced with various challenges, including a slip in student discipline brought on by fractured homes and many other societal shifts. (In the old days, if a kid got in trouble at school, he went home and got in trouble at home. But in the 1990s, if a kid got in trouble at school, Mommy showed up at the school with a lawyer.) There were other problems throughout the country, including a decaying infrastructure, attacks from political ideologues on things like the teaching of "creationism," and the inability of the funding structure to keep up with increased demands for everything from technological upgrades, skyrocketing insurance, and teacher pay.

Arizona's schools were experiencing all of those things and also had the added burdens of a rapidly growing student population, a constant influx of students who spoke little or no English, and a transient population that exacerbated the other two situations.

Nevertheless (or perhaps because of the combination of things), Arizona's voters, facing a Legislature that was unwilling or unable to act, took it upon themselves to do something about it. They passed Proposition 301, which called for a permanent six-tenths-of-one-percent sales tax to cover the cost of inflation and to help fund everything from new school construction to long-overdue raises for teachers.

Prop. 301 passed by a margin of 53 percent to 47 percent, which, at first, might seem modest but is actually quite impressive seeing as how it was a Presidential election year and Arizonans flocked to the polls to vote for conservative Republican George W. Bush. (Bush won Arizona by a margin of 51-44 percent, making the 301 vote even more surprising.)

From the very beginning, Republicans in the state Legislature chafed at having to provide that funding for the schools, but for years they did what the law instructed them to do. Then came the economic crisis of 2007-08. Tax revenues plunged in Arizona and across the country. Facing some very difficult choices, the Legislature asked the schools and teachers if the lawmakers could just ignore Prop. 301 just this one time in an effort to make ends meet. The educational professionals, acting on what they believed to be civic pride and responsibility, agreed to let the Legislature off the hook that one year.

That one year is now coming up on a decade.

English

The story is told of a carefree swan swimming near the banks of a wide river. A poisonous snake slithers along the ground and approaches the river. The snake asks the swan for a ride across the river. The swan, aware of the snake's character and deadly abilities, says no. The snake persists, saying, "You have nothing to fear. If I were to bite you in transit, we would both die."

The swan finally agrees and the snake climbs aboard the swan's back. About halfway across the river, the snake bites the swan and they both die. Just before slipping under the water, the swan asks, "Why would you do that?"

The snake replies, "That's just who I am."

In this story, the public schools are represented by the swan.

Psychology

Most teachers I contacted for this article were skittish about going on the record, even in answering generic questions. (See sidebar.) There is an underlying current of fear and mistrust in Arizona's schools and it can easily be traced back to the state Legislature. In two coordinated steps, lawmakers first eviscerated teachers' unions and then put the power to hire and fire in the hands of people who probably shouldn't be trusted with such responsibility.

For most of the past half-century, Republicans have hated unions in an inexplicably visceral manner. And if they hated unions, they absolutely despised teachers' unions. Teachers, with their unholy mix of high education and relatively low pay, not surprisingly tend to vote for Democrats. So, the right-wing legislative train of thought (if such a thing is possible) has been "Kill the unions, then pick off the teachers, one by one."

Today, teachers' unions in Arizona exist in name only and have no power. Teachers, stripped of protection, now find their careers and futures in the hands of sometimes-capricious administrators. Thus the unwillingness to speak out in public.

With teachers reluctant to speak on record, I got a few of them together at a pizza place and promised them anonymity (and food). Teachers, like students, are always hungry, but, on the plus side, the teachers hardly ever eat like convicts.

There were two high-school teachers, one from a middle school, and one from an elementary school. All four said that they love teaching, but all said that they could see themselves leaving the profession someday. The pay is OK, but not great. One older teacher is concerned about her retirement, since the amount she will receive is based on the amount she is paid over her last few years of service. Because of cuts from the Legislature and the slashing of funds for Career Ladder, she is making several thousand dollars less than she made just a few years ago. She says that it shouldn't work like that here in America.

They all agree that the Legislature—specifically Republicans in the Legislature—are the problem. While respect for teachers by students and parents has declined in recent years, it is non-existent when it comes to Republican lawmakers. One teacher said that most of the lawmakers at least have the decency to not even pretend that they give a crap about teachers, there are some Smiling Faces who will lie right to your face.

The biggest complaint is the piled-on workload that keeps them from just teaching. There is the testing, both for the state and soon, in some form or another, for the country. There are mandatory workshops and seminars, lunchtime duty, after-school tutoring, mandatory sponsoring of student clubs, and clerical work that used to be done by office personnel but, after cutbacks, now falls to the teachers. Sociology

Over the next decade in the United States, 1.6 million teachers will retire. Replenishing that work force will be a daunting task. Studies have shown that teachers hit their professional stride after being in the classroom for at least five years. Unfortunately, 14 percent of American teachers leave the profession after just one year and the turnover rate is 46 percent by the fourth year. (Besides the fact that students miss out on being taught by top-level teachers, school districts around the country spend more than $2 billion a year on teacher recruitment and training replacements.) By comparison, in countries with the highest scores on international tests, the teacher turnover rate is around 3 percent.

Throughout America, teachers cite five main reasons for leaving the profession—burnout, threat of layoffs, testing pressure, poor working conditions and low wages. In a survey of 40,000 teachers conducted by the Gates Foundation, a majority of respondents said that supportive leadership, access to high-quality curriculum and resources, time for collaboration, relevant professional development, and a clean and safe work environment all came in ahead of higher pay.

Joshua Warren spent most of his adult life as a lawyer. He practiced law, got married, raised a family, and when it came time to retire, he decided it was time to do what he probably had wanted to do all along. He became a teacher. He went back to school, got a Master's degree in education, and learned a whole lot of math. He now teaches math at Sunnyside High School.

"I guess I always wanted to teach. A lot of people in my (close and extended) family are teachers and I've always respected them a lot."

He doesn't have to worry that much about money what with his retirement income and his teacher's salary, but he understands what others are going through. The starting pay for teachers in the Sunnyside District is just less than $32,000 a year. Projected out over a year, with all the demands on teachers' time, that comes out to around the $15 an hour that fast-food workers are demanding.

Warren realizes that teachers don't expect to get rich in their profession, but neither should they have to take a vow of poverty. He could retire from teaching tomorrow, but keeps doing it for the love of the profession.

I was out at a store a couple weeks ago," he says, "and I ran into a former student of mine. He and I had bumped heads a bit in the classroom, but he came up to me, big smile on his face, and told me what a positive influence I had been on him in school. That's worth all the money in the world."

But it doesn't pay the bills.

Math

U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan says that teachers should make somewhere between $60,000 and $150,000 a year. If Arizona teachers heard those figures, they would develop one giant collective hernia from laughing. The average salary for a starting teacher in the U.S. is around $36,000. It's appreciably less in Arizona.

The numbers that are most striking are these: In Los Angeles, a part of the country not necessarily known for stability in just about anything, the annual teacher turnover rate hovers around 15 percent. In Arizona, it's more than twice that, with one in every three teachers leaving the profession and/or the state every single year. In Pinal County, just up the road from Tucson, the annual turnover rate is 44.2 percent. If your kid's school has 40 teachers, by next year, 18 of them will be gone.

The Tucson Unified School District, which has been shrinking for years, opened the school year with a shortage of 150 teachers. Other districts around the state faced similar shortages.

Michael Steward was a teacher for several years, but is now the Assistant Athletic Director and Assistant Men's Basketball Coach at Tohono O'odham Community College in Sells.

"I loved teaching, but I definitely didn't love all the other (nonsense) that went along with it. I especially hated all of the in-services and workshops that have somehow become part of the process. You'd want to stay after school to help some kid catch up on his work, but you have to go to an in-service that is absolutely useless. You get there and some person gives everyone a handout ... and then reads the handout! Or they put on a PowerPoint presentation and then read the PowerPoint to you, like we're morons or something. "The amount of wasted time is staggering, and then you find out that the person doing the in-service is making $1,000 to do so. It's a giant scam, this industry that has sprung up around it. I went to one in-service where they taught us to do something a certain way and they called it whatever. A couple years later, I had to go to another in-service where they taught us the exact same thing but called it something different.

"I think that most teachers would happily put up with the long hours and lousy pay if they would just be allowed to teach."

Economics

One might think that the law of supply and demand would kick in soon, but it certainly hasn't happened yet. Some districts would probably love to try to outbid others for top-level teachers, but after years of being squeezed by the state, they simply don't have the money to do so.

The proliferation of state-sponsored charter schools, coupled with the crappy economy, has actually had the perverse effect of driving teacher salaries down. Some charter-school teachers start in the low-to-mid 20s with little opportunity to advance.

In Arizona, the rules of economics, like the rule of law, can be suspended if you have a veto-proof majority and/or a sympathetic governor.

Political Science

Educators are watching with great anticipation the pummeling that the Legislature is taking in the courts. After denying the schools (for several years) the 301 monies dictated by law, lawmakers now have been ordered by the courts to pony up at least a third of a billion dollars and perhaps as much as $1.6 billion.

Twice the courts have ordered the state to pay up for at least one year of back money owed and will take up the matter of the full amount in October. The lawyers for the lawmakers tried the novel approach of claiming that the Legislature didn't have to pay up because they don't have the money to do so. (That's actually a lie, because the state has a half-billion dollar surplus just sitting around, waiting to be misspent on crackpot agenda items next year.)

Criminology

As I'm writing this, the front-page headline in the morning paper reads "Judge: AZ owes schools $317,000." It's actually $317,000,000 (everybody makes mistakes, including headline writers), but given the bent and temperament of the Legislature, one gets the feeling they would refuse to even pay that amount.

The Legislature and Governor Jan Brewer have said that they will appeal the decision. Anything to keep from having to do the right thing.

WRITERS NOTE:

The first two teachers I contacted from the Amphitheater School District both had the exact same reactions. In casual discussions, they both spoke very highly of their district and the administration's attempts to mitigate the damage done by the Legislature. However, when it came time to go on the record, they both begged off, stating that it was in their contracts that they could not speak to the media without prior approval from central administration. (Like most people, they admitted that they hadn't actually read their contracts before signing them. Most people just do a cursory check to make sure that the numbers are correct.)

After double-checking that the Amphi District is indeed wholly within the U.S., I contacted Todd Jaeger, who is the associate superintendent and general counsel for the Amphitheater District. He was a bit amused. He responded: "To my knowledge (and my knowledge is pretty spot on in this respect, since I write (his italics) the contracts, we have no such contractual provision for our teachers."

He went on to explain that the district does have a governing board policy that provides for coordination of media relations. It used to run through his office, but is now the responsibility of the Community Relations office, headed up by Mindy Blake, who used to be on Channel 13 News.

When I went back and told the teachers about what Jaeger said, they were still skittish, even after I told them that Jaeger offered to provide a sworn affidavit from him confirming that they would not void their contracts if they spoke to me.

As Stephen Stills once sang, paranoia strikes deep. Such a deeply held urban legend might have benefited the district at one time, but not now. There is a strong sense of "We're all in this together" against the public education-bashing Legislature. (And when you read "We're all in this together," please don't dance like Zac Efron.)

I eventually decided to use the two teachers as unnamed background.

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