Wednesday is “Day of the Teacher.” I will, along with hundreds of teachers from neighboring districts, be protesting the governor’s proposed $4.8 billion cuts to schools.
While the state’s fiscal crisis is irrefutable, the proposed cuts would eviscerate an already wounded system.
My average day begins at 5am with the alarm. I am at school by 6:50 to make last minute copies, tidy the room, answer email. Students are in my class and ready to go at 7:15am. Classes are 60 minutes. I have 20-1 in my 9th grade classes, meaning that I have less than 20 kids in those which allows 9th grade teachers to help ease the middle-high school transition and identify needs that 9th graders may have in English. I have one prep period — the period in which I copy handouts, grade papers, talk to counselors, and make parent contacts. My teaching day is done at 2:36 three days a week. The other two days are modified blocks — I see half of my classes each day for an hour and 45 minutes (or 105 minutes). Ideally, I take work home to grade for a couple of hours or stay at school to grade. One day a week I run an after school study hall for students who are members of the small learning community in which I teach (an SLC is a cluster of teachers and students designed to help students feel connected to school).
Students already feel lost, isolated, or ignored at school, which is why so many schools are developing SLC’s as a way to create a smaller space for students, one that can “catch” those students before they drop out. Considering that the national drop out rate is roughly 30 percent of students, finding ways to connect kids to their schools is key. What accounts for their dropping out? Some get jobs, some have home issues, some are bored. Often, students feel disconnected at school. They have no anchor to hold them — either academically or emotionally.
I am stressed out for most of the year, then I read comments on newspaper sites such as sfgate.com in which posters call teachers stupid, lazy, money suckers. We are called dumb and uneducated. The vitriol astonishes me. Do these commentators teach? Have they worked in, let alone visited, a school to see what happens on a day to day basis?
Teaching is not just about math and grammar anymore. We balance language needs of EL students, development needs of children who have Asperger syndrome, ADHD, auditory processing disfunctions, emotional disturbances while challenging those children and the children who are in GATE, honors, or AP tracks. At the high school level, we deal with students’ depression, drug and alcohol use, parent neglect and abuse. Some of us try to teach our students to say please, thank you, and I’m sorry.
Despite what seem overwhelming odds — a government that wants the public school system to fail and an ever-widening gap of haves and have nots schools — most teachers I work with work hard to make their classes relevant, interesting, engaging, and challenging. This year, I have worked alone and with a colleague on the following new units: The Odyssey (9th), Mythology Research (9th), Maus (10th), Media and Persuasive Rhetoric (10th), The Sunflower (10th), The Bible as/in Lit (10th), Gilgamesh (10th), Romeo and Juliet (revisions, 9th), vocabulary (9th and 10th). Units last two to six weeks. Curriculum units not listed were likely modified and updated this year (Lord of the Flies, To Kill a Mockingbird). We stay up grading papers and forfeit most weekends to read our students’ work or to plan a new unit or lesson. We aren’t, in that aspect, different from anyone who works diligently at her job; we do what needs to be done.
In a class of 33 (or even in my smaller 9th grade classes), the first daily challenge is classroom management — creating a safe and effective learning space. Then, depending on the lesson and the day, I read essays, circulate to see if my kids understand what they are reading, encourage students to join the class conversation (reading, writing, and listening and speaking are all state standards). While it is challenging to evaluate and assess my students in a class of 33; larger classes (38 – 42 students) will further undermine the effectiveness I can have with individual students.
Even with budget cuts looming for the entire state, there are districts in that are already under-financed. Teachers at one Bay Area school took on an extra class (teaching six instead of five) to reduce class sizes. Several schools brought on crisis counselors and social workers to develop intervention programs — programs which end up going back to the child’s home life and trying to create stability so the student can make it through school. Those programs will be axed if the budget cuts go through. But what happens at the school where the teachers are already teaching beyond capacity?
And, while there are impending fiscal cut-backs, schools are squeezed by Federal and State demands. For example, our instructional minutes have increased in the last few years (the number of minutes the majority of students must be in class being taught). Program demands increase. Testing marches forward (sophomores have seven days of testing — two for the CAHSEE and five for STAR). These demands — standards, testing, instructional minutes — cost money to implement. And, if your school doesn’t do well enough, test numbers impact funding for the school as well as professional standing. The government will penalize a school financially for not making its numbers. The backlash extends to colleges and universities; academic institutions want schools to have high AYPs as those scores reflect a rigorous academic setting. A kid from a low-scoring school loses out twice — she gets a crummy learning environment and may not be recognized for achieving excellence in that place.
Teaching is a profession, not a higher calling. I have good lessons and I have lessons that need work. My teaching life is not different than my previous professional life in that teaching, like most careers, requires reflection and updating. I attend professional development workshops, classes, seminars, both on teaching pedagogy but also for English, social justice, and other areas that are germane to instruction. I am not unusual; a colleague has spent the last three years working on her masters in writing instruction. During this time, she developed a sentence workshop that I’m also using. Why? Our school lacks writing instruction books.
Yet a poster on sfgate said schools should no longer be allowed to buy textbooks. How, then, should we teach? Should we continue to create materials out of thin air? Continue to use our take-home pay to buy books that the district cannot or will not purchase?
Textbooks are budgeted and purchased in rotations. Only one department can buy, statewide, each year. Next year is English’s turn. What will our graduating scores look like if we are forced to cobble together instruction? Do we want our state to continue to slide in rankings? Schools up and down the state have made in-roads with score results but those will be undone by the proposed budget cuts.
Here are some numbers to consider:
Up to 100,000 teachers will be out of jobs.
137,000 maintenance workers, office staff, custodians, and food service employees will be reduced.
Arts and music programs will be cut back
Class sizes are expected to grow (statewide) 35%
Reducing per-student spending by $800
(Numbers from The Education Coalition)
These numbers may not make sense to people, after all, what is the big deal if classes increase by 35% or we reduce per-student spending. Per-student spending includes everything from construction to materials. In a school of 1,000 kids, that’s $800,000 cut from the budget. Now, increase the class size. A class of 33 would swell, as I mentioned earlier, to 38-42 students at best. Less money, bigger classes, fewer materials.
The cuts would decimate public schools.