There’s a weird kind of rhythm to a teacher’s day filled with odd notes, strange syncopation, and uneven rests. It’s a profession respected and undervalued at the same time. It’s more than a job, but often treated less than a profession. It’s unique.
I was a teacher for 11 years and a full-time educator advocate for 27. I’ve been on the inside of the profession, I’ve been on the periphery, and now that I’m on the sidelines, I thought I might share some observation. Not an expert, but one with some time to reflect.
All polls indicate that communities highly respect teachers. At the same time, teachers are often the target of criticism by politicians trying to score points with voters. Those two things seem incongruent. Why does this happen? The answer is that when community members are polled, parents think of their child’s first-grade teacher and smile or they think of the inspiring teacher from their past and they check the box marked “Respect.” In other words, respondents put a specific face to the question.
On the other hand, anti-public school politicians treat teachers as a group, and see them only when it’s time to bargain a contract or when they are lobbying for more money. That’s where the “greedy teacher” mantra surfaces. Even then, some of the more sophisticated politicians will never use the word “teacher,” instead they spin so the enemy is the union or public employees in general, being careful to exclude popular professions like police officers and firefighters.
My favorite example of undervaluing the profession is when a well-meaning politician sidles up to a group of educators and announces, “My niece is a teacher.” I know this is Constituent Relations 101, but it’s like the politician believes somehow it’s the golden ticket and now any anti-public education vote will be forgiven. It won’t.
Last year’s gutting of Iowa’s collective bargaining law is really a prime example of teachers being undervalued as a profession. Was the 43-year-old law perfect? No, it wasn’t, but it was forged in 1974 because of bipartisan cooperation fueled by the fear teachers would strike. It worked.
The dismantling of this law was done in a few months, but it will impact the profession for decades. The current teacher shortage is caused by both chronic underfunding of public schools and the destruction of collective bargaining. For the last three years, state supplemental aide has averaged 1.5 percent, which is below the cost of living. This has created a teacher shortage. For example, this year, only a few days from the start of the school year, the Sioux City Community School District was 17 teachers short. That was new. Sioux City was not alone. Waterloo began the school year with approximately 50 positions to fill. In a way, these two actions by the Republican majority and the governor have created the “perfect storm” for a crisis in Iowa schools. It’s going to get worse unless lawmakers on both sides of the aisle agree that public schools and educators are a top priority.
How does the majority party plan to weather the perfect storm? My guess is, like Wisconsin, there will be a move to lower teaching standards for licensure. After all, they reason, if you attended third grade, you should be able to teach it. For them, an easy fix. For our students, it’s long-term disaster. Every piece of credible research shows that a quality education is based on a highly qualified teacher in the classroom. If there is a nurse or physician shortage, do they immediately fix it by lowering standards?
Oh, I can hear it now, “We have a tight budget and we have a lot of priorities that need to be met. We’ve given public education the lion’s share of the state budget. After all, my niece is a teacher.” They can spin until they get dizzy, but facts are facts. Low increases for public schools, not even matching the cost of living for multiple years, means the Legislature is underfunding. Eliminating collective bargaining and trying to destroy the 43-year-old relationship between teachers and school boards is dangerous, irresponsible and mean.
So the rhythm will continue. I just hope Iowa’s song of success in education doesn’t go permanently off-key.
Bruce Lear, of Sioux City, is a former teacher and former regional director for the Iowa State Education Association. He recently retired after 38 years working in public education.