Monday, March 28, 2011

Teacher vs. Teacher

We recently had the chance to spend time with two excellent public school teachers. One is an experienced teacher in her fifties, who turned to teaching after raising her children and has been in her current school system for over 18 years. She is single and needs her income to live on. She is too young and a few years too short of retirement to think about leaving her job.

Another teacher is new to his field. He is well trained, and by all reports is doing a great job with his students. He is energetic, innovative, and deeply committed to his new profession. He views teaching as his calling, not simply as a job.

Both of these teachers are feeling the impact of the budget crisis that faces New York State and much of the country. Here in New York our new Governor and our legislative leaders have reached an unusually early agreement on a tentative budget -- unusually early only because it has regularly been late -- that calls for over $1.2 billion in education cuts (reduced from a proposed $1.5 billion proposed cuts). Complicating matters is the ongoing tug of war in New York City, between the teacher's union and the mayor, over the current seniority and tenure system that requires a "last hired, first fired" system for layoffs, regardless of merit. It's an issue that is arising in many school systems throughout the country.

Our two teachers face different issues in this current climate. The experienced teacher, whose salary has risen over the years to over $100,000, is being pressured to leave her job. She was transferred from one school to another last year and now has been told that she will be transferred again -- to a position that is not in line with her recent experience. "I feel badly for the students I will be dealing with," she says, "but I can't quit and I can't stop them from moving me from where I am most effective to where I will be less effective. This is making me physically ill from stress."

Our younger teacher is optimistic but concerned. He knows that his fate is out of his hands -- and out of the hands of the principal who would like him to stay on. He is trying not to think about the politics of it all, but does muse about the role of the teachers' union. "I belong to the union and pay dues," he says. "But they are working hard to make sure that I am the first to go if layoffs occur. I sort of understand it, but they are essentially supporting some of their members at the expense of others."  His grandmother, a former New York City school teacher who retired after 34 years in the system, reminds him of how she walked a picket line during the time of reknowned teachers' union leader Albert Shanker, and how the teachers' union has worked over the years to protect teachers.

As the school year enters "crunch time," when teachers and their students need extra focus to conclude their curriculum and get ready for exams, it cannot be helpful for teachers to be distracted by concerns about where -- or whether -- they will be employed next year. And it cannot help when junior teachers and their senior counterparts are put in the uncomfortable position of adversaries in a system that should be celebrating both of their strengths.

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