Kevin Kumashiro just became one of the best friends for many teachers and in my own case, at least, I am not talking about Facebook. Kumashiro is the president of the National Association for Multicultural Education and a professor of Asian American Studies at the University of Illinois in Chicago. He sat down recently to speak with the National Education Association about what was termed the “teacher blame game” and what NEA members can do about it.
Unless you have spent much time as a teacher, it might be very hard to explain just how that feels. In Virginia, for example, we hear more and more about what we as educators are supposed to do regardless of any other circumstances. In meeting after meeting the expectations are reviewed and these appear to be generated by nameless individuals we do not see. We often suspect that many directives are put together by people who are not teachers themselves, or at the very least, are no longer. You can imagine how that makes “the ones in the trenches” feel.
Kumisharo notes that problems in education do exist and everyone would certainly agree. He says that many individuals who point out those flaws no doubt find it easiest to blame the ones in the classrooms. That means teachers who aren’t working hard enough, or are too greedy, or are simply not accountable. Sure, there are ineffective teachers, just as there are second-rate workers in any profession. Yet, Kumashiro adds that the overall process is the concern and that often masks the problems while teachers can be more conveniently used as scapegoats.
Funding is always an issue. From copy paper numbers to money for buses, there never seems to be enough dollars to go around. Increasingly, projects are having to be completed in segments because the money to do the entire job the first time cannot be raised. This is true across America. In terms of individual teachers trying to provide for their families, funding is a major headache. It does seem to be a losing battle.
Just this past week, I heard a (teacher) friend from a Southwest Virginia county say, “I believe I can qualify as a person on a fixed income since I have not had a raise in years but the cost of gasoline, rent, insurance, and everything else just keeps going up.” Many years ago when the coal miners were discussing a contract, the older members said the most important thing was not wages but benefits. Insurance and retirement packages have to be in place for workers to feel secure.
This past week, a segment on TV news spotlighted the fact that the 40-hour week has virtually become a thing of the past. Regular work hours? That has become nearly impossible to define. I had to have some keys made a few days ago and when I stopped in a large department store to have that done, a hard-working employee said dispiritedly that the company has no intention of providing that to the workers. Like kudzu, the “take it or leave it” approach which began in the mid-1950s with the rise of fast food and heavy worker turnover, has continued to spread.
One would think educators are one of the last groups with a fixed work week. Tell that to coaches who sometimes get to school in the dark and practice or go to games from 5 p.m. to midnight or later. English teachers who grade research papers through the wee hours of the morning, accompanied only by a pen and coffee cup certainly understand that. Neither is complaining because they like what they do. They just wish that more people across the country would understand just how encompassing the job really is.
As examples of misconceptions, Kumashiro says teachers are often called glorified babysitters. He points out that educators “routinely” put in 9-10 hour days, sometimes weekends, too. He says at that rate, compared to many babysitters’ $10 per hour salary, the teacher might make somewhere in the neighborhood of $324,000 annually. He goes on to say that major educational organizations are often accused of only wanting higher salaries and greater benefits (which does sound wonderful, I must admit) while the truth is that the NEA, for one, is working equally hard on making effective class sizes, school building health and safety, classroom materials, and better labor-management relations.
To conclude, Kumashiro accurately notes that too many “good” teachers are leaving the profession in frustration. One survey in 2011 noted that job satisfaction dropped by about 20 percent. He cited reasons including the “blame game” and pressure to have students pass an ever-increasing battery of state tests, and to have the scores keep rising on an annual basis.
Like you, I can read this because of a teacher. Like the other reporters in the building, I can write it because of a teacher. Wow, as the late Tom Colley would say.
Thanks for being on the side of education.
Larry Hypes, a teacher at Tazewell High School, is a Daily Telegraph columnist.