Op/Ed: Thoughts from a teacher's kid
Tap tap tappity tap tap.
One of the strongest memories I have from my childhood is my dad tapping away at the computer. It’s not my earliest memory, but it happened nightly, so it was burned into my head. It was a comforting sound. My room was across the hall from his office and he would be working steadily into the night, tapping assertively, if not aggressively, on the keyboard as he made his point on paper. At first, it was his thesis, and a few years later, his dissertation as he got his masters degree and then his Ed.D.
Go ahead and imagine it. Green shag carpet and a Mac classic. My dad lit up in the yellow glow from the computer as he sat in the dark, trying not to wake us.
Those long nights did not transfer into lazy mornings. Many mornings he’d be up and out of the house before my sister and I even rolled out of bed. He’d be in his office at school by 7 a.m., getting prepared for the day and making sure everything was in order. My sister and I would get out of bed at 7 a.m. (unless I had to practice the piano) and be at school by 8:30. Dad would have already put in an hour or two of work.
As a principal, he was thorough and dedicated. He worked on his masters during the evenings, weekends and summers. Back then (I’ll let you guess the decade), there weren’t a lot of graduate programs in education nearby and the only kind of mail was snail mail. As you can imagine, there was a lot of correspondence and a lot of travel.
When his master’s degree was finished, he moved onto a doctorate. It wasn’t a requirement for his position, and it didn’t come with any special increase in salary. You don’t need your doctorate to be a principal but you might want it if you are crazy-dedicated to your work. Why did he choose to pour money into further education when he doesn’t necessarily get the same in return? It can help if you are competing for a job against candidates that don’t have an Ed.D, but mostly this man is a fan – as in fanatic — of higher education. The more schooling you can get, the better. My parents even made us do homework during the summer. Not cool Mom, not cool.
Even after he finished his post-secondary, my dad would head out to conferences and seminars, always striving to stay current. His education never ended and I’m sure for awhile it felt like the debt wouldn’t end either.
I don’t know the dollars he spent on his education, but today it costs no less than $10,000 a year with tuition and living expenses. So that’s $50 to $80,000 of debt that a teacher wracks up before they even begin working. In today’s work climate with the baby boomers still trickling into retirement, teachers may not be able to get a full-time job right away, so they try to get by working on the substitute teachers list, in a part-time position or they may take a job far from their family and friends. In the meantime, they are still juggling their debt and wondering if they made the right decision.
The hours aren’t the dream that people think they are either. Of course nobody is going to complain about having summers and Christmases with their families, but my dad had maybe four weeks off in the summer, sometimes a few more if he’d been at a school for several years and streamlined his workload.
He wasn’t on a lounge chair after the kids split for the summer. Instead, he’d spend two or three weeks at school, shutting it down, doing prep for the coming year and all kinds of tasks I can’t even imagine. I think his work was always on his mind. He’d start getting anxious two or three weeks before the summer holidays were over. I learned to ignore it, because I refused to believe summer was ending, but our last family camping trips were usually booked in early August. Then, he’d start disappearing during the work week. All the cogs had to be greased to keep the machine (school) running smoothly. And yes (do you hear me Dad) he was good at it. To this day, I can’t imagine everything he had to do. His “to do” lists were notorious in our family and my sister and I still think of him and smile when we write our own “to do” lists.
When my sister and I were old enough (at least in my mother’s eyes) she returned to work as a part-time teacher. While the pay and actual classes were part-time, she still put in around 40 hours a week. She was meticulous, and still is as a substitute (teacher on call). I remember my Grandma – a woman who was furiously defensive of her children — being outraged at the hours she put in and asking why she was working so much if she was only a part-time teacher. Mom just shrugged it off. The worked needed to be finished.
Both my parents loved their work and the kids in their classes. I remember asking my dad once why he had to stay so late after school every day. It was the middle of an Alberta winter. He told me that he had to be outside with the kids after school every day to make sure someone was there to pick them up, that they had their toques and mitts on and to call parents who forgot about their kids. No fingers were going to freeze on his watch. By the time he was done getting the kids safely on their way home, it was after 4 p.m. and he’d head to his office to finish his work. He’s now put in about nine hours (if he started at 7a.m.) and he’s not quite finished. On Fridays he will stay late so he can get everything done for the weekend and actually spend time with his family. That was not the case, of course, when he was working on his graduate training.
My mom started teaching fulltime when my sister and I were able to completely fend for ourselves. We could make our own lunches and get ourselves to school. She was still around, because she didn’t have to start as early as my dad, but we’d all be rushing together out the door. My sister and I might be able to squeak into the classroom at 8:29, breathless and with guilty smiles on our faces, but Mom would have to be in her class with her curriculum ready long before the students started filing in.
She’d teach her full day of classes, stay at school as long as necessary (sometimes she’d be working supervision, sometimes she’d be working with students after school) and then pack up her school work and head home. After supper she’d frequently work a lot longer on her marking and homework than my sister and I would on ours. We’d be outside playing and she’d still be plugging away at the kitchen table with her papers piled everywhere.
For a little current perspective, imagine my parents are two teachers today in BC. They’d be working 40 to 70 hours a week, not 24 to 30 as some people believe, and at some point they were probably $50 to $80,000-plus in debt. In School District 51, the starting wage for teachers is $42,802 a year as of 2010. Before taxes, that’s around $3500 a month. That caps off at $65,414 a year or around $5,400 after 10 years. That’s not too shabby if you don’t stop to think about it.
I don’t think that anyone is saying that teachers will starve without a wage increase, but try to remember that they have thousands of dollars in student loans and may be the sole provider for a family. They are also putting in a lot of hours and have probably squeaked by on a part-time salary for several years as they wait for a permanent position to become available. If they scale back their hours to a mere 40 hours a week, they make around $20 an hour – usually less. That’s a decent wage, but is it a good wage for someone with a minimum of five years of post-secondary education, who takes care of our children for six or more hours a day?
Someone asked me a few days ago, why anyone who makes a “livable” income should complain about their salary. I had to think about it, because so many people don’t have a livable income and that is a whole other issue. But if I was asked again I think I would only have questions as a response.
“What is a livable income?” For some people this means you can pay your rent and bills, have enough for groceries and maybe splurge on a movie once a month. For other people, it means you can do all that, plus tuck 30 per cent of your salary away and go on nice vacation every few years and own a nice house. How do you define livable?
“Why would anyone become a teacher if they only made a ‘livable salary,’ had thousands of dollars of debt, no guarantee of work and needed a minimum of five years of education to even qualify for the job.”
With a little dedication and foresight, most people can work their way up to a job that pays at least $20 an hour in a matter of years. Think about the work that can be done in trades, or the administration/managerial positions available for those that dedicate themselves to one company. I know some people out there that have become so good in their niche that they can charge far more than the average by they are skilled craft/tradespeople. Others create a business so unique or in demand that it thrives. This can all be done without the years of education and debt and without the stigma teachers often have to deal with when they stand up for themselves.
If that’s possible with little to no post secondary, why would a student even consider entering the education field when they have no guarantees, no job security and all they get is a livable salary that they could get elsewhere? How do we encourage good teachers to come and dedicate themselves to our children if we don’t dedicate ourselves to them? Why don’t we treat them as valuable members of the society, especially when they are the foundation for the next generation and our future?
In countries where teachers are respected as professionals, the standard of education and standard of living is much higher than in Canada. In Scandinavian countries, the standard of living is often at the top of the world lists, post-secondary education is free, and teachers are valued.
What do we want for our schools, our children and their future? Do we want burnt out, disgruntled teachers with overstuffed classrooms and children that slip through the cracks? Or do we want teachers that are valued, love their jobs and are able to give every child the attention and education they deserve?
Author’s note: My family’s personal experiences are largely Alberta-based, but the environment translates. In every province in Canada, teachers have to fight for their contracts and classroom compositions. For some reason, provincial governments find this to be one of the easiest areas to cut funds when education and health care probably deserve the most funding.
And to my dad, who let me share part of his personal journey, Happy early Father’s Day!
Originally published in the Boundary Sentinel.