Thursday, August 6, 2015

Another One Bites the Dust

by Stephanie Keiles

I am sitting her in my lovely little backyard on a beautiful Michigan summer day, drinking a Fat Tire Amber Ale, and crying. I am in tears because today I made one of the hardest decisions of my life; I resigned from my job as a public school teacher. A job I didn't want to leave — but I had to.

A little background. I didn't figure out that I wanted to be a math teacher until I was 28. As a kid I was always told I was "too smart" to be a teacher, so I went to business school instead. I lasted one year in the financial world before I knew it was not for me. I read a quote from Millicent Fenwick, the (moderate) Republican Congresswoman from my home state of New Jersey, where she said that the secret to happiness was doing something you enjoyed so much that what was in your pay envelope was incidental. I quit my job as an analyst at a large accounting firm determined to find my passion. I floundered for a while, and then I eventually got married and decided I would be a stay-at-home mom, but only until my kids were in school. Then I would need to find that passion.

I was pregnant with my oldest child, sitting on a sofa in Stockholm, Sweden, when I had my epiphany — I would be a math teacher. A middle school math teacher! I thought about it and it fit my criteria perfectly. No, I wasn't thinking about the pension, or the "part-time" schedule, or any of the other gold-plated benefits that ignorant people think we go into the profession for. Two criteria: I would enjoy it, and I would be good at it. Nine years and four kids later, I enrolled in Eastern Michigan University's Post-Baccalaureate teacher certification program and first stepped into my own classroom at the age of 40. I was teaching high school, because that's where I had my first offer, and I was given five classes of kids who were below grade-level in math. And I still loved it. I knew I had found my calling. After three years I switched districts to be closer to home and to teach middle school, where I belonged. I felt like I had died and gone to heaven! I was hired to teach in my district's Talented and Gifted program, so I had two classes of 8th graders who were taking Honors Geometry and three classes of general 8th grade math. This coming year I was scheduled to have five sections of Honors Geometry — all my students would be two, and sometimes three, years advanced in math. I was also scheduled to have my beloved first hour planning period, and I was excited to work with a new group of kids on Student Council. It was looking to be a great year — and I'm still walking away.

My friends, in real life and on Facebook, know what a huge supporter of public schools I am. I am a product of public schools, and my children are the products of public schools. Public education is the backbone of democracy, and we all know there is a corporatization and privatization movement trying to undermine it. I became an activist after Gov. Rick Snyder and his Republican goons took over Michigan and declared war on teachers. I am part of a group called Save Michigan's Public Schools; two years ago we put on a rally for public education at the Capitol steps that drew over 1,000 people from all over the state with just three weeks' notice and during summer break. I have testified in front of the Michigan House Education Committee against lifting the cap on charter schools, and also against Common Core. I attended both NPE conferences to meet with other activists and bring back ideas to my compadres in Michigan. I have been fighting for public education for five years now, and I will continue to do so.

But I just can't work in public education anymore. Coming from the Republicans at the state level and the Democrats at the national level, I have been forced to comply with mandates that are NOT in the best interest of kids. I am tired of having to perform what I consider to be educational malpractice in the name of "accountability." The amount of time lost to standardized tests that are of no use to me as a classroom teacher is mind-boggling. And when you add in mandatory quarterly district-wide tests, which are used to collect data that nothing is ever done with, it's beyond ridiculous. Sometimes I feel like I live in a Kafka novel. Number one on my district's list of how to close the achievement gap and increase learning? Making sure that all teachers have their learning goals posted every day in the form of an "I Can" statement. I don't know how we ever got to be successful adults when we had no "I Can" statements on the wall.

In addition, due to a chronic, purposeful underfunding of public schools here in Michigan, my take-home pay has been frozen or decreased for the past five years, and I don’t see the situation getting any better in the near future. No, I did not go into teaching for the money, but I also did not go into teaching to barely scrape by, either. As a tenth-year teacher in my district, I would be making 16% less than a tenth-year was when I was hired in 2006. Plus I now have to pay for medical benefits, and 3% of my pay is taken out to fund current retiree health care, which has been found unconstitutional for all state employees except teachers. And I’m being asked to contribute more to my pension. Financial decisions were made based on anticipated future income that never materialized, for me and for thousands and thousands of other public school teachers. The thought of ANY teacher having to take a second job to support him/herself at ANY point in his/her career is disgusting to me, yet that’s what I was contemplating doing. At 53, with a master’s degree and twelve years of experience.

If I were poorly compensated but didn’t have to comply with asinine mandates and a lack of respect, that would be one thing. And if I were continuing my way up the pay scale but had to deal with asinine mandates, that would be one thing. But having to comply with asinine mandates AND watching my income, in the form of real dollars, decline every year? When I have the choice to teach where I will be better compensated and all educational decisions will be made by experienced educators? And I will be treated with respect? Bring it on.

So as of today I have officially resigned from my district, effective August 31st, which is when I will start my new job as a middle school math teacher at an independent school. I am looking forward to being treated like a professional, instead of a child, and I'm pretty sure I will never hear the words, "We can't afford to give you a raise", or worse (as in the past two years), "You're going to have to take a pay cut." I am looking forward to not having to spend hundreds and hundreds of dollars on classroom supplies. And the free lunch, catered by a local upscale market, will be pretty sweet, too.

I will miss my colleagues more than you could ever know, especially my math girls and my Green Hall buddies. It really breaks my heart to leave such a wonderful group of people. In fact, it's pretty devastating. But I have to do what's best for me in the long run, and the thought of making more money and teaching classes of 15 instead of 34, and especially not having to deal with all the BS, was too much to refuse.

I will always be there to fight for public education. I just can't teach in it.



Anonymous said...

Per chance I found your letter in the Washington Post, and checked it out here.
I have/had such a positive view of US public schools, having spend a year as an exchange student (senior) from Germany many years ago, in Ohio.
My German Gymnasium was more academic, but also so much more elitarian, although public and free.
I am convinced only public schools will serve best all ethnic, social, denominational groups of society. ( We do not use the word >race< in German, for good reasons).
So I am very sad to hear that a motivated teacher like you has to quit - for obvious reasons.
We have a type of private schools - Steiner/Waldorf education - organized by
anthroposophical groops, perhaps somethin like this exists in the States.
Best Wishes - Dorothee

Audrey Y. said...

This is such a sad statement of what is important to Americans. Those left in failing schools will not be able to do more than sign their names. It is such a catch-22: there is no funding, segregated schools are destined to fail, teacher recruitment is difficult with constant pay cuts, and students fail standard tests consistently.

Mr. H. said...

Well, as a teacher who decided to leave K-12 ed myself, I totally empathize with you on several accounts. Michigan is not the only state suffering from ESS (Education System Stupidity). Unfortunately, it is a pandemic of national proportions. And with new "discipline" policies, thanks to White House and Justice Department initiatives, it is only going to get worse--way worse--and we will see an exodus from teaching like we never have before.

I must say that I find it ironic, though, that you fought charter schools (which I think have a place in this country's education system) and you end up working for one (which you cleverly called an "independent school"). Isn't that being hypocritical? Or is it called "eating your words?"

Regardless, I hope you find the joy of teaching again in your new position. I loved how you said that you didn't get in for the money, but you didn't get in to starve, either. Yes! LOL