The Teaching Profession Under Siege

Other than my parents, the greatest influences in my life have been teachers or people related to teaching. It dates to a declaration early in my life about the values of an education and about learning.
My parents told my brother and me they would do whatever it took and make whatever sacrifices to push us to get a formal learning because, as they explained, you can lose all your material possessions but no one can ever take away an education.
It was simplistic philosophy, perhaps, but we took heed and we both graduated from the University of Texas – my brother as an educa-tor and I as a journalist in a long-ago era when an advanced educa-tion was certainly not a priority for most and a privilege for only a few.
The situation was further aggra-vated by the fact that we were a Mexican-American family and, in the environment of those days, members of my minority group felt more comfortable in a cotton field than in an academic hall.
We were not expected to go beyond high school, if even that, but some, like my parents, chal-lenged us, and we persisted, ignor-ing whatever the socioeconomic barriers.
For learning, you need good, committed teachers. I credit a large part of that path to the wonderfully inspiring instructors like “la Maestra Carmen” who introduced us to the ABCs under a sprawling mesquite tree and the Catholic nuns who taught the multiplication tables interspersed with religious training.
There was Miss Lillian Hare, who taught that “I comes before E, except after C,” and my high school English teacher, Mrs. Ruth McAnally, who developed our writ-ing prose, and on to college where a crusty Bill Hinkle lectured on the who, where and whys of journalism.
Whatever we are and whatever my brother and I became, we owe largely to our parents but also to those unsung teachers whose sometimes intrusive and challeng-ing academic demands we did not yet fully comprehend.
That was then. Today the teach-ing profession seems much more complicated, tormented and, to some, overcompensated. You could also say the profession – or should we call it an industry – is under siege in many parts of the country.
Politicians like Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker are leading the assault. He thinks teachers earn too much and are too mollycoddled, with way too many perks that distort the mis-sion and, more seriously, are over-whelming government coffers.
He wants to restructure or elim-inate some key elements like the teachers’ bargaining rights, saying the compensation and some of the gained privileges are out of whack.
Walker is not just singling out teachers. He includes all unionized state workers, whom he claims together are wrecking the state finances. The unions threaten to wreck him first, and if the past is prologue, they can do it.
Governors in Florida, Nevada, New Jersey, California and Indiana are feeling the same way. And they are just as vulnerable to the political might of the unions and their ability to coalesce public sentiment, particularly when it’s about curtail-ing the educational programs of the little darlings.
The budget fights are not just about teachers but also involve gov-ernment workers who are union-ized, such as the sacrosanct police and firemen unions, who have always managed to beat down any attempts by elected leaders to curb some of their cushy benefits or at least to bring them under control.
Fort Lauderdale’s Sun-Sentinel recently reported that in a coastal town in South Florida, a police offi-cer below a chief’s rank retired with a lump sum of $700,000 plus an annual pension of $120,000, at the age of 46.
You can tell how coveted these jobs are when 76 prospects apply for one firefighter’s position and work on a force that has received a 3 percent raise each of the preced-ing five years.
However, it’s the teachers that politicians and a growing number of taxpayers are picking on, argu-ing that the education system is get-ting close to the mark where the financing becomes unsustainable, and the entire education system needs a revamping.
There are about 6.5 million teachers in the U.S., with about 2.3 million working in the elementary grades. There are an estimated 76 million students in all categories.
The average salary in academia is $35,000 to $40,000, which does-n’t seem all that excessive and can be misleading because it lumps teachers with all the other jobs in the education industry, from administrators to janitors.
Connecticut pays the most with an average $57,760 annually, fol-lowed by California with $57,604, New Jersey with $56,635 and South Dakota with the lowest at $34,039. Chicago pays its teachers an aver-age $53,713; and Miami, $34,501.
Critics of the teaching profes-sion and its compensation contend there are many inequities that dis-tort the value of the job. In some states, teachers retire, start collect-ing their pension and return to the classroom, double-dipping or get-ting paid twice for the same job.
Whatever it’s worth, you don’t want to taunt the teaching profes-sion too much over its state of affairs and how to fix the system, for it is a powerful element that in the end has been able to beat down most critics.
Besides the local and state orga-nizations, it has the National Education Association, which has been around since 1857 and now has 3.2 million members. There is also the 1.4 million American Federation of Teachers, and togeth-er they have been able to success-fully advocate for their constituents’ interests and welfare.
With that kind of armory, not to the mention the legions of support-ive parents, say what they say and try what they might, governors and other reformists have found it a formidable challenge to revamp the system – even when they plead poverty and expose inadequacies.
Teaching and teachers have been around since the earth’s early dawn. Structured or unstructured, for better or for worse, teaching will continue as one of society’s fundamentals.