I am the 2016 Arizona Teacher of the Year and have been teaching for 25 years. During that time, I have witnessed firsthand the detrimental consequences of our state's legislature on our students. While my goals and concerns stretch far beyond Arizona's students, my students are the impetus for my decision to run for the Arizona Senate. I cannot sit back and watch the systematic disinvestment in our state's most vulnerable populations.
In January, I delivered a letter to the governor’s office.
Delivering this particular letter sort of broke my heart.
Actually, it didn’t “sort of” break my heart; it shattered it.
Throughout my entire teaching career—all 25 years—I have always fought for smaller class sizes (which means more funding, which means that much of my advocacy has been for increased funding). Teachers get surveys rather frequently about the issues that are the most important to us. The survey might say something like this: “Rank the following items in order of importance to you,” and then there will be a list of things like reduced class size, better benefits, increased teacher pay, and questions about the general work environment.
I have always answered that I want reduced class size, even more than I want increased pay.
In my opinion, smaller class sizes is the single most important factor in determining the fate of students. I can impact 25 students far more successfully than I can impact 40 students. Over the course of a school day, I can impact 150 students far more successfully than I can impact 185.
It’s simple math.
The letter that I delivered yesterday was about teacher pay. I believe in the contents of the letter (which is described in links below). I believe it 100%.
And that’s heart-breaking.
We’ve come to a point in Arizona’s education system, because of its lack of funding, when simply making sure each student has a teacher is more pressing than concerns about making sure that each student has small enough class sizes to truly reach his potential.
The bottom line is that we can’t recruit and retain teachers. The pay is simply not high enough to attract people into the profession.
The situation is so dire that teachers like me—the ones who have always advocated for student before fellow teachers—have to place the need for teachers above students. Granted, advocating on behalf of retaining teachers is still advocating on behalf of students (because students need a teacher in every classroom), but it’s no longer direct advocacy for students.
The education system is perhaps past the tipping point. We simply do not have enough teachers, and the situation is only going to get worse because 25% of teachers reach the age of retirement in the next few years.
So here I am…finally breaking down and asking for increased teacher pay, instead of reduced class size. If we don’t do something to make teaching attractive enough to recruit and retain teachers, our students are the ones who will suffer (as they already are).
I won’t stand by idly and watch that happen.
It breaks my heart to shift my focus from small class sizes to teacher pay, but our children deserve to have teachers in their classrooms. They still deserve to have smaller class sizes than this state affords them (we have 7th biggest class sizes in the nation), but that dream is impossible unless we have teachers to teach those classes.
The only reason that I can still afford to teach is because my father died. Seriously, if he hadn’t died and left me a little bit of money, I would have had to find another profession that pays more.
I was thinking about that today while I was at an event as part of my responsibilities as Arizona 2016 Teacher of the Year. I realized, for the first time, that this honor that I now have is solely because of my father. He wasn’t a rich man, so he didn’t leave me a fortune or anything, but he left me enough to pay down my house so that my mortgage payments are very low. That very low monthly payment has made all the difference in my financial solvency.
Before I go any further, I want to make one thing clear: I would rather have my father back than the money he left me that has allowed me to continue teaching. As much as I love teaching, I loved my father a gazillion times more. (And he impacted me in ways that are certainly more valuable than anything related to finances, but that’s a different blog. I hope when he watches me from heaven that he values the manner in which I have used his money and his wisdom).
With that said, I do value that I have been able to keep teaching because of him. Solely because of him. However, even with the money from my father, I barely make ends meet. When other teachers have to leave the profession because they can’t pay their bills, I get it. I totally and completely get it. Yes, I can continue teaching, but—no—I can’t afford to do much of anything besides pay for basic necessities.
As I drove away from the event today, an event where I was able to advocate for public education, I couldn’t help but recognize the irony that this year’s Teacher of the Year is only a teacher because of the death of her father.
How many other potential Teachers of the Year have we lost in Arizona because they simply couldn’t afford to teach? How many students did those teachers not get to influence because they couldn’t afford to do so? How many students have lost out because of it?
It makes me sad.
For the past few years, I’ve started to really pay attention to my future students and their wellbeing.
I think that those future students have my attention because I’ve come to realize that collectively we have let down our current students.
In past years, and especially in past elections, not enough people took care of our current students. Parents, teachers, community members, and even education activists failed at mobilizing forcefully enough to ensure students’ wellbeing.
Thus, our past selves let down their future students, and those students are now our state’s current students.
Collectively, we blew it for them. We really did. We were snoozing through life, while the pro-voucher, pro-charter, anti-school-funding folks were completely unified and mobilized.
Think of how much more time (through perhaps smaller class sizes) we’d have for our current students if people in past years had fought for them. Think of all the time we currently spend on 2nd and 3rd jobs. What if we wouldn’t be in this situation if more of us had been fighting harder 10 years ago?
We can change it, though. We can do more to ensure the success of our state’s future students by getting (and staying) involved.
How many of you have thought of running for office, for example? In 2018, teachers could (and should) be running for almost every office in the state*. With clean elections funding, it would not cost candidates much—if anything. Even without a chance of winning, teachers who run will raise the dialogue about education, and they will mobilize their friends and family members to vote.
People/teachers who simply can’t run for office can volunteer to canvass for others who are running; they can donate money (if the candidate is not running under “clean elections”); they can put signs up on the side of the road; they can work phone banks; they can register others to vote. They can do these things often and passionately (not one time, and think “I’m done; I helped).
Bottom line…they can invest time in other people’s campaigns, even if it’s not feasible for them to run.
I am calling on teachers to step up to the challenge of protecting their future students.
The pushback might be something like this: “I don’t have time! I already work XYZ number of hours on teaching my students and on school-related activities!”
I understand that response and, more importantly, I understand the nobility of wanting to devote every moment possible to our students. We are so invested in this noble endeavor, in our current students, that there’s often no time or energy for other endeavors—but our future students may pay the price.
Just as our current students are paying the price of our past selves’ apathy.
I plan on changing this (or at least being a small part of the change): Who’s with me?
*We need to stay out of races in which our entering will make it so no one who’s education-friendly wins.
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