WHY I'M RUNNING
Two years ago, a student asked me if Arizona kids were worth less than kids in other states.
“Of course not!” I said.
Continuing, he asked, “Well, why are Arizona’s students funded so far below the national average in per student funding? It sure seems like Arizona values its students less than other states do.”
That’s when I realized that we—as a state—are failing our children. I didn’t know then that I’d run for office, but I knew I needed to do more than just focus on helping my own students in the classroom—I needed to try to help all Arizona students in every classroom. I needed to get off the sidelines and into the game to make things better for Arizona’s kids.
And then, in 2016, after I was named Arizona’s Teacher of the Year, I had the opportunity to travel the state and advocate for students and teachers from Sierra Vista to Flagstaff. During that time, I saw firsthand the importance of a highly educated workforce to the future economy of our state, and I realized that current state leadership is irresponsible in its pursuit of short-term gains at the expense of funding our schools.
Yes, we have amazing teachers doing incredible work with students in classrooms all across the state, but we are not supporting our schools in a sustainable way. We are not truly investing in our state’s future.
We can do better.
Over my 25 years of teaching, I’ve taught more than 3500 students; I’ve learned how to solve problems and I’ve figured out how to reach people who sometimes don’t want to be reached. I’ve learned that the classroom should be a marketplace for ideas, where every student has the opportunity to learn, to speak and to grow.
Yet, that isn’t what we see at the State Capitol. I’ve watched year after year, just as you have, a legislature dominated by partisan politics -- and I’ve watched legislators promise to “get things done” while passing a universal voucher bill, undermining our referendum rights and underfunding our public schools.
Well I’m tired of watching. I’m running.
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.
It’s that time of year again: the time when sadness starts to creep over me as I brace myself for saying good-bye to my current seniors who are graduating next week. This year is especially poignant, because I have had so many of these students for two years in a row.
The seniors are excited to embark on the next stage of their lives—and they should be. I am excited for them, too. However, I’ve grown attached to them. I’ve TRIED to get attached to them, after all. The more I care about them, the more they tend to care about this class and about their success in it. So I have tried to get to know them—as much as possible, which is challenging since class sizes are so big these days.
Still, I’ve tried, and I have succeeded: I feel attached to them, and I hope they feel that I feel attached.
It’s one of the paradoxes of teaching…we try to make kids feel special, which generally means that they really are special to us (unless you’re really good at pretending, and I’m not), but then they leave and teachers need to detach themselves. It’s not easy to do, and at some point in the next week, I will probably sink into a mini depression-of-sorts. The sadness doesn’t last long, though, because a new crop of students will be sitting in my classroom within months and the cycle will start over again. Plus, new relationships between me and the students will sprout, once they are no longer students.
You’d think I would get used to this. I don’t, though. And maybe I don’t ever want to get used to it. Maybe if I don’t allow myself the vulnerability of getting attached to students, the students themselves will somehow feel it. Maybe when I no longer care that students are leaving my life is when I need to retire.
That’s what I’m telling myself this year, anyway, as I fight the feelings of sadness that start creeping into me. I also tell myself how “lucky I am to have something that makes saying goodbye so hard” (A.A. Milne).
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