I am a public school teacher and a member of a union. Contrary to popular political rhetoric at play in Wisconsin and elsewhere, I am not, however, a leech on society, nor am I a lazy incompetent who shows up to collect a paycheck, not caring whether my students learn. I am a teacher and, in the words of Howard Beale in the film “Network”: “I’m as mad as hell, and I’m not going to take this anymore!”
I am an English teacher who wakes up in the middle of the night, puzzling over how to engage 37 students in my third-period in an upcoming lesson. I am a teacher who gives up part of almost every evening and weekend to grade the never-ending deluge of papers. I am a teacher whose job performance is judged on scores from a test that counts for nothing for the students and their parents. I am a teacher of children who have been coldly molested, beaten, ignored, neglected, left hungry, and might not know where they are going to sleep that night. I am a teacher who cries at the end of every school year because, as they leave me, I am reminded of the basic goodness of the students I teach.
I am also a mother, a mother who shops for her family’s clothes, including her own, at Target. I have a coupon file that embarrasses my older daughter. I drive a 10-year-old car that my parents helped me purchase. We coexist with termites eating away at the foundation of our house because we don’t have the thousands of dollars it would take to rid ourselves of them. My husband and I aren’t wearing Prada sunglasses or jetting to St. Tropez on this outrageous salary my union has negotiated for me.
This misdirected anger at unions and public employees is a sad, cynical manipulation. Are there waste and hypocrisy in unions and public administration? Of course there are! Please name for me one sector of society that doesn’t have these problems. These are human failings, not union failings. And can states spend money they don’t have? No, they can’t and shouldn’t, and hard times call for sacrifice from all in both the public and private sectors. We must contribute, but we must never give up the right of the American worker to bargain collectively.
The outcry against unions and collective bargaining is a complete red herring. The unspoken message is: Let’s make the average American forget that Wall Street crooks set up our economy for a meltdown and that, not only are they not in jail, they made money on the deal. Let’s make them forget that the richest 400 people in the United States make more than the entire bottom half of all earners. Let’s hide the fact that CEOs today make several hundred times what their employees make, rather than the 20 to 30 times more they used to earn. Let’s snicker as the workers rip each other’s throats out, scrabbling for the privilege of going to the doctor when they’re sick.
I have a bachelor’s degree from the University of California, Los Angeles, a master’s degree from the Claremont Graduate University, and I am a National Board Certified Teacher. I am a professional. And I don’t think it’s too much to ask to make a salary commensurate with my education, to be able to take my daughters to the doctor, and to retire with a small measure of security after choosing to devote my life to educating America’s children.
I love my students, but who on earth does the public—which is accepting these political shenanigans—think will choose to become a teacher now? No one in his or her right mind would go into this profession. After seeing teachers beaten up in the media for our society’s failings and being portrayed by our elected officials as lazy fat cats when we are working our butts off to having to “teach” to a test, no student with two brain cells to rub together is going to want to become a teacher. I would challenge anyone—including Wisconsin’s governor—who thinks that teaching requires little effort, no summer break, or no decent salary to spend a year in the classroom. Get in there, Governor Walker. You wouldn’t last a week.
A version of this article appeared in the April 27, 2011 edition of Education Week as ‘Mad as Hell’