This is a longer post than usual, but it has been a rather bracing thing to read what so many Americans “really think about you” as I have visited blogs and websites defending Governor Walker. I thought I would take some time to share “from the heart” about my journey as a teacher and a husband of a government employee.
Almost eleven years ago, at the age of 32, I decided to become a teacher. I had been working on my master’s degree in international relations but was not sure what exactly I was going to do with it. Then came September 11. I was living in Boston when that event occurred and was therefore personally touched by the event in a way that many in other parts of the country were not. Seeing the extraordinary resolve and community spirit on display in the days and weeks following the attacks drove into me a desire to serve my country and teach young people about the history and meaning of our form of government. I decided to become a teacher of social studies.
My teaching career began in 2002 in southern California. Because I did not have a teaching credential, my choice of schools was limited. Non-public schools are allowed to hire non-credentialed teachers, and because I had a masters degree Catholic schools in our diocese were allowed to hire me to teach at the middle school level. I was hired at Saint John the Baptist Catholic School and signed a contract to begin working at $36,000 a year, plus health benefits.
One of the things you are told early on as a non-public school teacher is that you are what is called an “at-will” employee, meaning that you can be fired at any time with or without cause. You are also quite conscious of the fact that you are not a part of union and that you are most certainly not going to make anywhere near as much as a public school teacher—about 25% less on average. But, I wanted to teach, I was active in my faith, and I loved being at the school that my daughter was attending. I was grateful for the work, and with my wife working as a doctor at the University of California (more on her later) we were able to afford my low salary.
The school that I taught at was run by a nun who had been the principal at the school for forty years. She was an extraordinary woman, as tough as they come and yet able to show compassion and loyalty to her students and parents. She had developed a legendary following and was running a very successful school in sharp contrast to many struggling Catholic schools. But even after all her years of service, she was an at-will employee and after a particularly tough year the pastor of the parish decided he would not renew her contract. After all of her years of service and all of the students and parents whose lives she had touched, she still served at the whim of her administrator and had no union recourse in the event that he wanted her removed. As it turned out, the faculty and parents of the school revolted at the decision and managed to force the hand of the pastor to keep her on staff. But this struggle had damaged the spirit of the school and those of us that had worked hard to keep her on had a target on our back. I decided that after five years of teaching in non public schools I wanted to get my credential and teach in a public school and I left Saint Johns for a one year credential program at the University of California, Irvine.
At the age of 36 I was back in school because I wanted to teach in public schools. Little did I know that the economy of California was about to go over the cliff. By the time I finished my year of credential training, the likelihood of finding a public school teaching job was slim and none. Teachers were being laid off by the thousands in California due to decreased tax revenue because of the collapse of the housing market. It was quite common in districts for all teachers with five years of service or less to receive pink slips in March indicating that they would in all likelihood be losing their jobs in June. Needless to say, principals were not doing a lot of interviewing of student teachers, regardless of the fact that I already had years of experience teaching. No one was going to be hired when there were already thousands of experienced public school teachers looking for work. I had one principal tell me that it was the worst situation for teachers that he had seen in 40 years. This was all happening in the fall of 2008. With thousands of teachers looking for whatever work they could find it was nearly impossible to find work at private schools and many of my younger classmates in the credential program resigned themselves to not becoming teachers. I used some veteran savvy and eventually landed a teaching job at a private, nonreligious school. With my five years of teaching experience and my UCI credential I was making a salary of $45,000.
After a year of teaching at this middle school I was given in May of 2009n a contract for the next year. I was glad to not have to be looking for a teaching job because things were, if possible, even worse than they were in the spring of 2008, since by now what had begun in California had spread nationwide and we were in the midst of the most severe economic recession since the Great Depression. Teachers across the state of California were again losing jobs and either collecting unemployment checks or leaving teaching for some other profession like making coffee at Starbucks. So I felt fortunate until the last day of school. A cloud had descended over the school in the form of decreased enrollment. This pricey private school was suddenly beyond the reach of many of the parents and the fear among teachers was palpable. I was called in after school, after having just told all my students that I would see them next fall, and told that I would not be returning. The contract was terminated and I had no recourse. It was already the second week of June and what would have been an extremely hard job search in May when I was told I had my job the next year, was now impossible in June.
As I mentioned earlier, I am fortunate to have a wife who is a doctor. I probably would not have gone into teaching as a second career if that were not the case. Although my salary was necessary to the life style we were living, it was definitely not the primary source of income for us and our, by now, three children. But though a doctor, my wife had chosen a path of research medicine. After completing her residency at the University of Chicago, she had paid back a public health scholarship from the state of Illinois by serving at a clinic in an underserved part of Chicago. After doing that for three years, she had received a fellowship at Harvard’s School of Public Health. This had led to a position at Harvard and, after our move, a position at UC Irvine. She was in academic medicine and earning less than half, in some cases 1/3, what her colleagues in private practice were making. But we were happy because she had a more flexible schedule and was doing research into health care for the poor, which we both found meaningful. As the economy of our state and country continued to collapse, however, her position as a state of California employee dependent on federal grants for her research put her in an increasingly precarious position. During our last year in California she was furloughed numerous times, as were all state employees. Grant proposals that in other years would almost certainly have received federal funds were turned down in the face of stiff federal spending cuts. I had only been able to find a part-time teaching job at a small, private high school for the 2009-2010 school year and my wife, although she had been rewarded tenure, was struggling to earn funding that would maintain her salary.
In the spring of 2009 President Obama signed into law a stimulus package designed to spur job growth in light of the deep recession the country found itself in. Then in 2010 he signed the health care bill into law designed in part to address the needs of under- and un-insured Americans. These two bills led to funds for many new positions in the federal government. My wife was hired in the fall of 2010 and we moved out to Maryland. It was fascinating during the time of our move to hear speech after speech declaring the stimulus a failure. Republican after Republican declared that the stimulus had “led to no new jobs.” Yet here I was, grateful for the job my wife had been offered, and ready to join thousands of others across the country with good jobs, serving vulnerable populations, because of the stimulus and the health care law. Why were these jobs being ignored and treated as if they did not exist? To me, it seemed as if the federal government was doing exactly what it needed to do in a time of economic distress—creating jobs that would perform a national service to communities that would otherwise have been placed at even greater risk because of the collapse of the private sector. It seemed the height of political duplicity to equate what even Obama admitted was disappointing unemployment figures with a failure of the stimulus to create any jobs at all.
Little did I know that the duplicity was only just beginning. Over the last two weeks, Republicans at the state and federal level have turned the reality of my wife and my last ten years on its head. We have heard a steady drumbeat of rhetoric that ignores the reality of our lives and the lives of thousands of others.
For starters, lets look at the federal level. Before we join Speaker Boehner in his declaration that if proposed cuts lead to job loss “so be it”, lets linger a bit. First, lets congratulate the Speaker for at last acknowledging that there actually were jobs created by the public sector. Of course, this little progress is undercut by the fact that the jobs he acknowledges were created seem to him to be second-class jobs, not true American, private sector jobs. This ridiculous splitting of the economy into self-contained circles marked private and public ignores the reality of how our economy’s jobs are actually lived. People like my wife and I are testament to the complexity of our economy and to its fragility. When politicians allow ideology to trump lived experience they threaten the overall health of our economy. I would challenge anyone to click on this link and see the meaningful jobs that exist all across our country that would be lost as a direct result of the draconian cuts proposed by the House. Picture the individuals that would not only lose their jobs, but also the individuals who rely on these people for their health care and the individuals who rely on the money spent by these people for their jobs. Don’t let yourself be desensitized into thinking that these are not real jobs, and that their loss would not affect you or the communities you live in.
As for teacher unions, do not be easily fooled by the rhetoric of the Right. Teachers unions, while anything but perfect, are extremely important to the stability of our public schools. I have seen the alternative and it is not pretty. And teachers themselves are hardly the fat cats portrayed by union critics. We have been at the forefront of economic suffering during the recession. Tens of thousands of us are without teaching jobs because of the deep cuts states have had to make. We are not out of work because of our union and our union is not blind to the suffering of people in this economy because teachers have wept over the loss of work that their many colleagues have faced. They know the fragility of our economy as much as any group because they have seen the cost of the downturn on their friends. They know the impact this has had on their students. They do not call in sick to protest out of spite for their students, but out of a deep fear that their students and schools will suffer even more if their ability to unite as workers is diminished. And do not think they are not grateful for the work they have. They know people like me are missing the smiles of their students. They know their fellow brothers and sisters in the teaching fraternity are hurting financially through no fault of their own. I do not resent them for what they have and neither should you. I am glad that they have a union to protect them and help them and I believe that they are afraid of losing that.
Be bigger than the name-calling of teachers and public sector workers. Be smarter than the simplistic rhetoric of private vs. public. Be above the call to resent and think the worst about people you do not know. And never, ever assume you know the stories of whiney teachers and spoiled government workers without remembering my wife’s and mine. Our choices are not better than yours, but they deserve respect and understanding. Remember that we have suffered too, and that we have made choices not to gain more comfort and money for ourselves but to try and be of service to the common good. We are thankful for the success we have had, and realize the debt we owe to our country for the opportunities we have had. But we will not act as if our choices are selfish or that our jobs count less. And we will never, ever surrender our right to join with others in solidarity and collective bargaining.