A manifesto for change: as guest editors of Guardian US, heres what Americas teachers need to help the next generation thrive
Falling teacher pay. Decrepit school buildings. Textbooks older than we are.
It’s no wonder this country is grappling with record teacher shortages – and our colleagues in five states have staged walkouts. But the real victims of this chronic underfunding of education are America’s children.
As teachers from a cross-section of the country, these are our stories and our ideas for change.
You can contribute: as part of the Guardian’s teacher takeover, we’re inviting all teachers and educators to add personal stories and ideas to this wish list. Submit ideas and anecdotes here. We’ll compile your comments into a final version next week – and the Guardian will hand-deliver it to Betsy DeVos, the education secretary.
1. All teachers should be able to work in safe, clean buildings with heat, air-conditioning, and water that’s safe to drink
More than half of American schools are badly in need of infrastructure investment, according to the American Society of Civil Engineers.
“Our school is gross. When the heat kicks in, there’s a smell of rotting animal underneath the raised floor of our classroom. Maintenance looked into it once a year ago, confirmed there was a smell, and conveniently ignored our pleas for help. We keep extra hand sanitizer around because students tell us the bathrooms never have hand soap. Floors are mopped with Grand-Canyon colored water that smells like it came out of a toilet. I got pneumonia in my first month of teaching at this school.”
– Andrea Lynch, high school music teacher, New York city schools
“In one school I had a large plastic trash can in my room to collect the rainwater that would pour through the hole in the roof – on sunny days you could see the blue sky. This lasted about four years before it was fixed.”
– Jason Fernandes, high school history teacher, Memphis, TN
“My students eat breakfast in the class, which has led to having many furry friends visiting during the school day. Some days I walk in in the morning and my floor is covered in mouse droppings, thus having to have the janitor come and clean again.”
– Nikki Goodman, Reading, PA
2. Teachers deserve a living wage that allows us to support a family, provides affordable healthcare and retirement benefits, and allows us to pay off our student debt
Teachers are paid more than 20% less than the average college graduate with similar education levels. One in five teachers holds down a second job to make ends meet.
“It’s not just the pay that’s the problem – it’s the healthcare costs. I was on food stamps and WIC [government-sponsored nutrition benefits], on top of trying to teach full-time. My wife had a medical condition and I had a daughter who was born with hip dysplasia. I made less than $40,000, and it was pretty hairy for a while. The main reason we got on WIC is that formula is so expensive. The program also gave us waivers for vegetables and cheese.
“I have a friend who left teaching two years ago and became an assistant manager at Staples. He started out making $10,000 more than he was making as a teacher. It’s a lot less stressful and he’s never regretted it. The sad thing is, he was good at teaching. He was a graduate support teacher, and the last year he taught, he helped 50 kids graduate who wouldn’t have graduated if it hadn’t been for him.
“I also spend well over $1,000 year buying things my students need, like tampons, soap, deodorant. This year, already I had a girl ask me for sweatpants because she didn’t have pants to do gym in. I bought her two pairs at Walmart.”
– Jacob Fertig, high school art teacher, Upper Kanawha Valley, West Virginia
3. State and local governments need to do more to support the millions of American children and families living in poverty or near poverty
Forty-one percent of all American children live in low-income or poor families. Close to 60% of US children aged five to 18 receive government-subsidized meals at school at least once a week.
“My wife and I drove a girl to college and took her dorm-room shopping because she had no one else who could do it. I’ve done a student’s parent’s taxes so the student could get them signed and be eligible for financial aid for college, and I once co-signed on a student loan for a student whose parents were undocumented.
“I was a basketball coach for 24 years and bought kids shoes and paid for them to get their required physicals, and contributed to the cost of their warm-ups and championship rings. These were not college basketball recruits; they were young men trying to stay off the streets and out of trouble.”
– Larry Strauss, high school English teacher, Los Angeles
4. Schools should provide all the supplies teachers need, and maintain a healthy, clean school environment for students
Ninety-four percent of US public school teachers say they’ve paid for school supplies without reimbursement. The average amount was $479.
“Since my first year of teaching, I have purchased every back-to-school supply a kid could need. I’ve bought pencils, books, and furniture for my classroom. I keep breakfast bars for kids who are late and miss school breakfast. One winter, I bought a coat for the younger sibling of one of my students. The younger one was coming to school in a hoodie when there was 3ft of snow.
“I made an incentive program to go see The Hunger Games, for those who met their unit goals when we were reading the text. I bought all of those movie tickets for the kids who qualified. We’ve all paid admission to the zoo or aquarium for kids whose parents send the permission slip back but can’t send the money. We’re not going to leave a kid behind because they can’t pay. Teachers just rifle through their handbags and find what they need. You do all of these things, you don’t think about it. It’s second nature.
“On my middle school team, we buy all kinds of hygiene items for kids who are homeless or can’t afford it and keep it in a locker. We buy tampons, pads, lotion, body sprays, deodorant, and sunscreen. The whole middle school teaching team contributes to the locker.
“I’ve also paid for things I never imagined. When one of my students was killed in an act of gang violence, his family didn’t have money to bury him. I contributed to purchasing his headstone.”
– Middle school teacher, Baltimore city schools
“I would spend minimum $1,000 a year on supplies. My salary when I started was $38,000, just above the poverty line – but your students are way below that. I bought them everything. Composition books, glue, scissors, paper, pencils, rulers, markers. We literally had nothing.
“I spent another $400 to $500 decorating my classroom. Before, it looked like a prison room, but you have to make it an inviting, enriching environments. I changed every year, but one year I had a superhero theme. I bought superhero masks from Party City. Not one inch of my classroom wasn’t papered and bordered. If the teachers didn’t put the time and effort in, you have no idea how bad the schools would look.”
– Melissa Schneider, former elementary and middle school teacher in Fort Lauderdale, FL
5. Our schools need stronger mental health services for struggling children
There is one school psychologist for every 1,381 students in the US, according to the National Association of School Psychologists.
“My school severely lacks mental-health services, with only one full-time guidance counselor for 600 sixth- and seventh-graders. The kids with subtler issues, like depression and anxiety, often get ignored in favor of the students with bigger problems. A colleague and I decided to form student support groups at lunch, and with the blessing of the counselor and our principal, we invited students to sign up privately. To my shock, 30 kids out of 85 said they wanted in.
“Kids said they were struggling with grief, with bullying, with low self-esteem, with drug-addicted family members. I used techniques the counselor shared with me, and techniques I researched online, and I let them get comfortable.
“One boy still stands out to me. He was probably on the lower end of academic ability, two years behind on reading level. He came to the group, and eventually confessed: his father had been deported three years ago. He referred to him bitterly as his “ex-dad,” and just seemed to feel abandoned. After spending time with the support group, the results were so obvious. We test reading equivalency three times a year, and he improved 2.5 grades upward in just a few months. Now he’s in seventh grade and I don’t work with him any more, but his new teacher told they did an exercise to explain what they wanted in a teacher and he wrote, “Ms Fisk is the first person who ever helped me. She taught me I can do well.”
– Annie Fisk, middle-school teacher, Louisville, KY
6. Schools should provide teachers and students with the materials they need to flourish
School funding per student has fallen dramatically since the 2008 recession. In 2015, 29 states were still providing less total school funding per student than they were in 2008. In some states, such as Oklahoma, funding per student has fallen by 25% over the last decade.
“My school had no science curriculum – they never bought one. So the teacher had the kids watch CSI during science period for an entire year.”
– Middle school teacher, West Virginia
“Our text books are so old we had to past in Obama’s picture. I figured that regardless of one’s politics – I do have my criticisms of him – it was crucial to have the first black president recognized and reflected in our books. I just printed up mini photos, had the students pick one each and paste them in with his full name, years in office, and political party. That’s what it says for all the earlier ones.”
– Tania Kappner, high school history teacher, Oakland, CA
What’s missing from our teacher wish list? If you’re a teacher or educator, we invite you to submit ideas and stories for this document here. We’ll compile your comments into a final wish list next week – and the Guardian will hand-deliver it to Betsy DeVos, the education secretary.
Read more: www.theguardian.com