Ann Arbor teachers feel 'beat up' as debate over public education rages
Inside the classroom, Ann Arbor teachers are surrounded by the children and the work they say makes every day worthwhile.
Outside of the school building, it’s a different story.
“I came home one day and said to my fiancee, ‘I’m just going to turn off the news and not listen to it,’” said Trevor Staples, a third grade teacher at Burns Park Elementary School. “It can grow on you and change your mood.”
As the debate over public education heats up in the wake of Gov. Rick Snyder’s proposed budget cuts to K-12 education, teachers are fighting back against what they see as unfair criticism.
Staples said he believes there are misconceptions about teachers that are treated as truths. He said the idea that teachers have summers off, or are done with work when students leave for the day, is wrong.
“Everyone’s job is tough and everyone works hard and teachers aren’t the only ones who work hard,” he said. “There are a lot of misconceptions about what it’s like to be a teacher.”
State Rep. Mark Ouimet, R-Scio Township, disagrees that teachers have been vilified in the larger political debate. He said he has a great deal of respect for teachers.
“We have wonderful teachers who are very professional, who focus on the kids and the kids’ education,” he said. “So, the interaction I’ve had with teachers has always been positive regarding their performance and their commitment to quality education.”
Ann Arbor school board Trustee Irene Patalan says teachers are not the cause of the state's budget woes.
Melanie Maxwell | AnnArbor.com
It’s the moments when they’re out of the classroom that Ann Arbor school board Trustee Irene Patalan said she can see the effects of the debate about public education on teachers.
“In the last couple of weeks, I’ve had teachers in front of me that are absolutely down in the dumps, saying, 'I feel devalued and beat up,'” she said. “I’ve heard the words 'beat up' a couple times.”
She said she’s spoken with teachers from all over southeastern Michigan who have felt caught up in the debate over differences in compensation between public employees and those in the private sector. Patalan said teachers are not the cause of the state and federal governments having budget issues, pointing instead to corporate bailouts.
“I feel they are the scapegoat, that you’re a teacher and you’re the problem and you’re why we are where we are at today,” she said. “I feel that they are feeling that. The vast majority of them do not take that into the classroom. When they read the newspaper and listen to the radio, they do feel punched in the gut and that they’re being blamed for all of our problems.”
Dan Ezekiel, a science teacher at Forsythe Middle School, compared the conversation around bad teachers being protected by unions right now to the debate over “welfare queens” in the 1980s. He said he doesn’t doubt there are bad teachers, but it’s a very small number compared to the teachers who are working hard and doing good things.
“It seems very out of place to say teachers, police, firemen, nurses, garbage men and custodians are the cause of the problems our country is having,” he said. “That shows a disconnect with reality.”
Ezekiel said he knows people who work in Michigan are hurting financially and he works with kids every day whose parents have lost their jobs or had their pay cut. He said teachers in Ann Arbor have made concessions to the district in collective bargaining because they understand that their pay comes from the economic health of the state.
However, being made into a stereotype in order to further a political agenda will not make the state’s budget situation any better, Ezekiel said.
“We have made concessions because our pay comes from the economic health of the state,” he said. “We want the state to be healthy. But we don’t want to be part of a stereotype that’s used to prosecute some kind of political agenda and we’re not going to say, 'Take our collective bargaining rights.'”
The median salary for AAPS teachers is about $60,000 per year, according to Ann Arbor Education Association President Brit Satchwell.
Under the current contract, salaries range from $38,670 for a beginning teacher with a bachelor’s degree to $85,843 for a teacher with a Ph.D and 14 or more years of experience.
In an interview with Lucy Ann Lance in March, Satchwell said the AAEA gave about $3 million in concessions last year, an average of about $2,500 per teacher.
Among the concessions he described was a cap on health care at $12,500. Satchwell said he pays about 24 percent of his own health care.
Satchwell said the economics of the teaching profession in public schools and the increased workload in the quest to individualize education continues have made teaching more and more difficult.
When asked about their children’s teacher, many parents would say they think that teacher is doing a great job, Satchwell said. However, he said feelings about teacher unions and teachers on a more general level can quickly become much more negative.
He said teachers don't go into the profession to get rich and many are finding it harder to motivate future generations of teachers.
“Many teachers come from generations of teachers, and I don’t know one teacher who is advising their children to go into the profession right now,” he said.
The amount of work teachers do is something Ouimet recognizes through his relationships with teachers in his own life.
Ouimet said his daughter-in-law is a teacher and said he sees her putting in hard work and long hours to prepare for her job.
“I see firsthand what she goes through, the time and energy and effort she puts into kids and the classroom,” he said. “I have a great deal of respect for how she conducts herself and I see that, quite frankly, in the school districts I represent.”
The question many teachers are considering now is how to make the public aware of what being a teacher is like.
Fred Klein, a third grade teacher at Haisley Elementary School, said it’s a difficult thing to accomplish because there is a large segment of people who think teachers are “glorified babysitters.”
“It’s being painted as a cakewalk of a job, but it’s really a very exhausting, tiring and time-consuming profession,” he said. “People don’t see that teachers keep taking coursework they pay for out of their own pocket to keep their certification valid. Many companies pay for professional development, but teachers are paying out of pocket for six credit hours every five years.”
Editor's note: A first reference to Ann Arbor school board Trustee Irene Patalan has been added.