(first published on WIvoices.org)
Stephanie Kline resigned from her position as an 8th grade math teacher at New Richmond Middle School in Wisconsin. Her last day of teaching is June 6, 2012. A final straw for Kline came when her 5-year-old son was refused services at her New Richmond Clinic for an outstanding medical bill accrued this past year. Her medical deductible increased $3,500 coupled with a salary decrease of $2000 in the 2011-2012 school year. The decreasing ability to support her family, along with stress, uncertainty, and lack of communication has pushed her out of the teaching profession. Her story may resonate with many workers around the state who have experienced changes in their profession due to public policy choices. However, Kline’s story is a personal one. She states several times throughout this interview that she is “only speaking for myself, and not other teachers.”
Here’s her story.
“I had my daughter when I turned 20 and I decided to pursue my education and it seemed like a fit. I liked math. I liked kids, and teaching offered good benefits, ok pay…Up until (recently) we had wonderful benefits and a low deductible, which kind of made up for the humble pay. It is a good family job.”
What should the public know about students and teachers that they may not be aware of right now?
“There has been a well played out attack on education. I feel that the community doesn’t know the stories of the teachers because by nature teachers tend to just take in on themselves and don’t feel that they need to defend their position. But if you start talking about students, they start getting very passionate and principled. I love the people I work with; I think they are among the most professional people that I will ever work with in my life. I know that they will do whatever is best for kids as far as they can go. But I worry because their avenues are being taken away, their time, their well being with their own family…it is just more and more and more time away from their families for the people that I have worked with for all of these years.
I’ve heard people say teachers are ‘selfish’ and heard about that website that listed teachers and went ‘really? Come on’. [Laughing] I don’t think people understand where this is headed.”
[For example, Janesville teachers were recently targetted in a flyer campaign]
“I think it is scary that people are sitting on the fence without really trying to get their point across. If you truly do love education, then you need to say that you want your kids to have a quality education, and you want your child’s teacher to be treated fairly… because if you don’t say anything, all of these things that are being taken away slowly, but surely, will strip teachers of their ability to educate your children.
There is no incentive to become a teacher. You have now taken away health benefits, you have messed with their compensation, you have hindered their ability to get extra education. What do you have to offer these teachers?
I moved my children to this school district because when I got the job in 2007, the people passed a referendum. That told me the community was dedicated to education. I feel like the New Richmond community has been historically committed to the education of their children and the referendum they passed was historical, if I’m not mistaken. I wanted my family in a community that supported education. I don’t get a lot of negative feedback from community members about what’s going on. That scares me because that means they don’t know what is going on either.
Some people retire and then they don’t care anymore (about education) because they don’t have kids in school. Then, they need to ask who they want as the next community doctor that they will need to see. Yeah, teaching doesn’t generate revenue, but man does it shape the minds and character of the next generation. And if you have a good solid community that supports education, then you are going to come back and raise your children there. You need to ask yourself about where you want your community to be….
I’m going to be honest and say that there is no job security in teaching, all it takes is an administrator, I’m not talking about my administrator personally, but for a kid to say ‘you did something to me’ and there goes your license and your job, no one backing you up…as a community, you are looking at the school board taking away from teachers, you are going to have less educated teachers who don’t have the newest education training and your kids will be hurt in the long run, I feel that the community needs to back these people that are passionate about your kids…they are with your kids all the time! They love your kids!
And that is another thing; I’d like to say something to parents who are frustrated with teachers. I can speak out, now, because I’m not going to be in education anymore, so I’d like to say this for all the teachers who will be. Parents, be respectful. Just be respectful, that’s all. There are some of you who are frustrated with teachers and not supportive, and that’s fine. Just be respectful. The constant threats that you’ll go to our bosses or report us to whatever, just isn’t helping. We’re getting a lot of emails from parents who are not supportive, and that’s fine, but the threats that you’ll go to our principals, and our administrators, and our superintendents is not helping. And if their grades aren’t updated on time – just understand that we’re people. We have so such on our plates, and doing more with less of everything, that the negative communication is just not necessary.
I got a couple of emails this year that read, ‘Why have you lost my student’s homework?’ I haven’t. Your child found it, we’re ok. Or ‘What are you doing for my kid during study hall? He’s not getting his work done!’ Well, besides from putting his pencil in his hand and working 1:1 with him while ignoring the other 20 kids (and class sizes are increasing) in the classroom, there isn’t much more I can do. Parents, just have realistic expectations of educators. We can’t perform miracles, and we are definitely getting less and less tools to create those miracles that you want of us. And we can’t change home life. You know part of this economic hardship across the board for everybody requires parents to be gone more and work double shifts…which affects us and puts more on teachers and educators, who are expected to do more with less, and more pressure to get kids educated. We can’t change home lives. As much as I’d like to take about 5 kids/day home with me to make sure that they have a meal or to make sure that they get their homework done…I can’t do that. And, personally, I know two kids that I teach right now that when they go home they are making dinners, they are caring for younger siblings, they are getting other kids off to school in the morning because their parents are doing double shifts.
But I’ve been speaking just about the negative stuff. We’ve also had emails saying, ‘keep doing what you’re doing. We believe in you.’ They are much less frequent, but they are there and as an educator you need to look for the small little tokens of gratitude because they are few and far between. It makes you believe in what you are doing, and it makes you feel like you do have support when sometimes it really doesn’t feel that way. I keep all of my kids’ notes they give me, too.
I know that the professional people I work with, without a doubt, go above and beyond…give a coat to a kid…these things that these people do without any pay, without any praise…just respect them. Just give them the tools they need to stay there and teach your kids and love your kids. And help them.”
What do you say to the assertion that you only work 8-3 and have summers off?
“The idea that we only work 8-3 is an absolute joke. I am teaching 5 classes and have 5 sets of things to grade on any certain day. I stay after until I need to get to daycare to get my kid. I come in on Saturdays to grade…oh man, 8-3 would be really nice. I would say I put in 10 hours/day. People assume that we just educate their kids, and that is absolutely not true. That is only about 50% of what I do every day and even when you have breaks, you never have breaks because there are always kids in there and other things. Teachers meet and talk about kids, field trips, concessions, volunteer to ref at games, on committees, meetings all the time, common core stuff, curriculum development stuff, after school study group, math counts, origami club, you have homeroom and talk about what kids did on weekends and how teachers can help them with issues…you have kids that are going through things at home that they want to sit and talk about.
By definition, teachers take home a lot of the kids’ problems. We have a lot of kids who you wouldn’t know that they are having problems. But the teachers do. Their parents are going to jail or their parents are struggling and we need time as teachers to have time together as a staff to discuss how to best help these kids. We are counselors, we are educators, we are motivators and try to get them to excel at other things…and you are taking funding away from some of the things that reach kids. We are getting to the point that we aren’t going to have art anymore, not going to have extra-curricular stuff outside of the stuff that is tested! There are so many things in a day that you do outside of education.
And summers off is kind of a joke, too, because if you have to come in for curriculum development and over spring break I went to a common course at the CESA, or you are coming in summer for a data retreat or taking classes (to update certification or gain further degrees). And even when you have time off you are thinking about your kids and you are fielding requests constantly from parents, even in the summer, when their child is struggling.”
What has the morale been like?
“The morale has changed a lot in the last couple of years. It went from a very pleasant working environment to one that…I’m unsure of how to say this…”
[Long pause because Kline is especially careful not to speak for anyone else, just herself.]
“It has definitely worn on everybody’s spirits and it has brought everybody down. There are a lot of unanswered questions, and it is kind of difficult to get together and talk about things…where it is all going. I feel like it hasn’t brought us together as a staff necessarily …
For me, the stress level at the school has been higher because I don’t know what my expectations are. I feel that no one really knows. But there are consequences…I don’t want to represent anyone else or say anything that would make someone upset…”
[Tears are streaming down her face now. She is struggling to really use the correct phrasing here and the pressure is palpable. I sense that she is struggling with wanting to speak freely but not wanting to cause trouble for anyone and she is simply unable to finish her thought. It was good timing. While conducting the interview in the back room of a coffee shop, the churning of the espresso machine started up at that exact moment. We laughed at the sloppy interruption and it lightened the mood.]
“For me, the stress level has been much higher in the last couple of years. I feel like having the extra classes to teach causes more stress for me. I don’t have ample time to meet with the people that I need to meet with, I don’t know how I’m going to be assessed as a teacher from here on out…I don’t know if I’ll ever get paid for my masters degree…it’s been a theme for the last couple of years…where am I going education-wise? Do I take extra classes? How do I make it a more lucrative career? Will I ever get paid for taking extra classes? How will they compensate teachers? Will my benefits always be like this, because if this is how the school district is going to proceed, I would at one point, like to pay for my own insurance. There are so many things that you don’t know and where the direction you are leading that it makes it difficult to make decisions for my family. Do I look at other school districts and see if that is an option? Do I leave altogether? Which is ultimately what I decided to do because the last couple of years it has been weighing heavily on my home.
And honestly, the atmosphere at school has changed so much…we are getting more and more things piled onto us…the state standards have changed, so we have to change our curriculum…we need to do so many other things. We have to address the lower 10% of our kids who are struggling…um recently in New Richmond our free/reduced lunch kids have grown…we have to address and incorporate new things for our lower-end kids and our higher-end kids. It is just so much going on and so many things that we need to take care of and do, with no more compensation and no more time to be able to do those things.”
How has your union changed over the last 2 years?
“The union has changed in that they don’t have the ability to negotiate for anything. I got an email this past week that it has changed even more…even less and less power as we go along. Our union doesn’t have anything they can do to help us. Our Superintendent [Morrie Veilleux] went on the news a year and a half ago, saying that ‘Walker gave the school board the tools that they needed’ and thanked Walker and he’s sticking to that. The school board has the tools to take away negotiations and other things. So if you are going to be a supportive administration, you’d think you’d want teachers to stick around.
Let’s face it – there are so many passionate people involved in education and so many different personalities, that you are going to butt heads with people on occasion. But right now you are looking at people being forced to fly under the radar and people are keeping their heads low, not make waves with your administrator, and just trying to keep their jobs. That kind of forces the passion right out of you. Which, ultimately, if you are passionate about your job – I think you are doing a good job.”
Do you think there could be a better job of communicating to you what has been going?
(Leaning forward laughing) “Oh, that is a great question. I feel like the school district, the community, the teachers…generally, the communication is lacking all around. I don’t feel like any of these things that have happened have been communicated. I feel like [the sentiment is] ‘here’s what you need to do, suck it up and do it’ and there are no inputs…um, and there has been many times over the last few years when I have given my input and I’ve been shot down. Um, I feel that the direction that we are moving in is not necessarily best for kids…”
Has anyone ever asked you for input about a good way to assess teachers?
“No one has ever asked me how teachers should be assessed. But I know somebody will assess me and will assess my principal. I have no input. In my understanding, I don’t know who will assess us or how…we had a meeting last week and those questions came up and there was no answer to that. What I would challenge administrators to do is assess teachers on how they connect with students and how they motivate students to perform better on assessments and perform better in the classroom.
Some things can’t be quantified. You are assessing me on paper when you don’t know the variables. Like the assessment room was hot, for instance. So you are telling me that I have consequences because of a hot room? I don’t feel that is a fair assessment and you have a person that doesn’t know anything about me as a teacher and my job could be at stake because of that… my principal’s job could be at stake because of that…our school could be at risk….all of this stuff on paper that you will assess educators. But ultimately you want an educator that is passionate, you want an educator that connects with kids, you want an educator that helps beyond academics…a teacher can help a kid experiencing a melt down… and that takes up way more of our time than people realize. Especially when you have middle school students when they work with 13-14 year olds who don’t grow as fast as elementary schoolers or high schoolers (but have puberty related issues) and you also have way more than academics in play here.”
[Finland is ranked at the top of the world in student achievment and teacher satisfaction.]
Can I ask how much money you make?
“A little over $40,000 and I’m about $75,000 in student loans through getting my teaching certification and now, recently, my master’s degree. Right now, because I’m in financial hardship [Kline is a single mother with 2 children of her own; 4 children in her household with her boyfriend] I don’t have to pay on my student loans. I don’t make enough to pay on my student loans, but I make too much to get any help. You know we’ve had to make cuts the last 2 years, like we have no cable; we just have the bare minimum that way. We’ve had to cut down on groceries; we’ve had to make other household cuts. And I feel like with my education and my master’s degree that isn’t something that I should have to do. Also, right now, I have an outstanding collection with the New Richmond Clinic. When I went to make my son’s appt for his kindergarten screening, they denied me services because I owe them $450 dollars.”
What are your options now going forward with healthcare?
“I have a few options for healthcare; none of them are very good. I’ve made an appointment with the Hudson Clinic for them to see my son because my clinic denied him. And in December when our deduction went up, our furnace went out. So, all of our savings went toward electric heaters throughout the whole house. It took 6 weeks to be able to get a new furnace.
Also, I am currently seeking other employment. I made the decision to leave teaching….um, it wasn’t an easy one. I absolutely love teaching, and it has gotten my family to where we are. I have poured a lot of time into education and poured my heart out. It is a very big passion of mine to teach. I’ve decided to step away from it…not just because of the insurance solely (or) because I won’t get paid for my master’s degree. But the time…I keep putting more and more and more time in and it comes away from my family. I work hard. You bring work home everyday. And I can’t afford it. [crying] My kids are struggling with it, and so am I.” [long pause, wiping away tears.]
What are your options for future employment?
“I have the good fortune to have a math degree and can use it to make at least twice what I am making right now….or a financial analyst or a business analyst. I actually already have a job offer from a textbook company.
Our curriculum will not meet the new state standards, so we are looking at a couple different publishers and had them into school to ask them some tough questions. Their curriculum is new and had a lot of gaps that they need to fill. Last Wednesday, the publishing group emailed me to ask if we had made a decision and I emailed her back that I was no longer on that committee because I had resigned from my teaching job. At 3:00 that same day, her boss stopped by my class and offered me a job. He said that I had asked a lot of tough questions and they would like for me to bring back new ideas to develop their curriculum. They offered $70,000/year to start, with training and the option moving up in the company. I told them that I have young children at home and that traveling was not an option. He then told me if I chose not to take their first offer, they would create a position for me part-time, or whatever my needs are. [smiling.] So it felt good to have that, because I don’t have anything lined up after I resign. The idea that I have other avenues to support my family is great. I feel like I have more to offer.
It is really hard to sit back and watch this happen to education. It is the hardest thing that I’ve ever dealt with. But man…I don’t take a beating. And I feel like I have taken a beating and people continue to beat down on educators. I can’t stick around and watch that happen. My family is not benefiting from that. For myself, the easy path would be to stay in education. But staying in education with what it has to offer my family would be like rolling over and taking it. So, I know I need to leave and explore other opportunities. I have to leave. My family is proud of me, I have a very supportive boyfriend, and I’m excited to pursue other avenues.”
Although Ms. Kline is excited for her future possibilities, it is disappointing to know that we’ve lost another good teacher. No one can blame her. She embodies well the American philosophy of “taking care of your own and others” coupled with a spark of an entrepreneurial spirit. However, at some point we must ask ourselves how valuable our teachers really are to us? If we really want the best teachers educating, counseling and motivating our children, then we must provide them with the ability to take care of their own children. If society can’t afford it, then at least treat them in the same fashion that we fully expect teachers to treat our children – with clear expectations, good communication, and fairness. Without any of these Kline says, “That kind of forces the passion right out of you.”
Where does that leave our children?