We followed 15 of America’s teachers on a day of frustrations, pressures and hard-earned victories
It’s shortly after dawn when Edward Lawson, one of America’s 3.2 million public school teachers, pulls his car into the parking lot of Julian Thomas Elementary in Racine, Wisconsin. He cuts the engine, pulls out his cell phone and calls his principal. They begin to pray.
Lawson is a full-time substitute based at a school with full-time problems: only one in 10 students are proficient in reading and math.
That may be explained by the fact that 87 percent of the students are poor and one in five have a diagnosed disability. Blame for test scores, however, often settles on the people who are any school’s single-most-important influence on academic achievement – teachers.
Lawson says a prayer for the coming school day. He says a prayer for the district, the students, the upcoming state tests. He says a prayer for the second-grade teacher who had emergency back surgery and for the sub taking her class.
He says a prayer for all teachers – a fitting petition for a profession in crisis.
The crisis became manifest this spring when teachers in six states, sometimes even without the direction or encouragement of any union, walked off the job to protest their own compensation and school spending in general.
We think we know teachers; we’ve all had them. But the suddenness and vehemence of the Teacher Spring suggest we don’t understand their pressures and frustrations.
To try to understand, 15 teams of USA TODAY NETWORK journalists spent Monday, Sept. 17, with teachers around the nation.
We found that teachers are worried about more than money. They feel misunderstood, unheard and, above all, disrespected.
That disrespect comes from many sources: parents who are uninvolved or too involved; government mandates that dictate how, and to what measures, teachers must teach; state school budgets that have never recovered from Great Recession cuts, leading to inadequately prepared teachers and inadequately supplied classrooms.
It all may be exacting a toll. This year, for the first time since pollsters started asking a half-century ago, a majority of Americans said they would not want their child to become a teacher.
Yet teachers everywhere say that if only the American people – the parent, the voter, the politician, the philanthropist – really understood schools and teachers, they’d join their cause.
Some people mistakenly think teachers “sit around all summer, collecting a paycheck,’’ complains Lawson, the full-time substitute. Not him. In addition to working in both the before- and after-school programs, he teaches summer school and last summer took on extra hours at an Amazon warehouse.
Lawson is a jack of all trades. A walkie-talkie on his hip, he moves from room to room — teaching a class or organizing a lesson plan for a short-term sub or giving students special help with math. He visits homes with the school social worker. He directs traffic in the parking lot. He once used the washing machine in his office to clean the coats of an entire class so he wouldn’t embarrass the one kid whose coat was filthy.
Despite it all – or maybe because of it – he voices a claim made by virtually every teacher with whom a USA TODAY NETWORK team spent the day: He loves his job. “I wouldn’t want to be anywhere else. When you help a kid that really wants to learn, when they say, ‘I got it,’ that’s something you take with you the rest of your life.”
A crisis in perspective
Public school teachers’ economic prospects have worsened dramatically since the beginning of the Great Recession, especially in poorer states.
The average national salary has decreased by more than 4 percent since 2009, adjusted for inflation. Yet nine in 10 teachers buy some of their own teaching supplies, spending an average of almost $500 a year.
About 18 percent have a second job, making teachers about five times more likely than the average full-time worker to have a part-time job.
No surprise, then, that 8 percent of teachers leave the profession each year, compared with 5 percent a few decades ago; that 20 to 30 percent of all beginning teachers leave within five years, the Learning Policy Institute says, and two-thirds of teachers quit before retirement; that enrollment in college teacher education programs dropped 35 percent between 2009 and 2014.
The result, in some areas and in some specialties, is a teacher shortage. Last year, according to a Learning Policy Institute study, more than 100,000 classrooms were staffed by instructors “not fully qualified to teach’’ because they lacked proper licenses or degrees. The percentage of teachers working without bachelor’s degrees, although small (2.4 percent in 2016), has more than doubled since 2004.
Those are the numbers, based on federal education data. Here are scenes from the lives of teachers, before, during and after school.
ARRIVALS: Hope and heartbreak
The sun is rising, and teachers are arriving. “Ordinary men and women,” as educational reformer John Dewey put it, of whom we expect the extraordinary.
In a remote valley in central Montana, on a cool, clear morning with the promise of autumn and a hint of the hard winter to come, there’s a scene from teaching’s past: A solitary woman approaches a gray clapboard, one-classroom schoolhouse and unlocks the door.
Instead of lighting the stove, like her 19th-century predecessors, Traci Manseau makes sure the internet is up.
The public school has 17 students from prekindergarten to eighth grade, up from a total of three when Manseau came here 19 years ago. Montana has less than 80 such schools; about 20 closed in the past decade. Most young teachers don’t want to live in such remote areas.
And it’s hard work, Manseau says, to wrap your brain around first- and eighth-grade math at the same time.
Each of her students comes from one of five families, all surnamed Stahl. They’re Hutterites, a religious sect that speaks a German dialect and shuns modern ways. The students wear a sort of 19th-century uniform: the girls in black headscarves with subtle polka dots and modest dresses, their hair parted in the middle and twisted behind their ears. The boys wear Western shirts, black pants and suspenders.
To work on the small Hutterite colony’s communal farm, students leave school when they turn 16.
Even in this idyllic setting, teaching comes with its own little heartbreak.
A half-continent away, another teacher approaches another school. This one is a vision of neoclassical elegance modeled on the University of Virginia’s Rotunda.
Walnut Hills High School, which sits on a 14-acre campus, is the top-rated public high school in Ohio. Its trademark subject is Latin, required in grades seven through nine. Its motto is “Sursum ad summum” – “Rise to the Highest.”
The classical college preparatory school is another American educational archetype. But here, time has not stood still. Just ask the teacher at the door.
Laura Wasem, 43, has taught Latin here for 17 years. She makes an annual salary of $77,000, a third more than the average American teacher. Yet she is as nostalgic for the past as any Hutterite.
Today, for example, she’s distressed that there will be no classes because of a daylong professional development program to improve standardized test scores.
“All these mandates from the administration and the state are just an extension of what’s going on nationally,” she says. She blames “people without a background in education … who have no idea what to expect walking into a class of eighth-graders. They are used to walking into business meetings … It’s completely different when you have to keep an eye out for kids using phones or redirecting a child with a special-education plan or registering if what you are saying is actually being understood.”
She’s just getting started: “I used to be able to teach Latin and not have to worry about all the testing and extra work centering around our evaluations.” That was long ago.
Felecia Branch, 51, arrives at Mackenzie Elementary-Middle School an hour before classes begin. She’s a product of Detroit city schools and has taught in them for 25 years.
Branch pops the trunk of her gray Jeep Compass and pulls out a big, gray-blue rolling crate with materials for the day’s classes.
Her self-sufficiency is a reminder of the district’s troubles, including the near-decade it was under state control. Teachers went for years without a raise; their base pay was cut, and many dipped into their own pockets for basic supplies.
Three years ago, Branch says, “I didn’t have any sixth-grade materials. None.” She says she bought them herself – and did a lot of photocopying.
A new superintendent is trying to reverse course. Last year, teachers finally got a raise: 7 percent over two years, plus bonuses for those near or at top scale. This year, for the first time in years, Branch has almost all the materials she needs.
After a two-minute drive from home, Christine McFarland pulls up at Sinton Elementary School, where today teachers are wearing the paraphernalia of their alma mater.
The 45-year-old English and social studies teacher sports a jacket from Texas A&M-Corpus Christi, of which she’s a proud 2001 graduate.
The jacket is also a reminder that, despite her $50,000 annual teacher’s salary and a second job as a supermarket cashier, she long has been delinquent on the $300-a-month payments on her 30-year student loan, leaving a debt in the high five digits.
“We’re not making a living wage. Teachers, especially single teachers trying to live off our salary, are going paycheck to paycheck,” she says. “I make enough for basics – bills, groceries – and that’s it. No extra money for anything else, like getting my nails done or buying new clothes.”
She’s a single mother. Three years ago, one of her two kids qualified for reduced-price school lunches. “I’m a teacher. And I qualified for reduced lunch. What does that say?”
It says she’s thinking about leaving her calling.
As Rebecca Garelli drives up to Sevilla Elementary School-West, her Nissan sedan’s stickers make the car look like a political billboard: “#StillInvested … #RedForEd …. #EdWave2018 … #RememberInNovember”
In March, this 37-year-old middle school science teacher started a Facebook page that helped spark the teachers’ uprising in the state. Today, her tank top is bright red – the movement’s signature color. At home she has a drawer of red shirts, a couple of red blouses and a red dress.
She’s driven an hour from her home at the other corner of the metropolitan area. Her long commute helps explain her activism.
Her family moved here from Chicago two years ago for the Southwestern lifestyle. When she interviewed for teaching jobs, she was startled: “On average, I was going to take a $35,000 pay cut.”
So she took a relatively well-paying job a relatively long way from home in a school with relatively large class sizes.
And it’s exhausting her.
ABSENT: Teachers who aren’t teaching
Some teachers are not teaching on this day, for reasons that underlie the profession’s crisis.
Halston Drennan, 32, is in class at the University of Wyoming, where he’s pursuing a bachelor’s degree in chemical engineering. He resigned at the end of the past school year as a high school math teacher in Fort Collins, Colorado, where after three years, he was making $39,000. He loved teaching but realized he’d never be able to afford to buy a home. Unless, his mother told him, “you marry up.”
Amber Ball, 26, is driving back to Columbia, a tiny town (pop. 390) in northeast Louisiana where she teaches junior high language arts. No school today – her financially strapped district is on a four-day week to save money. That’s good, because she gets a three-day weekend. And it’s bad, because she takes home just $2,300 a month, even though she has a master’s degree.
Luis Martinez, 35, is not teaching his two Spanish classes today at West Shores High in Salton City, California. He arrived at the remote desert school to find that a security officer was out and that he had to take his place. He’s frustrated. In such cases, “We’re supposed to have a plan.” Now he has to arrange a sub for his own classes.[Story continues on USA Today]