Monday, July 2, 2007

Twisted Words and Teacher Pay

Be very careful about releasing your words into the wild. Once you’ve made a public statement, it’s no longer yours, and anyone who has an opinion and a pen can use it any way he likes. In January, I was interviewed by Jessica M. Karmasek, a writer for Charleston, West Virginia’s Daily Mail newspaper. We had a long phone conversation about me, my teaching, and, among other issues, the cost of living disparity between the part of the state where I live and other parts of the state, which are in a population decline. When Jessica’s article was published, she quoted me accurately, and, with the exception of adding three years to my age (Gasp!), presented me in a realistic and positive light. I was flattered by how she saw me and was impressed with her writing skills.

Something I said to Jessica, however, struck a nerve with people: that I would rather teach in West Virginia than cross the border into another state where teachers make more money. The story was picked up by the AP and spread to other state papers. Most of these short pieces were of the “thumbs up” type, applauding my selflessness in taking a pay cut to teach at home, like this one from the March, 2007 issue of Graffiti magazine: “IN: West Virginia teacher of the year, Sarah Morris, English teacher at Berkeley Springs High School is making a commitment to stay in the state despite the lure of higher salaries in neighbouring states. Sarah is committed to her students, her community and is keeping her considerable talents at home.” These sentiments continued to spread, and USA Today picked the byte up, too, in their state blurbs.

Strangely, as the words moved farther away from me, they became more and more condensed, truncating my thoughts into one, single (and twisted) message: Good teachers don’t need more money. Then, to my surprise, the words grew again, were editorialized and leveraged by both sides of the teacher pay issue in my home state. I was discussed in editorials and in blogs. One Dominion Post letter to the editor very bitingly criticized me as being naively unaware of the issues teachers face when they have families to raise and live in other counties. As the state legislature, the governor, and the state teacher unions negotiated for a pay increase, my words become more political. They did so without my consent.

In March, teachers across the state staged a planned, one-day walkout to vie for a pay raise for West Virginia teachers. Fourteen of the state’s fifty-five counties participated in the walkout, but, in spite of the growing population, mine was not one of them. Teachers in my county, in contrast to the rest of West Virginia’s Eastern Panhandle, voted to stay in school that day for a number of reasons. Some base facts of the teacher pay issue, statewide, are these:

We currently rank 47th in the nation in terms of teacher pay.

On March 10, 2007, the WV legislature approved a 3.5% pay increase (which ends up being somewhere between $800 and $2000 annually, depending on degree and level of experience). Something, but not much.

As a whole, the population of West Virginia is in decline, but the population in the Eastern Panhandle, where I live, is growing exponentially. These facts apply to me and other teachers in my county:

Morgan County, West Virginia, where I live, has a community which supports an excess levy that allows our first year teachers to start out at about $2000 more than the state average, and we have been granted a pay increase two out of the last three years due to that levy. This almost compensates for the cost of living increase in our area, which has become a bedroom community for DC.

My school voted 30 to 8 against the state wide walkout (although many teachers did not vote at all, as this represents a little over half our staff). There were many reasons for this, and some of our individual reasons for not walking out were documented by students in their weekly program, NewsTeam.

I am lucky to live in a county that believes in supporting education. I am lucky in that I am single, childless, and able to do work that I love. If I wanted a fully loaded Lexus, a McMansion, and a state of the art technological arsenal, would I make enough money to have them? Not in a million years. Do I want these things someday? No. I would not leave work that I love in order to have material wealth. If I had a family to support, would I make enough money to do so? Probably not, and I want to have a family some day. If teacher pay does not change before I am ready for these things, maybe I will find a more lucrative profession. Or maybe my children will live with less, even though they shouldn’t have to. I do not know what will happen. I have enough experience that I am very aware of poverty’s territories, and I never want to live there.

Still, what I said was meant to be personal, not political, regardless of the fact that I can now hear the adage “The Personal is Political” ringing in my head. I was raised by proud West Virginians who know the debilitating effects of poverty and believe that the way out of it is education; therefore, I identify as West Virginian and believe in the power of education. As far as my altruism goes, my reasons for staying at home are maybe not as noble as people think. The belief that I’m making a difference in West Virginia makes me feel good. I do it because it makes me feel like a purposeful, dedicated West Virginian. I think I am opening doors for children who may have lives like the ones my parents worked to climb out of, and I am making a difference for those kids. That feels good. I teach to feel good, just like I exercise to feel good, read books to feel good, write in my journal to feel good, spend time with the people I love to feel good. I’m not sure that’s so noble. In fact, it might even be a little selfish.

I am writing about this because it raises a cultural issue for me in terms of the way we read and report the news. When I interviewed with Jessica Karmasek, I was talking about myself, not the teacher pay issue as it pertains to any other teachers. This is clear in the article, which was published under the headline: “Teacher of the Year Says She Is Committed to Teaching West Virginia Students.” The focus of the first article was me, not teacher pay, and addresses the fact that money is an issue, but I have the luxury of not needing much money right now. When the AP picked the piece up, however, the headline changed: “West Virginia’s Top Teacher Here to Stay, She Says, Despite Lower Pay.” This second article, run statewide the very next day, is less than a quarter of the length of the original and contains three sentences worth of quotes, yet it changes the focus from me to pay. How’s that for spin? The editorials followed from there, and most of them did not quote me at all. Questions follow: what’s truth, then? I was not misquoted, but parts of my story were missing. Who is responsible? Which article is most accurate? How can I teach students to tell the difference? How can I tell the difference myself?

In an era where everything is a joke or a hot button issue, when we’re more interested in watching the latest Britney Spears trainwreck rather than learning anything, when news is not news, how can we be responsible teachers and learners? If everything’s satire (including, ironically, my school’s student news show, which I think is great) how do we know what’s serious? If we even want the real story, how can we sort through the muck to locate it? Education in the 21st century is a daunting task. The media literacy and critical thinking required in our information age can’t be measured by standards based assessments, yet these skills are absolutely necessary for cultural survival. Just thinking about the tasks ahead of me makes me want to sink into the couch with the remote and a big bag of fat free Doritos, but… I can’t, partly because I don’t have TV, and, also, because I have a job to do.

And just to clear the record: teacher pay is a more complex issue than a single editorial or essay (this one included) can easily address. At the risk of oversimplification, my feelings are these: teachers in West Virginia do not make enough money. Teachers do not make enough money anywhere. We devalue education as a culture, which is why Paris Hilton makes more money than I do and is better liked than I am. (What is her job, anyway?) The teaching profession reaches every American life. Every life. And yet we are at the bottom of the professional pay scale. Don’t give me a pay raise, give me a paradigm shift.