By Karen Vieth
I have been in touch with many Wisconsin families this past year to discuss the political climate, particularly its effects on education. This outreach has been extremely beneficial to me and to those on the other side of the door or at the other end of the phone line. In general, when I contact someone who clearly “stands with” Governor Walker, I politely end the conversation and move on to the next door or phone call. Dealings within my own family taught me long ago that when individuals set in their ways are confronted, they oftentimes dig in their heels even deeper. However, a few nights ago I was feeling particularly feisty, and so I decided to engage the Walker fanatics on the phones. Doing so did not improve my disposition or raise my spirits, but it did give me a clear vision of what we are up against. We are fighting against ignorance, hatred, apathy, and people who refuse see the truth about teachers and public education.
With a Walker supporter on the line, my first question was, “What about the $1.6 billion dollars cut from education? Does that worry you at all?” The response I received from each Walker follower was, “No, not at all.” And when I asked about class size, an even bigger alarm bell rang. One person I talked to thought that 50 – 60 would be a fine class size. She also thought the budget cuts were okay, because we have “too much” technology in the schools. In her mind, this is why some of our kids aren’t able to read; nobody is teaching them. Teachers and students are too busy “messing with computers.” But the biggest shock came when discussing educational assistants and paraprofessionals. The response was, “We wouldn’t need those aides if teachers would just do their jobs. Those positions should be cut.” When I started to list some programming that has been cut under Walker’s administration, the rebuttal was an accusation, “The only reason you teachers are involved is because you don’t want to pay your pension and health care.” While these types of phone calls were in the minority that night, they made an impact. The calls left me trembling and afraid for our future. This led to days of me walking the halls of my school, purposefully seeing even more vividly what they do not. Here is some of what I see.
In the morning, kids gather in the building, many of them getting their breakfast at school so that they will be focused on learning rather than their hunger. Walking down the hall to my classroom, I notice a special education assistant pushing a child in a wheelchair while sharing a joke. There are goofy expressions on each of their faces.
In the afternoon, I see kids in classes learning and teachers kneeling beside them offering guidance. Special education assistants are in the rooms dealing with some of our neediest populations, sometimes taking a kick or getting scratched without complaint. Professionals with Master’s degrees are bathrooming or feeding special education students, because there is a need. Later in the day, the whole school gathers for our “Fun Run.” They are gearing up for a real life lesson on human health and awareness. Staff run alongside students, encouraging them and providing support. After the run, the school population takes the bleachers, applauding the succeses of this tightly knit community.
After school, the building is still alive with activity. Many students stay after school to get homework help. This one on one attention is something the students cherish; you can see the eagerness in their eyes and the smiles on their faces when they receive positive reinforcement. After hours, devoted teachers stay late, sometimes well past dinner time. It isn’t something they do for the money; clearly there is no overtime pay. They make these efforts for their students; it is the reason that they are in this profession.
I see a lot of greatness within the walls of my school, but lately I am also tuned in to the sadness. The post Act 10 world is already bleak. Staff morale is at an all-time low. Current legislation and rulings, such as the new definition of base wage, are reason to worry. While the Madison teachers are protected by a contract for one more year, friends in neighboring districts tell us tales of their life with “teacher handbooks” rather than contracts. Stories of longer school days without compensation or positions lost without just cause reach our ears. We are already having to say goodbye to some of our friends who have been laid off. We wonder what else is to come. The uncertainty hangs heavy on everyone’s minds while we continue to do what is best for our students.
Many of us find it harder and harder to do our jobs. Over half of my students live in poverty. Shopping for school supplies and stocking my cabinets for the students has always been a part of my job. When a student can’t come up with the funding for a field trip, I have never had a problem chipping in a few extra dollars. This year, I struggle. Due to the recent cuts in my pay, I don’t always have that extra dollar to help out. I live in a single income household. I’m still paying back that Master’s degree that is no longer included as part of my base pay. Money that used to flow from my paycheck into my classroom is not there. It is a horrible feeling. Because of cuts to programs and services, my students’ families hurt more and more under Walker’s rule. At the same time, I find myself able to help them less and less.
As Election Day looms nearer, I get more and more anxious about the years to come. Changes in staffing have made my job more difficult every year. Next year will be the most challenging to date. Budget cuts made now result in a direct change in programming, services, and student to teacher ratios. Those left in the schools have to figure out a way to take on additional responsibilities with dwindling resources.
Thinking back to those calls, I wonder how some of our public has gotten so out of touch. Quality, public education is the keystone to a successful democracy. Educated citizens are able to lift up our community and make it greater than before. Mohatma Gandhi said, “A nation’s greatness is measured by how it treats its weakest members.” He saw what some of those stricken with greed in our society cannot: we are all in this together. There is no greatness that excludes and puts down populations in need. One of the reasons our public education is so important is that it is one of the only systems in our society that welcomes everyone through its doors. When people let loose hatred on these institutions and our government withdraws its funding, we all suffer.
I plan on taking this battle to the polls. There is no time to sit idly by or to let my pessimism and fear prevent me from action. I will continue to knock on the doors of my neighbors and to speak a truth that some may not be ready to hear. The future of public education, my students, and our society depends on it. If we all speak some truth on June 5th, those who are choosing not to truly see us will get their wake up call.