Thursday, July 26, 2012

A Letter from a Professional Teacher by Kristine Hester

I have been a suburban public school teacher for eight years. I attended a top-tier university and made a choice to forgo the lucrative, and for me personally unfulfilling, world of business and become an educator because I love teaching. Igniting a student’s curiosity, enthusiasm, and motivation is what drives me to succeed in my profession, and I am not alone -- I work in an environment devoted to the value of learning for both students AND staff.
Where my colleagues and I are now increasingly isolated, however, is in our view that what we do is important and valuable to society.
Every day in the newspapers, a reader, a columnist, an editorial board, or a biased reporter tells my colleagues and me that our job isn't worth what we are paid, that compared to someone with my education, (for instance, Master's degree plus several additional hours), workload (60+ hours per week, plus hours of professional development over the summers), and job performance (only stellar reviews), it is worth a pittance in the private sector. We are also reminded every day by administrators and parents that anyone could do our jobs better than we do them.
The importance of a child's education has been threatened by policies like No Child Left Behind and Race to the Top. I've been told over and over again that what I do doesn't matter, that unless it can be measured by data, it has no worth. How in the world can you measure inspiration with a number?
Teachers are not considered professionals any longer, nor are we considered valuable to society for the work we do with our students. And now, we are devalued in the current pension debate. We're told, "Don't take it personally...the state is broke and something needs to be done. Sure, there was a contract, but we don't have the money; so tough for you."
Yes, something needs to be done about the lack of revenue, but the state IS NOT BROKE BECAUSE OF MY COLLEAGUES OR ME. It is broke because policymakers spent money irresponsibly, and they didn't consider the consequences (or, more subversively, didn't care about them). I fail to see how I should be blamed and punished for this neglect. I don't ask to be given special treatment; nor do I ask to be put on a pedestal. I simply ask that the promises made to my profession be honored, just as I honor my financial commitments every day.
As most people know, educators did not cause the pension problem. Nevertheless, we are willing to work with the leaders and citizens of Illinois to help fix it. Just as we would ask our students to be responsible, we also ask that those responsible for the state’s financial problems be held accountable and that any proposed solutions are constitutional, practical and fair.
My colleagues and I chose this profession knowing that we would have no company car, no expense account, no business lunches, no bonuses, and no company-funded trips (aside from those on a school bus). We knew we would make a decent but not extravagant wage; more importantly, we believed that upon retirement, we would have a secure pension plan for the rest of our lives. What we have discovered is the state has now started to dismantle our financial security to fund its gross negligence. A typical response from private sector detractors: "Well, my 401k took a dump when the economy crashed; so should your retirement plan."
But there's a big difference that people don't want to talk about: their retirement plan was not promised by the constitution of the State of Illinois, and they were allowed to pay into Social Security. We didn't because the state made a deal to save money.
Eight years ago, I was excited about becoming a teacher. I planned on helping a lot of children find their place in the world. Today, I sometimes believe this is a pointless endeavor. Why bother? High-stakes testing and the gradual devaluing of education in this state and elsewhere in this country are demoralizing my colleagues and me, and some of them have started looking for other careers now.
I love working with children. I know I'm good at my job, and I know that I've made a difference in a lot of children's lives. I give them a reason to be excited about learning; I instill passion in them to become the best they can be at whatever they love most. Unfortunately, teachers who are intelligent, qualified, talented, and hard-working are going to leave the profession. What will that do to our system of education in Illinois and in the rest of this country?


  1. Your letter is very well stated.

    The pension system was made as a form of deferred compensation to attract the best people and large numbers of them. How the thinking has changed in the last two years.

    There is only one thing that will turn this around. That will be a teacher shortage that will surely come about.

  2. I work with college students in the Education program. Many of these best and brightest future teachers are beginning to look to other states to begin their careers. They are aware of the demoralization of teachers in Illinois and the pension problems. They want no part of it. Sad for Illinois that they have lost any ability to attract these outstanding future teachers. But, even worse, I am wondering if these young people will even find a state who does respect what they have to bring to the schools and children of that state!