The value of teachers' work
The complexity of teaching in public schools today is difficult to explain to retired colleagues or friends who are not in public systems. Much has changed in the last 30 years.
Today’s teachers have so much to learn beyond curriculum and teaching techniques. When I began my career, I was given a textbook and a course of study as my guides. Now there are teaching materials and supports, pacing guides, programs for attendance, grading, and parent contact logs, among many other teaching and classroom management tools.
There are board policies; state and federal laws regarding students with disabilities; a student code of conduct, with its own implementation guidelines; and a 189-page employee code of conduct that we are responsible for understanding.
With today’s accountability standards, teachers must be aware of every student who has documentation of his or her specific needs. Learning how to access and fill out the proper forms is also always changing, and time consuming.
There are procedures for everything—from a level 1 lockdown to any sort of emergency you can think of. Teachers must know which words are acceptable when addressing students and which to avoid using, which may not always be obvious. Teachers must use student data to analyze, prioritize and individualize instruction. The list goes on and on. Any one of these items could take a long time to master.
On top of all this, teachers are expected to motivate students to be engaged in their coursework. Moreover, we are all required to continue taking graduate-level courses and to participate in professional development.
What is the economic value of our teachers?
A few years ago, I heard that in an affluent Cleveland suburb, a school board member stated during contract negotiations that teachers needn’t be paid salaries that would enable them to afford to live in the community in which they teach. In CH-UH, I have heard anti-public-school residents say that teacher salaries should reflect the income level of the residents in the district.
If this were policy, a third-grade teacher at Gearity Professional Development Elementary School in University Heights would make more than a third-grade teacher at Fairfax Elementary School in Cleveland Heights—because the median income in University Heights is higher. Obviously, this makes no sense.
There is a market rate for teaching in our region, and salaries in CH-UH fall into that range—not the highest and not the lowest. Our salaries depend on our licenses, skills, and experience. There is also a predictable set of salary steps established for our teachers and support staff. Wild fluctuations from year to year would result in teachers and staff going elsewhere.
The same is true for our health care benefits. We have the benefits that all working people deserve in order to attract and retain the best possible people to work in our district. This is what we, the community, pay for. We want the best possible people to work and stay in CH-UH. It is the only way to be competitive in a tight labor market.
Working in public schools is challenging and demanding. There is much to know, and the requisite knowledge is constantly changing. Maintaining competitive benefits and pay is essential to the health of the school system. Investing in our schools equates with an investment in the value of our community. No one wants to pay more in taxes, but we have little choice until there are major changes at the state and federal level to support public schools.
Ari Klein is a lifelong community member, math teacher at Cleveland Heights High School, and president of the teachers union.