An open letter to the teachers of Hamilton County Schools,
A lot has been written about us these past few months. About our schools, our district leaders, our school board and our County Commission. Believe me when I say I have plenty more I could say about all of these. Some of them are truly working in an effort to try and help us, even if they have genuine budget concerns, and others are nothing more than confrontational bullies bloated with self-importance. But that’s not who I’m addressing right now. This letter is only intended for one audience. Teachers: I’m talking directly to us.
Our Facebook feeds are already filled with posts from other educators who are ramping up for the new school year. Telling each other where the best sales are. Sharing electronic coupons. We all know the drill.
We already see the other posts too. The ones riddled with anxiety. The posts asking for tips on how to manage it all. How to not work 70 hour weeks from now until the end of May. How to get coverage for our mandatory extra duties that we’re not compensated for. And the pledges! “I promised myself I am not spending a single penny of my own money this year!” Even as we type the words, we know we’re lying because we are already driving to Target.
“See a need, fill a need!” Bigweld bellows in the movie “Robots”. Teachers are masters at it. We see a kid without school clothes, every teacher on the hall donates $20 and one of us goes shopping. Kid came to school hungry? “No worries, just grab a granola bar from my closet, sweetie.” We think our kids could really reach the next level if we incentivized things a little, so off to Dollar Tree we go!
We write grants. We ask local businesses for donations. We scavenge items from our own homes, and “borrow” things from our friends, families, and neighbors. If we’re lucky enough to have a school with an active PTA, we go ask if they can help. But when we get really desperate, that’s when we start begging for our help on our personal Facebook pages.
There are very few among us who have not only funded the majority of needs in our own classrooms, but also pitched in to help other teachers fund theirs as well. We are a unique breed, for sure.
We know that if every educator in this country stopped spending their own money in their classrooms and stopped working uncompensated hours, the American school system would screech to a halt. We sometimes forget that it’s not the community’s fault that they don’t know teachers are literally carrying the school system on their backs. We see a need, we fill the need. Rinse, lather, and repeat. We’ve done it for decades and I have a feeling we will continue to do it for decades to come.
So I’m not going to ask you not to spend your own money this upcoming school year. I know you will and so will I. (I’m heading to the Dollar Tree for some of those giant erasers as soon as I send this email to the Chattanoogan, in fact.) But I am going to ask you do two things just a little bit differently this year…
First, I’m asking you to keep the receipts for every non-reimbursed classroom expense you pay for out of your own pocket. Again, I’m not asking you not to spend it (though we would all do well to stop). Just to keep the receipts. Keep an old shoe box in your car, or your classroom, or your home office - or even one in each location - and toss in those receipts as you accumulate them.
Second, keep a simple log of all the uncompensated time you work. This means any time spent outside of your contractual hours grading papers, lesson planning, making copies, gate duty, school plays, performances, and so on. Log every minute of it.
You see, I know so many of you are just like me, you don’t even really mind spending the money and donating the extra time. Most of us love what we do. But what we despise is having it expected of us. When the “extra” becomes the “expected” we have a major problem. Ladies and gentlemen, we have a major, major problem and part of it is our own fault. We (and our predecessors) have been silently seeing and filling needs for far, far too long.
So why am I asking us to do this?
Not only will this help us remain objective about the amount of time or money we’re spending in our classrooms when we get overwhelmed and feel like we should somehow be able to just do more, but these materials will be very handy during the next election cycle. You don’t have to join me (though I hope you will) but when my district’s county commissioner goes up for reelection, I will be going door-to-door on behalf of his opponent carrying our shoeboxes, our time logs, and our stories. If others who are supposed to represent us continue to fail to do exactly that, I have no problem knocking on our neighbors' doors to talk about their opponent's plans for education while I'm at it. Enough is enough.
Yes, you read that correctly. I am going to go door-to-door in my district so that voters can look me in the eye, ask me questions, and hear our stories. Then I’m going to ask them to vote for anyone who will do a better job of representing the needs and voices of teachers and students that those who just voted down the best step forward we’ve seen in a very long time. Then, if I have time, I’m coming to your district too.
I am not suggesting that elected officials bend to our every whim, but when our voices are deliberately ignored while we are simultaneously expected to carry the load without complaint or even negotiation, it’s time to elect new representatives. It seems they’ve forgotten that teachers vote. It’s time to remind them that we are their constituents, too.
Our neighbors need to hear from us. Elected officials need to hear from us. Our students and the communities we serve need to hear from us.
So please, teachers, let’s just keep doing what we do. But this time - log those hours and keep those receipts. Elections are coming - and so are we.