By Peggy Wuenstel — I have been spending many angst filled evenings over the last two years, trying to get a sense of when things went off the rails.
I have been in this business for 30 years. There are some things that I knew back at the beginning that are still true today. Teaching is hard work. Educating children is a team sport. You will never get rich working in public education if your bank account is the measure of your success. The days will be long and the summers will be short. The intangibles will always trump the measurable in making you feel like you earn your paycheck, and even though it’s not all about the kids, it is certainly mostly about the kids.
Some things have changed radically, at least here in Wisconsin.
Showing up every day, doing the best you can, keeping your skills current, and volunteering for extra duties will not make teaching a secure job anymore. The majority of Wisconsin taxpayers don’t view the public money they spend to compensate teachers as the good investment that they have in the past. In a consumer-driven society where we’ll upgrade our phones, order the pricey wine, and stay in the four star hotel, the adage: “You get what you pay for” doesn’t seem to apply to the education of our children.
There is now a marked difference between what we can afford to pay as a society and what we are willing to pay. Where the stereotype of the teacher in the past was (and certainly not universally true) the patient, kindly public servant who never lost their temper or expressed discontent about their working conditions, today’s image is just as likely to be a militant public employee who is overpaid, with an attitude of entitlement. Neither is accurate.
What has also changed is the way we connect the dots between our democratic government and the aggressive capitalism that drives the American economy. I am married to an economics major, and we have had three decades of conversations on where our money comes from and where it goes. I have come to understand that there are two essential components that drive the creation of prosperity and fuel the engine of American success: Capital and Labor. Both are necessary for the creation of products, the provision of services, and the rise of small businesses, cottage industries, and multi-national corporations.
We have historically believed that Americans value the labor of their fellow citizens. We express our appreciation for the actions of first-responders in a crisis like the Boston marathon bombing. We covet the skill of the engineer, the cabinetmaker, or the cake decorator that create the items that enrich our lives. We are grateful for and dependent upon the services of those who transport our goods cross country, diagnose our illness and treat those maladies, deliver our mail, and cut our hair. We dream about being in the same league as the pro athletes, musicians, or actors that entertain us in our leisure time.
But things have changed in my lifetime. We seem to value what people HAVE far more than what they DO. Celebrities like Paris Hilton, the Kardashians, and Honey Boo Boo are not particularly gifted in actions other than commanding our attention and accumulating wealth. We know more about athletes’ contracts and salaries than we do about their statistics on the field. It is now as important to be the highest paid player as it is to have the most passing yards, home runs, shots on goal, or won/loss percentage. This appears to reflect the value system of our society in general. Those who have the capital command the respect. Capitalists have so devalued the labor of our fellow Americans that their jobs are exported overseas where they can pay even less so that capital grows at a faster rate.
As you can imagine, this puts educators at a great disadvantage in earning and keeping public respect. We have never, as a group, been about having things. The fruit of our labors does not fill warehouses, power automobiles, heat homes, or satisfy that chocolate craving at the end of the day. We fill minds, power aspirations, kindle fires of enthusiasm and ambition, and satisfy the needs of children to feel loved, valued, and capable of meeting the challenges of the future. We help parents, clergy, community leaders, and others willing to invest in the future, to shape people who aspire to DO things as much as to HAVE things.
If we still value the work that we do for each other, the communities that we build, the wounds that we heal, and the knowledge we accumulate, then teachers are essential to the future of this country. They deserve the return of the respect, in both financial and standing realms, to this honorable profession. Until we do so as a society, we will undervalue many, many people whose contributions are essential to our collective American dream.
Many of my friends and colleagues remain mystified by what has happened. For the most part, we haven’t changed. We still come in early and stay late. We carry piles of papers home and carry our students in our hearts. We haven’t gotten rich, and we’re not sure of the retirement plans we made when started out as novice teachers. We worry about health care, about students who come from unsafe neighborhoods and homes with empty cupboards. We try to live the Marquette mission every day, to Be the Difference, all in a time the difference between what our fellow mortals feel we are worth and what we know we contribute to the students we love is as large as it has ever been.
Have a great summer, and I’ll see you on these pages in the fall.