Fran Sussner Rogers’ New York Times Op-Ed on the imminent change in the federal rules governing overtime talks about “…the clash between the finite amount of time employees actually have versus the desire of employers to treat time as an inexhaustible resource. And this issue affects everyone, whether eligible for overtime or not.” Although Rogers is a business consultant whose thoughts are aimed primarily at the private sector, they will resonate with America’s teaching workforce as well.
At a time when they are depicted as an unskilled, undereducated, uncaring pro-union lot by a corporate reform movement and their allies in our political class, the fact is today’s teachers, about 75 percent of whom are female, are working much harder than the teachers of my generation, particularly elementary teachers. The typical seven hour work day was never enough to cover all that teachers were expected to do. New standards, new curriculum, new programs, more meetings, greater parental demands, more professional development, more test prep all create the feeling in many that one can never do enough – that there is always something more that a teacher could be doing for her students. In recent years, I’ve had many more conversations with union members who express increasing difficulty meeting the needs of their own families, it still being the case that home and family responsibilities tend to fall disproportionately on women. So many more demands are made of teacher today that I have taken to talking to our members about their responsibilities to themselves and to their own mental and physical health. A line I often reach for is, “If you let them, management will suck the marrow out of your bones.”
This increased actual work load of teachers and the psychic burden attendant to the uncertainties created by the war declared by certain financial/political elites on public education have coincided, not coincidentally, with stagnating teacher wages. The recent financial crisis significantly exacerbated the pressure to hold down the wages of public employees, particularly teachers. Here in New York a property tax cap was put in place, a brilliant political move by bipartisan lawmakers who lack the fortitude to put in place a fairer, more progressive way of financing public services. This completely arbitrary tax cap is stimulating a race to the bottom in teacher salaries and working conditions. In my own district, we are currently dealing with a management that wants a longer school year but is unwilling to pay for it, their belief seeming to be that our time is of no meaning to us. Elsewhere, we see other examples of disrespect for increasingly difficult teacher work. From rising contribution rates to pensions and benefits to the adoption of entirely new and inferior salary schedules for new hires, the time and extraordinary efforts of teachers are undervalued. It appears that the teacher union battles for the dignity of being paid fairly for one’s time need to be fought all over again.