#55strong: “Rumor Has It . . . Legislators Said We Could Rot”

Part 2—Day 3 of the Teachers’ Walkout

Note: I am a substitute teacher who works part-time in Monongalia and Preston counties. I’m also writing a book about the recent shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Florida. This book will look at our culture and the state of failing education—and examine what contributes to such tragedies, while exploring how we can stop them.

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Preston County native Ashley Jenkins was substitute teaching by day and waitressing by night when she was struck by an epiphany.

It happened while waiting for her dream job, which was not in education. “That’s when it occurred to me that I would be really sad to give up teaching,” Jenkins said. “I really like my job.”

Jenkins’ first foray into the classroom was day by day, as a temporary sub. Then a position as a long-term Spanish substitute opened up. It was only a half-day of work, and required her to drive between Kingwood and Rowlesburg schools, a distance of 12 miles each way. But then, Aurora Middle School reopened. With that came the need for a Spanish teacher. Jenkins finally had a full-time job, but she was commuting from Kingwood to Rowlesburg to Aurora—and back again. That’s 50 miles a day.

There are two ways to reach Aurora from Rowlesburg. Neither of which is for the fainthearted. You can take formidable Route 50 or take Route 7, and crawl up Caddell Mountain to Terra Alta. But that route often leaves drivers stuck in long lines of traffic following logging trucks going 35 miles per hour. Coming back down the steep hillside, it’s not uncommon for a trucker to burn up his brakes, leading to a fatality like the one I covered in the late 1980s. (Which resulted in a runaway truck ramp being carved into the side of the mountain.)

Taking Route 50 involves driving up and down Laurel Mountain, on one of the windiest roads in the country. Just ask the truck drivers who make a living traversing it. And watch out for those infamous Preston County winters. Route 50 is famous for its hairpin turns, nicknamed “kiss your butt” curves because truckers can see the rear axels on their trailers at one end, even after the tractor they’re driving has come through the other end. These perilous stretches of road are known to result in many such jackknifed vehicles.

Route 7 isn’t any better: the snowstorms that strike Terra Alta, which in Latin means “high ground,” blow bitter and hard, sweeping snow so high the white stuff completely closes Evans Curve. This doesn’t even take into account the Aurora Pike where, although offering panoramic views of scenic farmland, is far narrower and not as well maintained as the two state highways.

It’s a trek many a teacher must make to reach their classrooms.

“On paper they give you 30 minutes between schools,” Jenkins said. “But it took longer . . . I was physically exhausted every day, so when this (full-time Spanish) position opened at Preston High School, I felt like I had to take it.”

That’s just one of the ways Jenkins, like many Preston County teachers I interviewed, goes above and beyond for her job. Actually, that’s not entirely accurate. Jenkins drove 50 miles a day for more than two years because of the children she teaches. As a whole, teachers don’t seem to care much about the nuts and bolts of their jobs, such as how much money they earn. If they did, they’d be in another profession entirely. They care about their young charges, and the hungry minds entrusted to them, the ones they strive to instill a love of learning into.

In addition to those miles, Jenkins made other, after-school trips to attend her Aurora students’ cross-country track meets and school dances, “which was brutal.”

By the time teachers throughout West Virginia walked out last week, severe cuts in Public Employees Insurance Agency (PEIA) benefits—to all state employees, not just teachers—had already reduced take-home pay. In terms of income, West Virginia teachers rank 48th in the nation, and further cuts proposed by this year’s session of the legislature would have slashed their paychecks even more.

The situation is more dire than the 1990 strike I covered, in which 47 out of 55 counties took part.

Considering that the majority of teachers go above and beyond, they felt like they simply couldn’t remain silent. They had to stand up and fight.

You don’t have to look very far to find such dedicated teachers. I know one retired teacher who devoted an entire bedroom to her students, storing classroom supplies there. Supplies she bought and paid for with her own money.

Teachers do this all the time—especially in West Virginia, where education dollars continue to shrink. I’ve even known teachers who have brought toilet paper from home, since notebook paper isn’t the only kind schools can’t afford to purchase.

“I would buy posters and papers and notebooks for my kids,” Brian Bailey, a former special education teacher, said. “Decorations for the classroom, ink for the printers. I spaced it out so not too much (came) out of a paycheck. When Walmost ran back-to-school sales . . . single-subject notebooks went down to 10-cents each,” Bailey said.

Barb Stafford, another retired teacher, did likewise. “I did a lot of that in the summertime, before school started. You could get them in bulk and squirrel them away and hand them out during the school year.”

If the average West Virginia teacher makes $45,622, as state officials say, then that amount is reduced at least a few hundred dollars by these purchases. If not more. But most teachers here simply do not make nearly that much. “I’m not making $45,622, I’ll tell you that right now,” Jenkins said. I don’t know anyone in my hallway, with the possible exception of the guy with 30-odd years of experience, who might be.”

Tom Bane, a regional staff rep with WVEA, said “that number seems high to me personally, but there’s no way to dispute it.” Even if the figure is correct, Bane said it’s going to begin dropping dramatically. “So many teachers are within five years of retirement that, as they retire, it’s going to lower (the average),”

This is because hundreds of West Virginia teachers retire every year. So the lower average will come about because teachers with less seniority will make up the majority. Since first year teachers with a bachelor’s degree earn $32,675, it’s possible we could see the average salary dip closer to $40,000. Or less.

There’s more to the salary issue than meets the eye. For example, teachers can’t just stop working after a 40-hour week. Their classroom time may equal 40 hours, but they also have papers to grade, and prom duty and sporting events to attend. Add to that workload the task of answering students’ email.

“With things becoming more digital, our commitments outside the classroom are changing,” Jenkins said. “We use LiveGrades (an online student grading system) now and my students expect me to answer messages. I tell them if you send it after school, I’m not likely to get it.”

Teachers are rarely paid for additional hours spent outside the classroom. But they say that time isn’t optional—their students’ grades depend on it. This fact is borne out by Jenkins’ experience. As a new teacher, she couldn’t understand why her students weren’t performing well. In that class, which she acquired after another substitute left, 50-percent of the students were failing.

Jenkins thought she doing something wrong. Not knowing what else to do, she sought advice from more experienced teachers. “Jim Davis was a teacher on my floor and he helped me so much. Anytime I had a student who was just refusing to do work or acting out, instead of locking horns with that student right away, I’d go down the hall and talk to Jim and say, ‘Hey, what’s the deal with this kid? What can I do?’” Jenkins said. “A kid who would dig in his heels and do nothing for me, Jim could sit down with and five minutes later, the kid will do whatever you want because (Jim) knows the family, he’s had that kid’s older siblings, he knows the kids’ parents, he’s driven that kid to little league when nobody else would take them. That’s the advantage of a senior teacher.”

Senior teachers like Davis pass along this knowledge to new teachers, which helps successive generations of children succeed.

“I was under the impression that I was not preparing (the lesson plans) well enough. So I (put) in a ton of time after school coming up with better ways to teach, and more comprehensive assignments,” Jenkins said.

Until Davis told her “that’s probably not the problem.” Instead, he suggested she show personal interest in her students.

“Have you gone to any of the youth league games yet?” Jenkins said Davis asked her, the first time she approached him. His simple advice led her to begin attending those games. The result was nothing short of amazing.

“By the end (of the year), most (students) were passing,” she said.

Because of his seniority, Davis knew that poverty could interfere with a child’s ability to learn—something Jenkins had yet to discern. “They might not necessarily see the value of an education, yet they do eventually,” Jenkins said Davis taught her. “It’s your personal connection with the students that makes them want to try, to work, for you.”

Educators who put this knowledge into practice find it pays off. Showing personal interest in a student, his interests, and his family is crucial. That’s why so many teachers don’t mind not getting paid for putting in extra hours at a late-night sporting event. “The good news about a large staff at Preston High is,” Jenkins said, “I know some teachers go to volleyball, so I can do track . . . We represent all sports.”

Still, Jenkins admits the hectic schedule can take its toll. “If I’m overworked and have to grade papers until 8 p.m., you ask (yourself) if you can do it—or do I need to go home and sleep so I can teach again tomorrow?”

Today’s teachers understand that their workload isn’t decreasing. “We have very full classrooms, and 45 minutes (to a class). It’s really hard to have the time between managing (what we do). We’re really starved for resources,” Jenkins said.

“That doesn’t mean we don’t try to continue to do the best we can because they’re (the kids) our number one priority,” Bailey said. “But it is hard with limited resources and more (certification) requirements to meet those needs. And when we’re short staffed, that hurts as well.”

Still, Bailey’s attitude is shared by most teachers I know. By the teachers who taught me, and other teachers who taught my children. “I work with kids to help them succeed and achieve. Does it make it harder? Do I come home exhausted where I can’t take care of things (like family responsibilities)?” Bailey said it does, “but I prioritize so the kids come first.”

These same teachers know that, hour for hour, compared to what state lawmakers make, they themselves earn a pittance. West Virginia legislators earn $20,000—for 60 days of work in the statehouse. It’s the equivalent of a part-time job. And on top of a salary, those lawmakers receive $131 per diem for each of those 60 days, which adds another $7,860 to their pay.

Before becoming dean of students at East Preston Middle School in Terra Alta, Davis spent 26 years in the classroom. “I usually worked 6:30 a.m. to 4 p.m., sometimes longer (plus another) six to eight hours in the weekend,” he said. In addition, he worked “two weeks in the summer and two to three days (each) over Thanksgiving and Christmas breaks.”

The total? Davis estimates he worked an average “55-60 hours a week.”

Besides her time inside the classroom, Jenkins spends two hours at home each Sunday creating lesson plans. She estimates she works eight or 10 hours a week outside the classroom. Three days a week she doesn’t leave PHS until 6:30 p.m. Those are the days she grades papers.

“During cross country season, I try to attend as many as I can,” Jenkins said, “(but during those weeks) or prom week, it could be 15-20 additional hours.”

Here’s the kicker: Jenkins made more money as a food server. “My take home was higher as a waitress (and) in general, I was treated with more respect,” she said. “People appreciate that waiters are working hard for their money. It’s very rare that you ask a customer to pay and they roll their eyes and say ‘no.’ You might take a significant amount of disrespect from the students.”

This attitude can be seen everywhere. “You just have to watch a teen movie to know that public perception of teachers is not in your favor,” Jenkins said, citing the popular teen movie, Ferris Bueller’s Day Off. “Between the legislature and popular culture, teachers seem to get a bum rap.”

Thus the problem of low morale affecting West Virginia’s teachers.

Plus, teachers here don’t even make the state minimum wage of $8.75 an hour. Not even if you take the average salary of $45,622 and divide by 55—the average number of hours several teachers calculated they work each week. This means teachers here earn roughly $8.29 an hour—to carry out a job that involves training tomorrow’s leaders. They do this in an increasingly dangerous environment, as the recent school shooting in Florida makes evident. Inside schools, where teachers turn into human shields, in a desperate attempt to protect children from bullets.

These problems, this disparity, have educators fuming. And in large part, it’s due to politicians who continue to show they do not value education, or the teachers behind it.

“We did everything we could,” Jenkins said. “They had between 10-15,000 of us on a Saturday, in the rain, standing out in front of the Capitol saying ‘do something,’ and . . . I’m no longer getting responses back from my legislators, from anyone. We’ve all emailed, called.”

Bailey said teachers feel even less appreciated, when they hear what legislators say about them behind closed doors. “Rumor has it (there were) three or four legislators who said we could rot. They were probably the same ones who last year said teachers could get a second job, (or) turn off (the) Internet.”

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Dear Readers,

My seventh book, Shatter the Silence, a love story and the long-awaited sequel to my memoir was released May 2016. That’s on the heels of Tales of the Vintage Berry Wine Gang, a collection of my newspaper columns from 1988-91, which came out in April 2016.

For an in-depth look at the damaging effects of the silence that surrounds abuse, please watch my live TEDx talk, given April 13, 2013, at Connecticut College.

Have a great day and remember, it’s whatever you want to make it!

~Daleen

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