#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.

* * *

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.”

* * * * *

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

“We’re at Critical Mass”—West Virginia Teachers Love Their Jobs, But Say They Can’t Stay

Part 1—Day 2 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.

* * *

In spite of the fact that West Virginia teachers are at the bottom of the barrel—their salaries rank 48th out of 50 states—the two-day, #55strong walkout was never about money.

Nor is it a strike. “This work action did not originate on the basis of salary. There are many issues,” Cassandra Sisler, president of the Preston County Education Association (PCEA), said. “It’s a work action because it’s only two days. Strikes are illegal.”

Whatever you call it, at the heart of the matter, the real reason West Virginia teachers stood outside being battered by yesterday’s rain is because they care about your children. After interviewing Preston County teachers, I’ve summed up five reasons every public school in the state remains closed today.

Teachers want:

1) Classrooms staffed by educators who are qualified and experienced, so students can learn the skills they need to enter the workforce and compete on the world scene;
2) Consistency and continuity, so children will feel secure, which creates a better environment in which to learn;
3) To feel like their efforts to help shape these young minds are valued, which they say will be reflected when government leaders stop PEIA (Public Employees Insurance Agency) premiums from rising, and prevent benefits from being slashed;
4) To keep those same politicians from interfering with union dues;
5) And finally, since they felt forced to abandon their classrooms to protest the broken promises of legislators, they want more money.

Let’s look at these issues one by one, beginning with the problem of keeping qualified, experienced teachers in the classroom.

1.
The Legislature wants to “RIF or transfer older teachers, which takes the value out of experience,” Sisler, who teaches fourth grade at West Preston Elementary said. “Because . . . seniority really . . . is experience, and I can’t think of any other profession where experience is not valued.”

RIF stands for reduction in force. Currently, teachers are riffed (transferred) or laid off based on seniority. “When transfers or cutbacks happen, administrators must begin with the newest, least qualified teachers,” Sisler said. But a bill legislators are looking at this session would eliminate seniority, making older, more experienced teachers eligible for transfer, or layoffs.

The students will be the losers in this equation, she added. “This affects students by taking experience out of the classroom. Who wants to have uncertified teachers, especially in high school math or science classes, and (while) being prepared for college?”

Removing seniority will cause other problems. “This lets them take one teacher with lot of certifications, like Brian (Bailey), who might make $50,000, and get rid of him,” Jenkins, a Spanish teacher at Preston High School said. “Then they hire two teachers at $25,000 each.”

While the bill has been tabled “for now. . . we want it gone. We want to see that go (away), because it removes any job security we have,” Jenkins added. “It also gives struggling schools a way to balance the budget.”

In other words, a school that is failing financially might look at getting rid of a more experienced teacher as a solution to money woes. Which leads us to the second reason teachers walked out.

2.
When teachers in border counties like Preston and Monongalia cross state lines for better benefits and pay, West Virginia’s children are the clear losers. Why? Because fleeing teachers removes consistency and continuity from the classroom.

It is a fact that insecurity makes for a poor learning environment, meaning insecure children struggle to learn as well as their more stable peers do. When kids are stressed about getting to know yet another new classroom teacher, this diminishes the energy they should spend on learning. The same holds true of children in classrooms where the teachers aren’t qualified to teach. In fact, many substitute teachers who enter West Virginia classrooms each day lack an educational degree, or even the required certification, to teach topics such as science or special education.

“We have 700 jobs in this state right now that are . . . unfilled, because we don’t have certified people to do them because they’re going elsewhere,” Brian Bailey, who taught special education for 21 years, said.

In part, the large number of open positions is due to not having competitive pay and now, as Sisler said, “not having great benefits, either.” There’s another problem: legislators are currently trying “to loosen the requirements for teaching qualifications, to where anybody could teach.” While this will “also impact students . . It’s almost treating us as a pseudo-profession,” she added.

Educators are among the most highly trained professionals in society. “In addition to taking classes on subject matter, we take a lot of classes on child development and how to teach,” Sisler said. “So to say that just anybody can walk into the classroom to teach, it’s really a slap in the face. Especially when you look into the field of special education, because that’s a very specialized field.”

The emotional cost of inconsistency is also taking a toll on students. Jenkins has seen this repeatedly. She, like her fellow educators, has seen classrooms with three or four teachers over the course of a year. When those teachers leave, to take better jobs elsewhere, students suffer.

“The kids really do feel abandoned by that, especially in the smaller schools when they get really close to those teachers and that teacher isn’t going to be there next year,” Jenkins said. “I’ve seen tears at the end of the school year over stuff like that and I feel terrible for the kids.”

Substitute teachers have a learning curve that’s difficult, if not impossible, to overcome. One reason is because regular classroom teachers have built-in times for long-term planning. As an example, “math teachers sit down and figure out where are we deficient and (so on, but) if you have a new sub every year, they don’t get to participate in that planning,” Jenkins said. “So even if they are qualified, they don’t necessarily have a roadmap for where they’re trying to (go).”

And the problem of teaching without a roadmap is only exacerbated when teachers are unqualified.

“If you have multiple subs in multiple areas (of academics), you have a consistency issue. That’s a problem, especially if the sub is not well versed in the content area they’re filling in for,” Bailey said.

Because regular teachers know a sub is rarely trained for a specific class he’s teaching on any given day, other teachers will step in and try to help. It’s a common occurrence for teachers to drop by classrooms before, or even during class, and offer advice or assistance to sub teachers. They also warn students, who are known for giving subs a hard time, about the need to behave.

While this is helpful, it isn’t as productive as having a qualified teacher there. “A few years ago, in one elementary school class, there was a new sub every couple of weeks. So in first grade, (where) you’re focusing on developing reading skills a lot and consistency in social behavior . . . with that kind of inconsistency, that . . . doesn’t happen,” Bailey said. “So you have all that development at that age, and it puts them behind.”

This inconsistency is one matter teachers have learned to live with—even though they don’t like it. But when it comes to paying costly health care premiums, their collective foots are squarely on the picket line.

3.
When teachers see their PEIA premiums increase from $261 to $571 a month and their deductibles rise from $250 to $1300 a year, all while their medical benefits are slashed, they say they don’t feel valued. A state entity, PEIA manages the health care needs of all public employees—including West Virginia State Police and West Virginia Department of Highway workers.

“It’s the worst insurance around,” one state employee who is not a teacher told me.

Proposed changes by legislators have frozen PEIA for now. Still, Sisler said this doesn’t provide “a permanent fix, so that would just push things off for a year to a non-election year for our delegates.”

Just how bad is it? The above example showing premiums and deductibles is what Sisler said her family would personally pay—if state lawmakers hadn’t frozen PEIA. “So when they say (our) insurance is increasing, that’s not a clear picture as to what this means,” she added.

Currently, public employees in West Virginia have no say in selecting their health care insurer. “That’s set by the legislature and finance board,” Bailey said, “which currently has no employees on it. It’s all businessmen running PEIA. There used to be public employees on the board, but no longer.”

So the public sector is not represented, leaving teachers and other state workers without a voice.

It’s such a big problem that many Preston County teachers said they will only be satisfied once legislators “quit making us jump through all these hoops that no one else has to jump through, to keep our premium down,” Bailey said.

“They have got to fix and fund PEIA for the public employees,” retired teacher Janice Hirst said. “They cannot keep balancing the budget on the backs of the employees. Every year the premium goes up, the benefit goes down. We just can’t continue to do this.”

Hirst, who taught third grade for 42 years, said lawmakers have “been doing this my entire career.”

On top of the PEIA problem, teachers want to keep politicians from interfering with their labor unions—which they say is a real threat.

4.
Teachers say the “payroll protection act” (SB 335) now winding its way though the Legislature is a misnomer. Instead, it will attack teacher unions like the West Virginia Educational Association (WVEA) and American Federation for Teachers (AFT-West Virginia).

“The (AFT) refers to it as the ‘payroll deception act’ because that’s more accurate,” Sisler. “What that says is that as an adult, I can’t sign a paper and have my union dues taken out of my paycheck. Currently I can sign up and my union dues are split throughout the year; the bill they have proposed has eliminated that right.”

Sisler says the idea is ridiculous. “They’re saying that they’re protecting my paycheck but I’m an adult. I can sign a 30-year mortgage but they don’t think I can sign to have my dues taken out of my paycheck.”

Unions are taking a hit, Sisler said, because lawmakers have also proposed that union presidents not receive any state retirement benefits while serving as president. “Currently, our union presidents are not paid by the state. They’re paid by the union. They receive the (same) salary they would be making (as teachers while) taking a leave of absence from their position. So they’re not making tons of money.”

Speaking of money, few teachers I interviewed even brought up the topic of wanting more. If they did, it was after airing the above laundry list of items they want fixed first.

5.
However, when they did mention money, it was to say that legislators have failed to keep their promise to give teachers more of it. As a result, West Virginia teachers simply can’t compete—not when teachers across state lines earn twice as much.

Someone from Albert Gallatin School District stopped to talk to West Preston teachers yesterday. There, Sisler said, that school board member told a local teacher who is earning $40,000 a year here that she would make $80,000 there.

Being a border county means teachers don’t have to sell their homes or even relocate. They can just drive to Pennsylvania and Maryland for twice the salary.

“They do it all the time,” Sisler said. “So what we’re asking is for a plan to make our pay competitive. A few years ago they promised us that by 2019 the starting salary would be . . . $43,000, but nothing’s happened since that promise. They’ve been talking for years and have not taken any action to live up to their promises.”

Unlike the two-percent offered by legislators Wednesday night, Sisler said teachers want a five-percent pay increase the first year. They also want a plan for the following years of how to make West Virginia more competitive with (other) states.”

Is that unreasonable? Given what Hirst and other teachers shared, it doesn’t sound like it. Hirst’s son is also a teacher. He’s been teaching 10 years, has his master’s degree, plus 42 hours of additional certification. But, she said, “his take-home pay is so little he can’t support his family.”

State officials say the average teacher here earns $45,622. When the national average is $58,353, that amount pales in comparison. But most West Virginia teachers, very experienced, certified teachers, don’t make anywhere near $45,622.

Excluding Bailey and Hirst.

Still, even with a master’s degree, 70-plus additional graduate hours, and 42 years in the school system, Hirst only made $58,000 a year when she retired.

Bailey also makes more than the state average—and has the student loan debt to prove it. “I have a master’s degree plus 45 hours, and 24 years experience.” He makes $51,000 a year, and has “enough (hours) for a master’s plus 60, but (I’m) tapped out unless I want to go get my PhD, which financially is not worth it.”

What would a master’s give him? “About $500 more (a month),” he said. And more student debt.

Even with 10 years as a teacher, Sisler, who is “one class shy of my master’s . . . is only making $38,000.”

Making salaries more competitive would also help with the consistency problem. “We have more than enough people graduating college to fill those (700 unfilled) positions, but they see they can make more money elsewhere,” Sisler said. “Every year when I was attending college, other states would come in and they would recruit from the college.”

And new college graduates were swayed, she added, since those states offered such perks as sign-on bonuses and reimbursement for moving expenses.

Several teachers offered solutions for how to increase salaries. This year, proposed bills will put even more money into charter schools, home school vouchers, and education savings accounts. “Those things pull money from the public education funding,” Sisler said.

I covered the 1990 teacher’s strike. Not every county took part, but 47 of 55 did, and it resulted in many teachers losing their jobs. However, like Tucker County, which fired all its teachers, they were soon rehired. (UPDATE: Several teachers said this happened in Tucker County, but then-vice president of the TCEA said Tucker teachers were not fired.) Why? Because, as teachers here are fond of saying, “they can’t find anybody to take our jobs.” This constant refrain is sometimes said with a laugh, other times in anger. What’s obvious, though, is that 30 years later, with only one pay raise since then, they are tired of the status quo. Which is why, more and more, that refrain comes with a weary expression of resignation.

“It’s really reaching the point that we’re at critical mass,” Hirst said, “with particularly young educators, that they can’t continue to stay here in West Virginia, even though they love the state, and love their jobs.”

* * * * *

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