“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.
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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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.”
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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!