“The job of a teacher is not sustainable.”
— Tucson educator Janet Acree in the documentary “Teaching in Arizona.”
Let that sink in a moment.
Can you imagine your favorite teacher saying those words? Your child’s favorite teacher? The teacher who saw something in you, who explained figuring percentages in a way that finally made sense?
Yet, we’ve allowed the conditions that lead too many teachers to reach this brutal conclusion to fester in Arizona public schools. The results are clear: In Arizona, 42 percent of teachers leave the field within their first three years.
A survey by the Arizona School Personnel Administrators Association in December found that, in Arizona, 1,693.6 teacher positions remained vacant and 3,908.3 teacher positions filled using alternative methods (i.e. teachers without a certificate or teaching degree).
I have a theory about people’s perceptions about education, teachers and schools: We think we know what we’re talking about because we’ve been students. We’ve lived through it – well, yeah, it was decades ago and quite possibly in another state, but still, it’s school.
But we don’t know. Not really.
To understand, we have to see teachers as professionals who are educated, experienced and worthy — and as people with lives, families to raise, rent to pay, cars to fuel, medical bills to cover.
Do you remember the first time you saw one of your teachers outside of school, maybe at the grocery store or the department store or the dentist’s office?
I remember the shocking realization that yes, bouffant-coiffed Mrs. Miller existed outside my kindergarten classroom and no, she didn’t over-enunciate the WHUHH sound in words like wwwhhhale and wwwwhhhhite when she’s out in the wwwwhhhorld.
Tucson is fortunate to have the organization Tucson Values Teachers. It’s been an active advocate, raising money and holding school supply drives. The documentary, “Teaching in Arizona” is part of their efforts.
The film, which will play at The Loft on Tuesday evening, follows three local teachers: Tia Begay, Nathaniel Rios and Janet Acree.
The #RedForEd movement last spring, which included massive public demonstrations and a statewide teacher strike, raised the reality of what educators face every day. Gov. Doug Ducey and the Arizona Legislature agreed to increase teacher salaries by 20 percent over three years — local districts and charter school boards have the final say on how the increased funding is divvied up.
I watched “Teaching in Arizona” and found it simultaneously illuminating, confirming and infuriating.
Rios, a history and government teacher at Flowing Wells High School, said his biweekly paycheck doesn’t break $1,000 – even with his 11 years of experience and the extra duties he takes on, advising a student club and mentoring new teachers. “The drowning of the first year, the second or third year can just break a teacher.”
Rios is married, to another teacher, and they have two children. He works nights and weekends at an ice cream shop.
Begay is shown readying her classroom before dawn and spending her evening at her kitchen table making calls to parents while her kids play and her husband cooks dinner. She spends about 60 hours a week on lesson plans and classroom instruction. “But on top of that you just have the constant brain work that goes behind it. … I’m just a teacher all the time.”
I’ve heard people say that only a sucker would be a teacher in Arizona, to put up with the low pay, the high stress, the bad working conditions. There’s a twisted sense of contempt for anyone who would take such a hard job that I don’t understand.
Watching “Teaching in Arizona,” it’s hard to see these teachers as anything other than talented, patient, often weary and always undervalued people doing their best.
Acree, who taught fifth grade at Tucson Country Day charter school, shared what I think is the best part about the people who make the sacrifice to teach your children — but it’s also been exploited by lawmakers and too much of the public for years. “It would be so easy to leave,” she said. “My students are what keeps me coming back.”
And those who short-change teachers know this. They’ve counted on it for years.
Nathaniel and his wife weighed moving to Washington state, where they could make at least 20 percent more as teachers. After the #RedForEd movement last spring, they decided to stay. It feels like the tide might be turning for teachers.
“We’re both really hopeful,” he said. “We want to give Arizona a chance.”
And that, right there, is the necessary and intrinsic hope a teacher must possess: hope in their students, and in their community. Let’s be worthy of it.