by Beau Hebert
I’m married to a Seattle Public Schools teacher with over two decades of service. In that time, she has been a positive force in the lives of hundreds of kids and a champion for the historically under-resourced community where she teaches. She has been steadfast in her role, despite working for a district marked by disarray, high turnover, and a strangely disdainful attitude toward the very teachers in its employ.
She has worked under nine different superintendents — nine! This job revolves faster than a sushi conveyor belt. Of that group, at least half left in controversy; one was fired, yet received a severance package of $284,000 (more than six years of salary for an instructional assistant); one came from the investment banking world, yet misplaced $34 million in funds; three unveiled “ambitious five-year plans,” though none came close to holding the job that long; a few imbedded themselves into the lucrative soft tissue of a bloated administration before scuttling to the next outpost. The district itself fumbled away the most promising superintendent since John Stanford by deciding to vote on whether she’d officially get the job, even though she already capably held the position; this standard was not applied to the current superintendent, who was appointed with an annual salary of $335,000 and generous benefits after his predecessor flailed through the pandemic and then jumped ship six months before her contract ended. His inflexible approach has already resulted in the firing of a highly regarded principal, plus a large cash settlement to make her go away. This odyssey of malfeasance and ineptitude would be comedic were it not for its profound negative impact on so many lives.
With all of this as background and another strike looming, I couldn’t help but ask the question: Why? Why is there so much rancor and division between the groups charged with the monumentally important task of educating our youth?
Most teachers accept that they have a fundamentally difficult job for which they are underpayed and underappreciated. In recent years, their profession has become considerably more difficult due to chronic underfunding, a nationwide sub shortage, the implementation of standardized tests and curriculums manufactured by for-profit corporations, and, as gut-wrenching as it is to mention, the emotional toll wrought by the reality of school shootings and lockdown drills as a regular occurrence.
High burnout and low morale are the predictable results. In Seattle, though, the school district must feel that things are not quite bad enough. At every opportunity, it reminds its teachers that they are not valued and even uses the media to portray them as greedy or lazy or spoiled. Amazingly, a portion of the public embraces this narrative. They claim that teachers are failing the kids, when in fact teachers are the ones advocating for kids. They decry teacher wages, as if their exact property tax dollars were being funneled to a colony of squatters inhabiting the buildings of the public school system. The narrative, however, does not hold up. If greed was the motivating force, wouldn’t teachers be clamoring for those fat-paying jobs in the administration? Perhaps that’s where the budgetary lens should be focused.
The district should recognize teachers as the frontline heroes that they are and work in solidarity with them. I mean, really, why aren’t teachers celebrated as heroes in the same light as firefighters? I suppose it’s because a firefighter’s act of bravery offers instant gratification. We get to see the fiery inferno and the people rescued from the burning building, while the heroism of a teacher is more subtle, unfolding over the course of years; but make no mistake, teachers are pulling children out of burning buildings every day. Teachers bestow constant love, guidance, and instruction to help them navigate the world, avoid pitfalls, and become successful. The tragedies that never occur are the heroic triumphs of our teachers. Let’s put them on a calendar for a change.
The strike is over. The students are back in the classroom. After an exhausting and demoralizing contract negotiation, the level of distrust teachers feel toward the district is deeper than ever. Disturbingly, the district has already released rhetoric about the next budget shortfall that will occur three years hence as it lays the groundwork for a future battle with its own employees. And so I now ask the question: What? What is the end game here? Fewer people are going into the profession, existing teachers want to leave Seattle for other districts, and veteran teachers are retiring early because their jobs are too stressful. Is the district on a mission to eradicate teaching as a profession in our city? By vilifying instead of valuing teachers, the district is not only damaging itself, but subverting the ability of our heroic teachers to save children from burning buildings.
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Beau Hebert is a humor columnist and owner of Lottie’s Lounge in Columbia City. He is a longtime South End resident and community advocate.
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