So when she’s asked how it feels to enter a new school year with less take-home pay and fewer supplies, second-grade teacher Shannon Finley avoids the subject.
“Let’s see how I can word this,” said Finley, who teaches at Alexandria Elementary. “You have to find your own motivation to keep going, and not look for help from external sources. Because that help isn’t coming.”
Two years ago Finley, the county’s 2009 Teacher of the Year, had one of the best jobs in town. Teaching in Alabama has never been a way to get rich, but in the early years of the recession, it had its up side. There were layoffs, but not the massive cuts that rocked the private sector. Tenure provided job security; the retirement system was good and the medical insurance even better.
A lot has changed since then. As the 2011 school year gears up, teachers have seen their medical insurance payments increase significantly. A new Republican majority broke the Alabama Education Association’s grip on the Legislature, passing sweeping changes to teacher tenure. Legislators ratcheted up the amount teachers are expected to contribute to their retirement — a change that, teachers say, cuts their take-home pay by 2.5 percent.
And on top of that, add a tight education budget that nudges the student/teacher ratio upward and guarantees that many of this year’s retiring teachers won’t be replaced.
It sounds like the makings of a grim school year. But local teachers seem to be bearing the change with a stiff upper lip.
“Teachers in Alabama are accustomed to having to do a lot with very little,” said John Hammett, dean of the College of Education at Jacksonville State University. “They’ve been through so many rounds of proration, they can handle almost anything.
“Unfortunately,” he continued, “that usually involves spending their own money on classroom supplies.”
Proration, the practice of cutting the budget in the middle of the budget year, is a tradition in Alabama education. Funded by relatively volatile revenue streams — income and sales taxes — Alabama’s education budget has come up short once in about every three years over the last few decades. As a result, Alabama teachers are accustomed to limping across the finish line.
Hammett said that even at the college level, proration has created a cadre of educators who are well-versed at making do. And if the current hardship has affected the spirits of students at JSU — the Alabama college that has produced more teachers than any other — those young teachers are not letting on.
“They’re in it for the love of the profession,” he said. “They’re not here for the money. And they’re confident they’ll find jobs when they’re done.”
But not necessarily in Alabama. While local school systems have avoided layoffs due to the funding crunch, most are making slight reductions by not replacing retiring teachers — and nobody’s expanding their teaching force. Hammett said many of last year’s education graduates have traveled outside northeast Alabama to find work.
They’ll have to travel far to find a school system that isn’t affected by the nation’s economic doldrums. The federal stimulus funds that carried schools through last year have dried up.
Despite the belt-tightening that is occurring in local school systems, the state’s Education Trust Fund budget — which pays for K-12 schools and a host of other things — actually grew by $240 million. Much of that money is bound up in a system of spending formulas and mandatory expenditures. With a shrinking pool of local taxes to draw on, most school systems used stimulus funds last year to fill in the gaps.
But for teachers, it’s often the smaller injuries that sting the most. Almost everyone interviewed for this article expressed dismay that the state no longer reimburses teachers for the out-of-pocket money they spend on school supplies.
Teachers have always dug into their own pockets — or the pockets of better-paid spouses — to provide supplies the school system didn’t. For years, the state had a policy of reimbursing a few hundred dollars’ worth of that money, less than most teachers spend.
A small expense, in the grand scheme. But it forces teachers to do something they hate to do.
“I’ve been asking the parents to help out,” said Finley, who acknowledged that she was reluctant to ask parents for money. “About half of the parents have given a donation.”
A year of heated public debate about the state of the schools — and the work ethic and qualifications of teachers — may also be taking its toll on teacher morale. Educators are quick to point out that, despite the popular perception, teachers are not just coming off a three-month holiday.
“They work all summer,” said Loretta Brown, principal of Weaver Elementary. “Very few teachers get a lot of time off. They’re in professional development all summer.”
Brown noted that teachers attend a number of mandatory in-service training events, they train to implement the Alabama Math, Science and Technology Initiative, and many are in their classrooms on a daily basis now, preparing for the Aug. 8 start of school.
“When I get here at 7 a.m., there are people here working,” Brown noted.
And they aren’t complaining, she said.
“They’re anxious to get back in the classroom and start teaching,” she said.
Still, administrators know there’s only so much teachers can take. Jon Paul Campbell, superintendent of Jacksonville City Schools, said teacher morale would be much higher if teachers got the respect they deserve.
“It’s a tough time to be an educator,” he said. “Every time you turn on the national news, there’s someone saying that schools aren’t working.”
Campbell isn’t waiting for a sea change in public opinion. He said he’ll make an effort to meet with teachers individually, hear their concerns, and let them know their work is appreciated.
“We ought to pay tribute to our teachers,” said JSU’s Hammett. “Educators who are willing to go the extra mile should be saluted.”
Finley, the second-grade teacher, takes the current public mood in stride. She even went to see the film “Bad Teacher,” a broad comedy about teachers failing to do their job.
And she laughed. Ever the teacher, she warned that the language is too strong for some audiences.
Humor aside, Finley said she knows some people in the profession who could use more applause. But there’s no point in dwelling on what you’re missing, she said.
“If I’m negative, everybody else is going to be negative,” she said. “That’s how teachers have to be. Even when you’re frustrated, you have to put on a happy face.”