Teachers across the country are rallying for better funding for schools. And the American public has a problem with it.
People believe that because we choose to teach, we are not entitled to the same standard of living as the rest of the country. Our jobs are perceived as essentially volunteer positions by many, with a healthy dose of self-funding for our classrooms and our students. The words “do more with less” continues to be the mantra of a variety of groups, and often, the words that get attached involve “no more funding until test scores increase!” I made the mistake of reading the comments on an article yesterday and I was so angry with the commenters and their lack of fundamental understanding of how society is supposed to work and what is truly important in education that I had to close the tab and go for a walk.
All this leads me to something else entirely: the idea of abundance. The public sees the millions of dollars allocated to education and are incensed by the fact that teachers are still asking for more funding. This funding will help them personally, yes, but more importantly, it will also provide for millions of other things beyond their paycheck. To the public, it’s as though teachers aren’t grateful for what we have been provided and have no right to ask for more…not for our schools and most definitely not for us. We, both teachers and schools, should budget what we are given better, live within our means, not spend money on frivolous things.
Why does the public get to determine what our budgets should look like?
Growing up, money was always tight. My school uniforms for school were never new and always handed down through swaps with the wealthy families I attended school with. I still don’t know how my parents afforded to send me to a parochial school–they aren’t cheap. Most of my other clothes were sewn by my mother or purchased during end of season sales hoping she’d guessed right and they’d fit by the next season. A loaf of hot french bread was a treat, and meals were almost always casserole types that would last several days. We went on drives if there was a little money left over for extra gas, packing sandwiches to eat on the way, but never a real vacation for fun. Books weren’t bought, they were borrowed. If I got sick, it was a huge deal because a doctor’s visit wasn’t cheap, and neither would the medication be if it was needed. Often it was a question of whether we paid the utility bill or the phone bill or the rent if something happened to the car or if something else needed to be repaired. (Parents, just a warning–you always think the kids can’t hear the discussions…but we do…and we feel the tension across the table at breakfast, and we hear the heartbreak when the car won’t start… again.) There was always a sense of being behind…that there was never enough. I feel sometimes as though I’ve been behind my whole life.
I went out of town on behalf of my school a few weeks ago, and had pretty significant car trouble once I got there which impacted my ability to focus on why I had driven two hours to begin with. I did what I had gone there to do, but I was worried the whole time about what the repairs would cost, how I would get home, if I’d have to stay there another day and pay for a hotel with money I didn’t have, how missing a day of work would impact others in my building and how I’d be perceived both by administration and colleagues for not having a backup plan and not having enough money to pay for the needed repairs. Luckily, most of the repairs were covered by warranty, but I had to borrow funds to pay for the remaining repairs that weren’t. The dealership arranged for a rental car for me to drive home and I could pick up the car in a couple of days, which happened to be a work day so my being gone would be less of an impact to others. I could pay back the money owed out of subsequent paychecks over a few months. I don’t like owing people for anything…not time, not service, and definitely not money.
Fast forward to the next paycheck. Bills are paid or scheduled to be paid, and there is money left over. It feels like there is too much left over. What got forgotten? What got missed? When the repairs were being done to my car, they noted I’d need new tires too so I started pricing those. That cost eats half of what I have left, and then the question becomes is it worth it to buy the tires now after being told they’re needed or should I try to wait another six or eight months, hoping they last that long, and squirrel away money for it every month and hope that nothing else goes wrong to eat into that stash? If I just buy them, I’d have enough for groceries and basic needs (and a few things considered frivolous), yes, but what if something else happens? I’m afraid to spend anything, fearing that if I do, I’ll just be behind again.
The judgment in my head begins talking: If I buy new tires, what if they fall under “extravagance?” in the minds of others? What if I choose the wrong set and their cost is considered a waste of money because they weren’t the least expensive available? Should I just have driven less altogether to make them last longer? I’ve already been told more than once that I should save more, but I’ve never had a month where I was ahead enough to save that magic amount Dave Ramsey and others tell adults they ought to have in an envelope stashed in a drawer–and interestingly enough, nothing’s ever said about what happens when you need to use it. Well-meaning friends tell me that much of what I choose to spend the money I earn on is a waste or frivolous altogether. People have shared with me (with best intentions of trying to be helpful) that having my hair done every month or so is a waste of money (Supercuts is seven dollars for a trim..that’s plenty to spend on a simple haircut), acupuncture, doctor’s visits to seek out answers, and other self-care are things that aren’t necessary, the items that fall into the grocery category that I buy are too expensive or unneeded altogether. I should meal plan like it’s the Depression, thrift store shop for everything I wear, and use only the least expensive personal care items. I shouldn’t feel entitled to doing anything with the money I earn that most others can without even thinking. Live within my means…but what does it mean to live?
I watch as others purchase beautiful condos with big-city views or second homes in the mountains, shiny new cars, and listen as friends make plans about vacations to Europe for the summer and full home remodels and extended hotel stays while the work is being done. I listen as people share plans for outdoor adventures and time away from the world. I smile silently listening to friends plan weddings and talk about graduate coursework and retirement plans. They’ve earned all of these things and I’m happy for them. They rarely lament having to buy tires, make car repairs, replace furnaces or water heaters, and they don’t sigh heavily as the checker at the market tells them their total, mentally calculating how much of their food budget is left for the next 25 days. They always seem to have more than enough to do both what’s needed and what they want to do. They don’t live to work…they work to live…to have the life they imagined. Very few of these people are teachers and very few have ever had any of what they’ve done with the money they earned questioned.
There’s a lot of judgment out there about how teachers do their jobs and spend their time, and now how they spend their money. People question the effectiveness of teachers based on scores from tests that were created by non-educators that don’t test the right things to start with. Friends report that in other states you can lose your job for simply being in a restaurant that serves alcohol, whether you’re drinking any or not. Others report that if you are seen out in the world dressed in a way that a community or board member feels is inappropriate (e.g. swimsuit on a beach) you can be fired. Our social media presence is constantly under scrutiny, and clicking “Like” on the wrong thing or posting a picture someone might find questionable could have a letter of reprimand in our file or at worst, fired. Few other jobs in the world are under the same level of scrutiny by the public.
And now the public believes that it gets a say in how our money is spent: both teacher’s checks and money provided by the state. The problem is that they don’t understand how any educational funding is spent and it’s really quite complicated. I listen to my admin talk through budget items and it’s not a simple as “Yes, buy the things.” There are a thousand questions to be considered before anything requested gets bought, no matter how critical the purchase is to the work teachers are doing for kids. I think that’s part of why teachers end up buying so much on their own too–we get how complicated it is, but still need the things, so we just go ourselves for the things we need to make our work lives run smoother.
I wonder sometimes what it feels like to just be able to buy the damn tires without worry over how it’ll be perceived or shame over not having enough saved up for when they needed to be bought. For a lot of teachers, this is how they have to think about everything from rent to groceries to how to supply their students with what they need in the classroom. That same inner dialogue happens for both kids’ parents and school administrators too… How do we do more with less? How do we find a sense of abundance?