If you can read this, pay a teacher

Mar. 20, 2014 @ 01:20 PM

I handed my mechanic a coffee mug last week when I picked up my car. Printed on the mug was "I heart my mechanic."

"Don't worry, I will pay you sometime soon," I told him, "but there are a few other things I want to do first."

I could not make out what he was shouting as I drove away, but it did not sound like "thank you."

As a long-time teacher, I have had enough of the tote bags and "I love teachers" photo-ops in school libraries. I am ready for our political leaders to just pay me the salary I was promised five years ago.

Don't get me wrong. I am grateful when my mechanic does his job well, and I tell him so. He has no doubt saved my life by fixing problems I did not even know I had. When a student or parent sends me a personal thank-you note, it is a wonderful gift.

But, I also pay my mechanic a fair wage. I do not try to bargain him down, nor do I tell him he needs to start throwing in a free oil change because I have "raised my expectations."

What I want is what I give to my mechanic -- a fair salary, the salary that was agreed to years ago.

I work for the people of this state. I do not teach algebra to the children of Democrats and geometry to young Republicans. I teach everyone's kids. So when our state government sets a pay schedule, as we did years ago, I expect it to be honored.

I understood, during the recession, holding the line on pay. Now, however, after our state government has cut taxes for our wealthiest citizens by hundreds of millions of dollars, and found millions more to pay for private-school vouchers, I do not want to hear "we have to see how much money we have."

When my mechanic fixes my car, I pay him before everything else. I have been teaching at a frozen salary for five years. I believe I should be paid for that work, before tax cuts, before vouchers, before pay raises for cabinet officers and PR flacks.

After bringing my salary back up to par, if the governor wants to talk about "pay for performance," I will be ready to listen. All I ask is that my "performance" be measured against everything I am asked to do, rather than one arbitrary test score. Measure the college reference letters I write, the after-school tutoring sessions I lead, the guidance I give young teachers that I mentor, the tickets I sell at the football game, the counseling I give the girl whose father has left home, the safety duty I perform during my “lunch break.”
Moreover, when measuring my students' test performance, use a realistic yard stick. I expect my mechanic to do good work on my 14-year-old van; I do not expect him to have it humming along like my neighbor's Lexus. I am a good teacher, but I can not take a child farther than they are prepared to go. That is precisely why we cannot pay some teachers differently than others -– it takes all of us to do our part with each child.

I am ready to make a deal with our governor. Pay me a fair salary, my promised salary, and I will happily accept a teacher appreciation note. He can just add it to the memo line on the check.

Steven Unruhe is a teacher at Riverside High School in Durham.