On the eve of World Teachers Day, the Guardians Washington bureau chief David Smith visited the Department of Education to deliver messages from hundreds of teachers who wrote to the Guardian during the teacher takeover
Secretary DeVos, this is what American teachers want you to know about their struggles.
In September, the Guardian invited a team of public school teachers to serve as guest editors of our site and share their stories of teaching in America. As part of the project, our teacher-editors published a manifesto entitled We shouldnt be on food stamps: Teachers on how to fix Americas education system.
We also invited teachers in our audience to contribute their own stories to the document, and promised to deliver their messages to Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos. We received responses from hundreds of teachers across the country, and today, we are publishing a representative sample of those messages.
On Thursday, the Guardians Washington bureau chief, David Smith, paid a surprise visit to the Department of Education and delivered the original document and this new collection of messages to an official Betsy DeVoss education department.
1. All teachers should be able work in safe, clean, buildings with heat, air conditioning and water thats safe to drink. Students cant learn in 90 degree-plus temperature or with mice running around the classroom.
Our students are often hungry, or dont sleep, or come from shelters or homes with a single parent or grandparent working full-time. Our buildings are infested with cockroaches and rodents and many air conditioners dont work. Our furniture is old and broken. We dont have enough counselors or even space in the building, and we share classrooms, and the entire staff is overworked.
Emily James, Brooklyn, NY
My students have fallen out of two chairs in the last week because they are in such disrepair. The chairs literally are just disintegrating.
Two years ago, I had no heat in my classroom for three months. It was 40 to 50F in my classroom. I was brought one small space heater, and this in a school where not all of our students have proper coats for winter. I had some students melt their ID tags in an effort to get warm. I had a broken lock on my window it took two years to get it fixed.
My first classroom had asbestos and bats. I caught Legionnaires disease from infected water supply at school. I developed asthma and COPD as a result and have never been the same
Lori Nelson, 57, MN
2. Teachers deserve to earn a living wage that allows us to comfortably support a family, provides affordable healthcare and retirement benefits, and allows us to pay off our student debt. We also need a payscale that attracts talented professionals to the field.
I struggle every day as a teacher in America. I have $50k in student loan debt, a mortgage, a car that constantly need repairs, and some months I am not food secure. I knew I would never get rich teaching kids but I thought at the very least I would be able to support myself and be financially stable. I was wrong.
I teach art to around 800 students on a $100 a year budget. I work several additional jobs to support my classroom and my combat veteran husband. I end up spending over $1,000 of my own money each year to supplement my classroom budget. This last year, I started crowdfunding online and have been able to get some of the supplies I need to teach my students but art supplies are mostly consumable and I will run out of supplies again.
Kathryn Vaughn, 38, TN
My wife and I live paycheck to paycheck. We had a baby in May, so my wife stays home to watch the baby as well as get our two older (grade school) children ready in the mornings. In addition to teaching, I drive a school bus and coach football and basketball in order to generate some additional income. We still run out of money at the end of each pay period and have to overdraw my bank account each month in order to pay for groceries and gas.
If something unexpected comes up, like a flat tire or busted water heater (both happened this month), I am forced to get one of those predatory personal loans that charge an astronomical interest rate and cost me a lot more in the long run.
I have to teach online in the evenings to pay bills. Im providing health insurance for my family and last year I paid $1,200 a month for insurance for my family. I pulled my family off of the school insurance plan this year because that was just more than we could afford.
Our district is hemorrhaging teachers left and right every year because no one can afford to live in the (incredibly expensive) area. A lot of teachers I know are working second jobs or moving to other states to try to live a sustainable life. Some of our staff live two hours away and have to commute four hours every day to find an affordable living situation. Some have just quit the profession entirely.
Shannon Kirkpatrick, 37, San Mateo, CA
3. State and local governments need to do more to support the millions of American children and families living in poverty or near poverty. Instead of teaching, many of us spend our days feeding children, doing their laundry, filling out forms, and providing basic support services. Students cant learn when their most fundamental needs are not being met and teachers cant teach when theyre acting as the social safety net.
Hunger is a daily concern. I basically bring a picnic basket of food each day. If they are hungry, they cannot learn.
Alyssa Arney, 46, San Francisco, CA
Its extremely expensive here so students are always hungry and teachers must keep their doors open for lunch to basically feed the kids and let them relax in a safe space. We dont get any downtime and thats the price to pay.
Anonymous, San Francisco, CA
Beyond the staffing issues, many of my students are the children of parents who have immigrated to the US, and they live in poverty and come to school hungry every day. Their families are working hard to adapt to this country and make ends meet. Last year, early one morning, the mother of one of my students was picked up by immigration officials. She had just arrived at the city bus stop directly in front of the school to drop off her two young children, and the kids were told to just go inside. They ended up having to move from the state two weeks before the end of the school year.
Emma Kissane, 24, CA
4. Schools should provide all the supplies teachers need in order to do their jobs well and maintain a healthy, clean school environment for students. Teachers on limited salaries should not be responsible for buying essential classroom supplies like paper and pencils, or basic school necessities like soap and toilet paper.
We have no resources. Parents send in items at the beginning of the year when they are able to, but teachers provide the rest. All the books in my classroom library were purchased by me. Our evaluations require us to have a pleasant room environment, but we are not given anything with which to create that environment. We are required to hang things on the wall and are told to use a specific kind of tape, but we arent provided that tape.
Students regularly take standardized tests on technology and need to use headphones. There usually arent enough headphones to go around, so teachers buy them too. I teach in a high-poverty school. I am constantly buying basics like pencils. Students regularly break those pencils because they are so overwhelmed and frustrated with the environment in schools.
I work as a science teacher. I had to buy my stapler, paper, pens, notepads, calendar, etc. That was $100. I had to buy a lot of the science supplies I needed for experiments. The principal and science department chair expect a science experiment every week. Science supplies for 110 students per month was at least $300. Students did help donate some supplies but it was few who did so. Ramblewood middle school is a title I school so a lot of the students dont have much to donate. By the end of the year, I was spending over $3,000 from my own money. Government reimburses you $250.
Anonymous, Parkland, FL
5. Our schools need stronger mental health services for struggling children. Counselors and psychologists if they exist at all are often overburdened with hundreds of cases, leaving teachers to fill the gaps.
My first year, one of my 16-year-old language arts students was shot and killed. There was no procedure in place to help either students or teachers deal with the incident. I was given no advice on how to help the boys close friends who were deeply affected by his death. Teachers and students grieved separately and alone. the subject was never even raised in classrooms.
Almost all of my students have lost close friends and family members to gun violence, yet teachers are given no training on the impact of this environment on children, the cognitive and behavioral consequences, and how to handle subsequent challenges in the classroom.
One of the greatest problems we face at our school is not having a full-time school assessment team. This team is traditionally compromised of a school psychologist, social worker, and family worker. We also do not have a guidance counselor. So, as an educator we are tasked with having not only to help our children through their academic journey, but also their social emotional journey.
We have to do this however without the resources, like that team that we need to be successful. We are a new school, and its policy that new schools do not get a full team, full time, almost as though we we are inadvertently being punished for being new, but our students are the ones paying the price.
Melody Anastasiou, 34, NY
6. Schools should provide teachers and students with the materials they need to help students learn and equip them for their futures: updated, current textbooks, functional technology, and curriculums.
My school hasnt adopted new textbooks in over a decade. Funds have been made available to buy laptops, but its not 1:1 – we have to fight for them. Imagine if the military were funded as badly We dont have enough bullets for all of you, youll have to sign up for them.
I have instruments in my inventory that predate Reagans presidency. I have instruments that have three different students sharing it throughout the course of a school day, tripling the use of the instrument. Our PTO helps purchase music, which is the equivalent of an ensembles textbook. These are just a few examples of the byproducts of underfunding.
Michele Kalo, 41, Chandler, AZ
My classroom was bare bones. Ive paid for all posters, classroom decorations, staples, stapler, tape, glue, crayons, etc myself. I have also paid a lot out of pocket for curriculum and books. Ive been in Arizona for a year and a month now and I know Ive spent well over $2000 on my classroom. If I didnt do this, my students would suffer greatly. In fact, my room is really nice now but Ive either bought it myself or begged for it on donorschoose.org.
I hate having to crowdsource materials for my classroom by begging friends, family and strangers to help!
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