When I first began teaching high-school English 31 years ago, I never thought about salary or retirement benefits. I was 22 years old, and trying to stay one day ahead of the five classes I was teaching. I would get home from school and spend two to three hours each night going over my lessons for the next day.
I’m as busy today as I was back in 1980, teaching more than 100 seventh-graders at Bethlehem Middle School.
I often tell my friends that I didn’t become a teacher to have all the vacation days, and I certainly didn’t become a teacher for the salary or for the good retirement. I became a teacher because I love literature and writing, and it’s been a wonderful 31 years.
During that span, my classes have done poetry readings, made movies, had debates, classroom trials and made classroom newspapers. I’ve been able to correct their writing and get feedback to my students in a reasonable time. We’ve had great discussions about poetry, short stories, novels, essays and editorials.
I’ve had students discuss and edit their peers’ writing and, most important of all, I’ve been able to get to know my students as people with ideas and creative talents. I’ve been able to work individually with each of them to become better writers, readers and communicators.
I’ve been able to do all this because I’ve had class sizes of 18 to 25 students each year, but now I fear that may all be coming to an end.
The Bethlehem School District, like so many others in the area and in the state, is facing a multimillion-dollar gap in its 2011-2012 budget because of potential cuts in state aid and rising penison and health-care costs. We may be losing as many as 42 teachers in the district, and our class sizes may climb to 30 to 35. Would you want your child in a classroom with 30 to 35 students? I certainly would not.
In one of my first years as a teacher, I had a class of 42 students. It was a logistical nightmare. I had a hard time getting to know my students’ names, and I could only teach half of what I wanted due to the enormous number of students.
Will I be able to teach the way I have been these past 31 years with 30 to 35 seventh-graders? Will I be able to do all the creative projects, and have my students write as much as they do now?
Not much left
Gov. Andrew Cuomo has said that districts should use their reserves to avoid layoffs and meet expenditures, but our school, like so many others, does not have a lot left in its reserve fund. We will be using some of the fund to pay for school costs, but our superintendent has also said we need to keep some money in that reserve for school emergencies like a roof collapsing or a pipe bursting.
In the past few years we’ve dropped some very successful programs in the Bethlehem School District to save money. We’ve dropped most of our modified athletic programs. If teachers want to attend a conference, they have to pay their own way now. We even keep track of how much paper we use in fear that we may run out before the year is over. There’s not much else to cut except teachers.
It’s been a sad few weeks in my school. Some teachers already have been spoken to concerning the strong probability they will not be returning next year. Many of these teachers are young and enthusiastic. Many of them have just completed their undergraduate and graduate degrees and finally are doing the work they’ve been looking forward to, and now they’re being let go despite doing an excellent job.
Our state and our country are clearly in a financial mess, and many people in the private sector are blaming the pensions and health-care costs of public-sector workers like teachers. Many people want to blame the unions for creating this financial mess, but I don’t know one teacher who went into this profession for the money. We teach because we love our subject and we want to inspire our students to love it.
Some people jump from one company to another through the years for the sole reason to make more money. Teachers rarely do that. They find a school community and settle in to try to make it a better place.
My first year teaching back in 1980 I made $8,500 and I loved every minute of what I was doing. It wasn’t the money that kept me coming back every year. It was the excitement I saw in my students when they wrote a great poem or when they read a book that had a profound impact on their life.
Better way needed
I know school taxes are too high. I pay them just like everyone else who owns a home. We need to come up with a better way to finance our public schools. That’s something I expect our legislators and superintendents to figure out. My job is to take a class of students in September and get them excited about writing and reading in this age of cellphones and video games and 100-channel cable TV stations. It’s a challenging job, and some years are much harder than other years, but it’s something I love to do.
Teachers aren’t asking for much. We know these are difficult financial times. Computers, LCD projectors and smart boards are nice to have in a classroom, but they’re not essential. What is essential is a classroom size of 18 to 25 students, and schools that are filled with enthusiastic, passionate and intelligent teachers.
Jack Rightmyer lives in Burnt Hills. The Gazette encourages readers to submit material on local issues for the Sunday Opinion section.