Dear Iowans: Teacher patience is running out

Bruce Lear worries despairing teachers may resort to illegal strikes if Iowans don’t recognize “public schools are a precious resource worth the fight.” -promoted by Laura Belin

I thought about just writing politicians, but frankly, this is too important to leave for political gamesmanship. I’m writing this open letter to sound the alarm. To put you on notice. I’m writing as a public service so we can all avoid what is coming.

It’s a storm warning.

Teachers are patient. Walk by any classroom, and you’ll often hear, “Let’s try it again.” But that patience is wearing thin. They look at paychecks that shrink because of huge insurance spikes. They see weekends and nights full of work. They see overcrowded, underfunded classrooms, and they hear politicians using them for political fodder. All this is against a backdrop of little or no voice through collective bargaining.

Chapter 20 of the Iowa Code was enacted in 1974 as a compromise with public sector workers. A Republican governor signed the bipartisan legislation. It allowed collective bargaining, and in exchange for the new law, public workers were not allowed to strike.

That covenant was shattered in 2017, when Republican majorities in the Iowa legislature and Governor Terry Branstad destroyed public sector collective bargaining. Unfortunately, the new law maintained the prohibition against strikes while gutting employees’ rights.

Yes, teacher patience is running out.

Unless we turn this around in Iowa, I predict despairing teachers will make a familiar and decisive hand gesture to the law and begin to march. That may be the only way they feel able to protect Iowa’s public schools. A strike may be a “Hail Mary,” it may be dangerous, but unless something happens soon in Iowa, it may be what’s left.

But we can’t just keep identifying the problem, or we will have a well-defined problem with no solution. The answer will come only when we all decide public schools are a precious resource worth the fight.

It’s important to recognize what teachers need. I would never presume to speak for all teachers. Those who teach your children and grandchildren are diverse in opinion, but share some common needs (not wants). Like the great philosopher Mick Jagger said, “You can’t always get what you want, but if you try some time, you might find, you get what you need.”

Once we acknowledge the needs, we can find solutions together.

Teachers need more time. They need more time during the day to prepare, strategize with colleagues, and evaluate students. It has always amazed me that preparation time, even under the old collective bargaining law, was not a mandatory topic of bargaining. It was almost like lawmakers believed those five to twelve shows a day called lessons just materialized out of thin air. They don’t.

Teachers need more parental support. Yes, your children are precious and gifted, but they are children. Parents and children are not customers at the counter waiting for a teacher to pour in knowledge. It takes some work on the student’s and the parent’s part.

In this model, a parent/customer is always right. It’s been my experience that there are some amazing parents who do the right thing, and there are also irresponsible and unreasonable parents who should be treated as such. Parents are partners, not customers. For some reason, people believe if I attended third grade, I know how to teach it.

Teachers need supplies and an adequate place to teach. Because the Iowa Legislature has funded schools well under the cost of living for almost a decade, schools do not have the resources to provide fundamental supplies like paper.

About this time of the year, building paper budgets tend to run out. Teachers are forced to buy their own paper, have some type of black-market stash, or not use any paper for the last few weeks of school. It’s absurd, and legislators need to be held accountable.

Teachers need adequately-sized classes to teach. Class size matters. Every time a school administrator tries to run the con that reducing teachers and adding to class size don’t impact your child’s education, they are doing what politicians call spin and what you and I call lying.

Teachers and kids need to feel safe. I know some people love guns. OK, but let’s agree not to bring your love to school. Teachers need a full ream of paper instead of a fully loaded clip.

Teachers need to be required to test less. If a farmer continually weighs a pig without feeding it, he/she will have a skinny pig. The same is true for kids. Teachers need time for teaching without testing every few minutes.

Teachers need to feel supported by the public. I was sometimes a guest on local talk radio. On occasion I would get a caller who said teachers were just in the profession for the money.

I would ask the caller where their child, or more often, grandchild went to school and in what grade. Once I found out, I usually could ask, “You mean Mrs. ____________ is only in it for the money?” The tone quickly became positive once we were talking about an individual rather than a group.

Teachers need to feel empowered. If a teacher feels helpless and like a victim, he/she cannot empower our children for the future. Taking away collective bargaining rights was a giant step backward in empowerment.

So, how do we address these needs? First, locally and statewide, any school board member or legislator who is not a fierce advocate for teachers need to be replaced.

When I say advocate, I am not talking about a politician who says, “Oh, yes, my niece is a teacher.” I’m talking about someone who will vote like they care more about public schools then they do about tax credits for Apple. Those who understand private school vouchers will drain local school districts of essential funds and will vote that way.

Finally, take time to drop a note to a teacher, even one you don’t know. Teachers will leap tall buildings for a little positive recognition. After all, they educate our country’s future. Don’t they deserve what they need?

Thanks for listening. Together we can avoid the coming storm.

Bruce Lear lives in Sioux City and recently retired after 38 years of being connected to public schools. He was a teacher for eleven years and a regional director for the Iowa State Education Association for 27 years.

Top photo taken by the author, published with permission.

Tags: Education, Labor
  • Got evidence?

    You did not offer any evidence for your prediction. Accordingly, i wish to predict Iowa teachers are light years away from striking. Teachers seldom even send a representative to my local school board meetings.

  • Yes!

    This is a great article describing the plight of teachers. However, I think teachers in most schools in rural Iowa would have a very difficult time striking. The idea of a $5000 fine a day will stop most of them.

    Teachers are frustrated, over worked, and demoralized. Many nearing the retirement age are leaving as soon as they can, as I did. I always thought I would teach until at least 65. My goal was to match my grandfather who taught until 70. My mom taught until 63. I didn’t make it, and I was in a great school with great parents and administrators. Most teachers are not as lucky as I was.

    We are losing 35% of new teachers before they reach their 5th year of teaching. Our colleges of education are experiencing a large decline in both those entering the professional classes, and those that are never teaching.

    Politicians started to blame teachers for societal ills starting with “A Nation at Risk” report in 1983. Since then, funding levels have not kept up with inflation, work loads have gone through the roof, and class sizes are making it nearly impossible to develop relationships with students.

    Parents are the most important advocate. We must be in this together.

  • A national commenter several years ago...

    …pointed out that in many school districts around the country, older middle-income white married voters whose primary language is English are being asked to vote for more school funding to help children who are much more likely to be people of color who come from lower-income households in which the parents aren’t married and in which the primary language is not English. In that sense, it is a kind of national test of empathy and foresight. So far, we don’t seem to be doing very well.

  • Teachers and Parents Unite

    The comments here read as if no one here actually has a child in school anymore.
    Bruce knows there is a quiet desperation up and down the system.
    Frankly speaking, it’s a testament to the Koch Bros. and the American Legislative Exchange Committee (ALEC) that has been very, very successful in undermining faith in our public education system. Reynolds meets with charter school leaders while her legislature mandates draconian cuts to the public system under the “allowable growth” scam.
    If you love education, this treatment of our public employees AND our children should make you mad enough to get focused. Again, parents are the real key here and for whatever reason, parental voices are lacking at critical points in this system. The reasons may be justifiable but what is happening to our public school systems is inflicting a moral injury that will negatively affect our community if not remedied.
    Witness the direct impacts: rouse yourself on Saturday morning(9am), head to Lincoln High School to hear Dr. Tom Ahart and his staff explain how they intend to manage the $74 million in cuts to DMPS–cuts mandated by an Iowa legislature bent on privatizing education and “sticking it to the elitists in Des Moines.
    I also see a parental uprising ahead–if they join up with the teachers look out, it could get interesting.

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