Commentary: For Arizona’s teachers, it might be time to take a walk

Kevin Hutson

Kevin Hutson

‘Another huge deficiency in our schools is the lack of counselors to help our students. Arizona ranks dead last in the country, with one counselor for every 924 students’

Arizona Gov. Doug Ducey stepped up this week, or at least he likes to think he did. His proposal calls for 20 percent pay raises for teachers across the state, with the increases to be spread out over the next two years.

Suffice it to say we don’t know yet where the money is supposed to come from, or if the legislature will even approve it. But, hey, when you have teachers united across the state about the possibility of a walkout, it’s a nice number to throw out there to try and get them to remain in the classroom for the remaining six or so weeks of the school year.

On the surface, who among us wouldn’t be happy with a 20 percent pay raise over the course of the next two years? No matter what your job or career, I think most if not all of us would sign up for it. The issue in Arizona, however, is much more complicated than just this. I know I’m not the only teacher who feels this is only a small step in addressing a myriad of needs. And I think a walkout is still a very real possibility, as it should be.

Let me start by saying I’m not what one would call a career educator. I am in the sixth year of my second career, having worked as a newspaper writer and editor for 28 years before changing paths. I do not regret it for a minute. It’s been rejuvenating, satisfying and fulfilling. But at the same time, it’s been demanding, frustrating and exhausting.

I work with two amazing teachers on our middle school team at our small, rural public school. They are 20 and 30 years younger than me, with young children of their own. I can come home, late most afternoons, and collapse in my recliner to watch the news or Jeopardy or a ballgame. They, however, have T-Ball practice and wrestling and homework and all the other things that come with being a parent of young kids. I tell them on a regular basis, I don’t know how they do it.

My two children are about to enter the workforce as educators in Arizona, and I hope they don’t become part of this statistic that was cited by the Arizona Department of Education in January 2015 by the Educator Retention and Recruitment Task Force. According to a national study (Hill, 2011), 46 percent of new teachers leave the profession within their first five years. If you’re young and want to start a family, it’s not hard to see why.

Depending on which study you believe, Arizona teacher salaries rank either last in the country or one step up at 49th. So, yes, salaries are a big part of why teachers are threatening to walk out, but certainly not the only one. There are other needs, which I’ve experienced first hand.

One demand is the need for smaller class sizes. According to a study released in 2016 by the National Center for Education Statistics, Arizona had 1.1 million K-12 students and 48,358 full-time teachers. That’s a ratio of 23:1, one of the highest in the country. The national average was 16:1. I’ll tell you this. If I could have no more than 23 students in my classes, I’d take that any day. I just got a new student in my seventh grade class this week, raising the number to 33. Once you get into the mid-20s and above with class size, issues of classroom management rise exponentially. It makes it much more difficult to create a positive learning environment.

Secondly, teachers don’t want raises just for themselves. We also want raises for support staff, such as paraprofessionals, teacher aides, bus drivers, office staff and cafeteria workers.

These workers barely make minimum wage, which is disgraceful. Special services for students who qualify are sorely lacking in this state compared to others. Here’s an example. When I was doing my student teaching in Connecticut, I had one class of lower level readers that had four paraprofessionals roaming the room every day.

In Arizona, I can probably count on one hand the number of times paraprofessionals have spent time helping my students while in my class. Instead, these students are pulled out at different times to receive instruction, because the limited staff is often helping students from different grade levels at the same time.

The turnover among paraprofessionals is constant. Of course, minimum wage is not very attractive when you get kicked, bitten, or objects thrown at you by students with extreme needs. Not to mention having to change the occasional soiled diaper of a middle schooler at our school, as has happened this year on numerous occasions.

Another huge deficiency in our schools is the lack of counselors to help our students. Arizona ranks dead last in the country, with one counselor for every 924 students, according to the American School Counselor Association.

That compares to a national average of 482, according to a study done three years ago. We have a wonderful counselor who comes to our school one day a week, for about five hours. That is nowhere near enough.

Do you want to know why? I’d like you to meet some of my students. For the sake of confidentiality, I’ve changed their names. But I’ve encountered these situations in my room over the last three years. My colleagues would be happy to corroborate, if you have any doubts.

• James has never met his father. Both his parents are currently incarcerated. “The closest I’ve ever been to my Dad was when I was in my mom’s stomach, when he punched her there,” James said.

• Jim and his brother were in a hotel room with their mother and her boyfriend. The mom and boyfriend tied plastic bags over their heads, so the kids wouldn’t see them doing drugs. Fortunately, the police were alerted and CPS (Child Protective Services) came into the picture. Mom’s still in jail.

• Jolina, an eighth grader, was the mother of a newborn. She was the victim of family incest. As her teacher, I was told to be aware in class if her breast area became moist. If it did, I had to send her to the nurse. She was unsure how to adjust to the lactation process.

• Sarah was left on the doorstep of a halfway house when she was an infant. Mom just got out of jail, and they are trying to establish a relationship.

• Frank’s father is in jail for drugs, along with also throwing a puppy out of a moving vehicle.

• Lisa, who craves attention, was convincing her peers to cut themselves to earn a place in her special circle of friends.

• Jeff told me about his Thanksgiving holiday. “All the grownups got drunk,’’ he said. “It was funny watching them stumble around.”

• Julia was excited to go hunting with her dad on a weekend a few months ago. He had been in jail. Unfortunately, before they left, he was pulled over for having an open container in the car while Julia was a passenger. That hunting weekend never happened. She was devastated.

• Bob was in tears, telling me how his father beat the “crap” out of him for not doing the dishes properly. He also saw his father beat his mother on numerous occasions. He is now in the custody of an uncle.

Folks, this is just the tip of the iceberg. This list could be much longer, but hopefully you get the idea.

Nothing has prepared me for the stories I’ve encountered in the classroom. I am confident in my knowledge in my subject area of language arts, but also believe strongly that my job as a teacher is to help develop the “whole” child.

However, and I have said this on numerous occasions, there are days that I believe I would be better served by having a counseling degree than with all the qualifications I bring with language arts and my journalism background.

When you have students with issues like these, it isn’t easy. If a kid sees a parent doing drugs or abusing a sibling before school even starts, they’re not going to turn the switch off and tell me the difference between a simile and metaphor when class begins.

As teachers, in a perfect world, we would like to save them all. We won’t, but Arizona schools would be well-served by having more counselors to help give them a better chance.

According to the U.S. Census bureau in 2015, states spent an average of $10,700 per pupil. New York ranked first at $19,818 per pupil, while Arizona came in a disgraceful 47th at $7,208 per pupil. To put this in perspective, the annual cost of incarcerating a prisoner in the state of Arizona in 2015 was $23,826 according to the Arizona Department of Corrections. Call me idealistic, perhaps, but don’t you think that maybe if we spend more money on our children now, then perhaps the amount of money we have to spend on prison care might go down?

Like most teachers, I don’t do it for the money. I do it because I like kids, and want to see them succeed. The 20 percent pay increase proposal is nice, but it falls far short of what Arizona really needs. I’m not sure how the rest of my colleagues feel, but unless these other areas are also addressed, it might be time to go on a walk.

Kevin Hutson is a middle school language arts teacher at the Oak Creek School in Cornville.

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