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“Kids don’t get laid off, but their teachers do.”

June 24, 2010
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Chicago art teacher Tom Bremer recently wrote about what it’s like teaching and working with budget cuts in Illinois. He was responding in part to the perception among some in the public that teachers are just “whining” about economic forces that are affecting all of us. He writes (emphasis mine),

OK. Yes, people everywhere have lost their jobs. Please understand that this isn’t about the “poor teachers”. Personally, I’m staying positive, hoping something will open up, and if not, use my art skills to find a job in the private sector. I’m lucky that I have a skill set that (I hope) I can fall back on. It is just that I’d much rather be in a classroom–I really do love teaching.

But understand this–teachers losing their jobs isn’t about just teachers, it’s about the students. Students don’t get laid off–they continue to be required to come to school with significantly shrinking budgets and resources (I taught my art class last year with a $0 operating budget).

I wish more people would keep this in mind as we debate what happens to teachers. In most other jobs or professions, what happens to an individual employee affects that person and his or her family most directly. In teaching, what happens to a teacher does not only impact that teacher and his or her family, but all of the students that teacher teaches. This, in turn, affects other teachers and students down the line.

Imagine you’re a low-income third grader reading two years below grade level, and you’re in a classroom with 30+ other kids because your school had to cut teaching positions. Odds are very much against you getting the help you need. You’ll probably stay below grade level for that year, and assuming you move on to fourth grade (which is, for better or for worse, quite likely), you’ll continue to be behind. The curriculum to which you’re exposed will continue to assume you’re at grade level, though, and you may or may not have a teacher who’s very knowledgeable about early reading instruction anymore. The old rule of thumb in reading development is, from K-3 you learn to read, and from 4th grade onwards, you read to learn. So now, in addition to being a “low reader”, you’re probably locked out of the rest of the curriculum as well.

Your teacher may be struggling mightily to differentiate for you and help you as much as she can (how well I know…), but you’re one of more than 30 kids who are all having this problem and tons of other problems, so it’s likely you’ll continue to struggle. School is boring at best and frustrating or even humiliating at worse, so you’ll probably start having behavior problems (Hey, she’s one against 35, she can’t be looking everywhere all the time!). Goofing around (or worse!) is better than sitting around feeling badly about yourself because you don’t understand what’s going on. It makes things harder on your teacher and other students, but…

More likely than not, this pattern will continue for the rest of your schooling, with you falling further behind until you somehow manage to skate past 12th grade (Congrats! You’ll probably need remediation if you go on to higher ed or extra training in the workforce, though…), or become one of the 50% (sometimes higher) of kids who drop out of city school districts like yours.

Yes, everyone is struggling in this economy, and tough choices need to be made to get runaway budget deficits in check. But when we make those choices, it’s important to think about what the ripple effects of each decision might be. Take time to read the rest of the piece— it’s a good read!– and consider taking the action he suggests at the end.

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