It’s Hard to Teach When You Can’t Pay Your Bills Pat McCrory’s story as told to Matt C. Bloom
I came home and my wife was crying.
It was September, 2017. My wife had been going over our budget, which was already tight, and reading the story in the paper about how we were all going to have to pay back insurance premiums for the last two years over the whole school year.
I told her it’ll hurt, but we’ll get through it. Then she decided to post on Facebook about how hard it was on our family budget, and I was like, “Whoa.” At that point I wasn’t sure if we should be doing that, being so public about it.
But then, the next day I went into work. I had missed the last staff meeting because it was during practice. As one of the few male teachers, I coach all the male sports. I found out my boss had told everyone our Student Learning Objectives or SLOs had been too low. Now we need to hit 70% to be considered effective.
Let me explain.
There are two SLOs we need to hit: one is a measurement of the whole class, and one is a measurement of a sample group of six kids. Seventy percent proficiency doesn’t seem so bad. You’re thinking, that’s a C, right? But when you consider that the statewide average for ISTEP proficiency is 51%, you start to see how impossible it feels.
I had remained stalwart through all of the contract disputes and the state takeover turmoil. I had remained committed to my community and the children that are its future, even though I hadn’t had a raise the whole time I’d been there, and there seemed to be none in sight. I’d even felt pretty solid through the idea that I would have to pay back insurance premiums from the past two years. For some reason the SLOs felt like the straw that broke the camel’s back.
That was a rough day, but I didn’t quit. I have too many reasons to stay, including why I started in the first place.
About 10 years ago my wife and I moved to the South Central neighborhood to join the Ministry of Urban Light Community Church as residents. We made a commitment to stay long enough to help raise up the next generation of leaders from the southside of Muncie. We’ve had two kids here.
I taught Sunday school. I got frustrated with it because half an hour a week just wasn’t enough time to make a difference in their lives. I asked God several times if he wanted me to go back to school and become a teacher.
Eventually, he said, “Yes.”
After getting my degree from Ball State, teaching for our local schools just made sense. I already knew a lot of the teachers from my practicum work. Besides, I was committed to the south side. I went to work at a local elementary school.
I’m in my fifth year. I love my job. I work with some amazing teachers doing awesome things for their students. There is a ton of good in our schools to talk about, but we often don’t talk about it because we’re just under so much pressure.
The thing I hear most often from teachers who have been doing this for 25 to 30 years is, “Behaviors are worse than ever before.”
Classroom management is stressful for everybody. You’ve got little Jimmy over here who can hardly speak or write his name, still poops his pants. You want to help Jimmy but you got these two or three kids defying you, trying to embarrass you, who get the others worked up. They feed off that negative energy, egg it on.
You also have content to teach. You want your content to be so engaging that the kids want to learn.That takes a lot of planning. I’m often up until midnight or later.
On top of that, you always have to be working toward ISTEP and IREAD, the 3rd grade reading test. You don’t have much choice on what to teach, and there’s a lot of pressure from above to hit those benchmarks, which affect your school grade.
Drop into all this the stress of struggling to pay your bills. It’s crazy to me that I own a house on the southside of Muncie where my mortgage payment is only $200 or so per month, I don’t have a car payment, and even though we live a pretty chaste lifestyle, we’re still struggling to get by. We’re often waiting on the tax check to make necessary repairs, like fixing the fridge. I feel guilty about going out and having a beer with friends.
When we hear about other school systems that pay $12,000 more per year, it’s hard not to be tempted. Just imagine the impact that an extra $1,000 per month could have on a family.
Teachers try not to let all this pressure affect their students, and most of the time they’re really good at it. We’re only human, though. Sometimes it slips through.
My wife had emergency surgery a couple years ago. About that time two kids came into the class who were emotionally explosive. One would yell at me and set the other one off. I would go home and be a single parent while my wife recovered, try to get all my work done and come to school and get yelled at. My fuse was so short, I started yelling back. I knew this wasn’t the way to handle this. I just didn’t have the emotional resources to get out of the power struggle.
We don’t always see what happens in each other’s classrooms. Are other teachers experiencing a shorter fuse because of financial stress? I don’t think many would come out and say it. But I can make the assumption.
After my wife posted on Facebook that we were struggling with the insurance payback, I started to feel okay about it. I thought, “Why not let people know this is hard?”
A week or so later Matt Bloom called me. We’ve been friends and neighbors for years. He told me he’d seen my wife’s post and wanted to know how we could help teachers. I felt that whatever we do, it shouldn’t be so much about alleviating all the financial burden so much as boosting teacher morale. As an example, I told him the PTO raised money and gave us all $25 gift cards, and that was such a gift to us. It means a lot for my colleagues and I to see that the community sees us and supports us.
So Matt recruited some local businesses to help create a website called muncielovesteachers.com, where teachers can upload a little about themselves and people can make donations to support their families. I think this is great, because it fights what I see as the main problem with the schools right now.
Both inside our school and outside, in the community, we have a public relations problem. Morale is better when teachers feel valued and supported. Part of that means doing a better job marketing all that our schools offer. When you look at programming, our schools are among the best in the area, hands-down.
I’m teaching an after-school robotics class this year. These elementary school kids are learning programming, problem-solving, cooperative development. It’s awesome. I’ll bet a lot of people in Muncie don’t know this is available to low-income, urban kids.
The Teachers Association can help with PR, too. These days, too many people look at unions and think they’re just greedy and don’t really do anything for anybody. Maybe that’s true of some unions, but teachers unions have two functions that are important for student success.
The first is to fight against any policies that make it harder for teachers to educate kids, or put too much testing pressure on them. The second is to protect teachers’ wages so the school system can attract the best talent. All that ultimately benefits students. Not enough people understand that.
Imagine a public school system the community takes pride in because they are amazed at all its teachers offer kids. Imagine a teachers association that is recognized as fighting for students and providing best-in-class professional development opportunities for teachers. Imagine a faculty that can focus even more on students, free to teach without fear that they won’t be able to pay the bills.
I think we can get there. For now, my wife will cry sometimes over the bills, our kids will be on reduced lunch, and our school will be known primarily as a school system in crisis.
We have some work to do to relieve all this pressure on teachers and better serve the kids. First, all of us in the community have got to believe that we can do better.
Pat McCrory loves Muncie and MCS where his is a teacher. He lives with his wife and two kids.
Matthew C. Bloom is a freelance writer and media sales executive for the NPR and PBS stations at Ball State University. He lives on the south side of Muncie with his wife, Amber, two biological children, a steady rotation of foster children, and the friendliest pit bull you’ve ever met, Paris.