The Life and Times of a Lifer

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Life Long Educators

February 22, 2012

By Janet M. Borchers, Educator

I was first introduced to union work by my father, an Operating Engineer from Local #487 in Miami, Florida. He was a hard-working man who did not finish high school, but continued to rise in his work and learn new skills that earned him enough money to own a home, raise three daughters and provide for my mother. He did not live to enjoy the fruits of his own labor. Sadly, exposure to cement and other work place hazards may have contributed to his early death at 62 from cancer. His beloved union, and the years of paying his union dues, left my mother able to take care of herself financially and not be a burden to society or go back to work at 60. Their union benefit plan has faced some cut-backs, but they would never disallow a widow’s right to benefits. Call it part of the brotherhood.

I am a part of that larger brother-and-sisterhood as a public servant educating Florida’s children. I do this to the absolute best of my ability, day in and day out, and in some of the worst financial times I have seen in my 21 years. I have never felt ashamed of my work in public education. But our service and profession is being attacked and we will now “perform for pay” based on student gains, constantly changing professional development requirements that are repetitious, and outside the “office”, off the clock duties deemed necessary to the school day in order to encourage greater parent involvement.

I started as a Kindergarten teacher my first year and I used Robert Fulghum’s All I Really Need to Know I Learned in Kindergarten to survive. It has served as a useful handbook for life since. These are the rules most educators live by that I like to call That Other Robert’s Rules of Order: Share everything. Play fair. Don’t hit people. Put things back where you found them. Clean up your own mess. Don’t take things that aren’t yours. Say you’re sorry when you hurt somebody. Wash your hands before you eat. Flush. Warm cookies and cold milk are good for you. Live a balanced life- learn some and think some and draw and paint and sign and dance and work every day some. Take a nap every afternoon. When you go out into the work, watch out for traffic, hold hands, and stick together. Be aware of wonder. Remember the little seed in the Styrofoam cup: The roots go down and the plant goes up and nobody really knows how or why, but we are all like that. Goldfish and hamsters and white mice and even the little seed I the Styrofoam cup- they all die. So do we. And then remember the Dick-and Jane books and the first word you learned- the biggest word of all- LOOK. So let’s look.

Share everything: Public educators have been sharing everything for a long time. We have been sharing the freezes on our salaries that come when the wind blows cold from Tallahassee, or housing starts drop like a bloated bungee jumper. We have been sharing the sad and bad news that we are the low folks on the totem pole of prosperity. Now legislators have learned to share. Way back when I was first hired the time to be “vested” was ten years, but since no politician can last ten years due to term limits, being vested in the Florida Retirement System (FRS) was lowered to 6 years. Wow, those legislators share everything, all right.

Play fair: We play fair and notch up our belts and go into austerity mode. We spend our money in the classroom and but a little less money on the outside economy of our own lives. We drive ten year old cars, we pay our own spouses insurance costs if they do not have insurance, we do not use the “company” expense account for entertainment under the guise of business- hell, we do not have access to the “company” credit. We are the company credit. We’re Peter, they’re Paul.

Don’t hit people: We don’t strike out at those who deny our long, arduous hike up the ladder of senority that doesn’t exist because now public educators are given only a one year contract and must not assume that they will have any job safety, much less a similar job, much further less a job within the gas mile ratio to dollar income allotted for that expense in their economies.

Put things back where you found them: Ahhh, this. We do this every single day in our attempts to put the lives of children back where we found them. Or where we, as advocates for children, wish they could be found. Warm home, enough food, two active parents, some time for fun, supervised homework help or at least no babysitting during homework, a clean bed in a safe house, good health, an early enough bedtime, quiet nights, and all this followed by a morning of being awakened with loving care, a breakfast table conversation, and a ride to school with a smile on their faces. Is this really too much to wish for children?

Clean up your own mess: Following the message of what we, as educators and many of us as parents ourselves, we want the adults in charge to clean up their own mess. Don’t drop your junk at your children’s feet and expect them to understand. They want you to pretend that you have all your “mess” together and that the promise made to them will be willingly and cheerfully carried out- that you will attempt to be the absolute best parent you can be for each and every child you assume parenthood for and that they will feel all of the things they so richly deserve and if not you will ask for help and not let your children act out for help. Children are our greatest gifts, to ourselves as parents and the world. We must assume complete responsibility for becoming the best parents we can be. Too many parents are at odds with each other sending terrible messages of mistrust to children who come to school full of fearful and wanting. In this state their learning abilities are less than optimal. Their performance up to us and we’re ready for the challenge- it’s been ours all along anyway.

Don’t Take Things That Aren’t Yours: Legislators love the word “reappropriate” and they reappropriate funds all the time. I have had my hard earned salary reappropriated. As a law-abiding, tax-paying citizen of the State of Florida I have had the shame of hearing too many politicians, and corporations, wanting to deny the Florida constitutional provision of “a free, appropriate public education for all,” by looking to skirt the taxes on their profits. All of a sudden we are being consumed by For-Profit Charter schools that are not required to keep to the same requirements as public schools and those For-Profit Charter schools are now asking the House and Senate to reconsider them and reappropriate some capital improvement funds their way.

Say You’re Sorry When You Hurt Somebody: With the constant battle to be bigger, better, smarter than Finland, the UK, or Japan we hurt our children by continually upping the stakes in testing. The difference between our system and their systems is that they believe in the full and intentional investment in their children as an investment in their country. In our country, they believe that it costs too much to ask for that commitment for our children. For instance, a longer school day would cost our district in Lee County __ million a year. This longer school day would allow for immediate remediation, practice of skills not learned in the regular teaching block, enrichment for those ahead of the rest of the class, and less of a cram session all day every day. But the money, oh- the money! So we’re being offered a chance to extend one school day by one half-hour to take care of all the additional paperwork and trainings without students present. One half-hour per week. Net cost: $ __. Caveat: this half-hour comes with an “administrator’s right” to utilize. Any guesses how we’ll be spending this time?

How does one become bigger and better without an investment of quality time and money to get a more demanding job done? Is your child Algebra ready? Are you ready to tutor? It hurts stuents to continue to require more than we are willing to risk- in dollars and cents to make sure they have the time to learn. And too many are failing because it takes time to get them ready for all the changes they are facing in graduation requirements. And saying you’re sorry that you hurt any population of students while curriculum and content changes to pace ourselves against countries that hold education to a higher level and pay for it isn’t an apology I want given to any student I help educate.

Wash your face and hands when you eat: With the legislators wanting to strip public educators of power, seniority, due-process, collective bargaining, and our professional pride I’m grateful that several have come forward, against their party lines, to “wash their face and hands” of the carcass others are feeding off. As we can be heard to say more today: “We’re not D or R; we’re P.E.O. voters – Public Education Oriented voters.” We will vote in and vote out any scavengers that choose to gut our system.

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