The Hidden Costs of Teaching in an Urban School

xerox copier  This is similar to a copier that my sister and brother in law kept in the office of their auto parts store. I mention the copier later in this blog entry.

I recently had a conversation with a neighbor and previously with some family members and when I told them that teachers in urban schools spent large sums of money for everyday supplies like paper, books, and even pencils they were stunned. I admit that I thought this was just general knowledge, but I realized that these costs are hidden to a public that has little idea of how strained teachers and students are in their effort just to be supplied with things that suburban and charter schools take for granted.

This becomes important because of the recent move by the SRC (School Reform Commission) to cancel the teacher contract and their clumsy and sneaky attempt to fund schools on the backs of the teachers – the same teachers who are responsible for holding together their classroom learning communities when no one else, including the SRC, Mayor Nutter, Governor Corbett and the state legislature, have made a movement in the direction of fair funding for all public schools. This lack of supplies goes back decades and has gotten worse since the SRC took responsibility, in name only, for the health and condition of public education. Something else my neighbor and family did not realize was that the teachers, through their union, have ended up in 2014 with salaries far below their suburban counterparts. The current medical coverage granted to teachers was a way for the school district to implicitly acknowledge the inferior salary structure by supplying the teachers with reasonable coverage.  There was a time when that coverage could have been referred to as a “Cadillac’ plan, though this is not true today. There has been a gradual chipping away of coverage – first a move away from a strong Blue Cross program to coverage by HMO’s and some other benefits being reduced over the last 15-20 years. As long as I am on the car metaphor, I would be remiss not to point out that our governor, state legislature, mayor and city council have what could be referred to as a “Rolls Royce” plan, but that would be being snippy I suppose.

In this entry I wanted to share how I spent money, time and energy in supplying my class at an urban middle/high school during the decade of the 1990’s. This expenditure of money, time and energy is still going on today with the teachers in urban schools. If the public can begin to acquire knowledge of how teachers make sacrifices for their students then perhaps the public can come to understand why teachers today are so distressed at the SRC’s recent actions.

When I was teaching I used to keep a folder of Xerox copies of poems, short stories, excerpts of novels and articles of interest from newspapers and magazines that I could use as part of the curriculum I was developing for my students. Since we had little money for books, this folder contained additional reading material that I could use to connect texts we were reading with other forms of literature and events in the real world. There was a copy machine at my school and for a little while teachers were allowed to use it. You could never make a large amount of copies (as in class sets) before you would get the hairy eyeball from the office staff. Eventually there was a sign posted on the copier – ‘Not for teacher use.’ I wish I could say that I am joking, but that is the sad truth. I used to take my folder to Staples and in those days you could always tell the teachers in the group of people waiting to use the copiers – I am not sure if was the chagrined look in their eyes or the amount of copies they were making or the way they dressed (definitely not designer clothes). Staples used to have a policy of not allowing copies where a copyright was involved. I was stopped a few times and told this until I developed a strategy of making single copies before I went to Staples and then I did not have to have a textbook with me that would give me away as breaking copyright rules!  At any rate, this method of copying was very expensive, especially when you had to have copies for multiple classrooms – always with at least 30 students in a class.

My second avenue for making copies was to rely on my sister and brother in law. They owned their own auto parts store with my sister working in the office (a cramped little space!) and my brother in law managing and working the counter downstairs. I would take my folder with copies to be made to Carlisle where they lived and worked. The picture of the copier I attached to this entry is a bit like the copier that they had – nothing fancy, but I thought it was a true gift. I would bring reams of paper but they did not mind if I also used theirs. There would be hours of copying, collating and stapling the classroom sets I would need to insure that my students were reading, writing and offering criticism of material that would enhance their understanding of the multiple contexts of literature and history. I suspect that I abused that poor little copier, but I never heard an objection from my sister or brother in law during that whole time. Publishing this story is my way of offering my eternal thanks for their assistance and support.

I relate these anecdotes because it is time to stop demonizing teachers. It is time to move forward and reclaim public education from the corporate structure that wishes to dismantle public education. I hope that this blog resonates with other teachers and with a public that is beginning to demonstrate a  solidarity with the struggle the teachers and their union are engaged in today in Philadelphia.

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