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What It’s Like to Be a Teacher in Washington State

A local teacher responds to the Time cover story

Published on: September 14, 2018

Teacher in classroom

I’m such a sellout. 

It’s a fact I’m reminded of every time I read a story like this one in Time, reminding me that in some parts of the United States, teachers sell bodily fluids to make ends meet.

Unlike the educators featured in the article, I don’t sell my plasma. I don’t work two jobs after my teaching day is done. I make much, much more than the $45,245 an average teacher in Oklahoma makes. If my students need help there are counselors, nurses, psychologists, behavior specialists and resource officers available. 

It wasn’t always that way. 

Several years ago, fresh out of college and doubtful about my chances of landing a job in Washington, I moved to where any warm body was sure to be hired: Las Vegas.

Teaching demands hit me hard those first years. My portable didn’t feature enough desks for my classes of 35 students. I had a box of paper that was supposed to last the whole semester. My class lists featured students with every social and economic challenge imaginable and there were few supports in the school to help mitigate homelessness, truancy or extreme behavior challenges.  

I threw myself into the job, working 12 hours days. Weekends were spent grading papers and frantically searching for strategies on how to deal with oppositional defiant teenagers. I gleefully spent my first paycheck on pencils, markers and notebooks. Much of my salary that year was spent on classroom supplies, hygiene items for my students and even rent money for their families.  

I was a pretty terrible teacher that year. But then things got easier. I found grants to pay for books and paper. I got more efficient, working 50 hours a week instead of 70. 

Just as I was getting to be a good teacher, I left the students who needed me the most.

I loved my job and my students and my school. I didn’t mind the paltry paycheck. I wasn’t in teaching for the money. 

But then I realized that I wanted my own kids one day. Maybe I could have made that miniscule salary work, but I didn’t want my own children to be educated in Las Vegas. I didn’t want them to be schooled by a string of substitutes necessitated by unfilled positions. I didn’t want them to disappear in overcrowded kindergarten classes or miss out on arts education due to budget cuts. I didn’t want their nascent reading skills to be shepherded by teachers as inexperienced as I had been. 

So I moved north. Just as I was getting to be a good teacher, I left the students who needed me the most. 

I ended up north of Seattle, in one of the highest-paying districts in the state. Pay varies quite a bit in Washington, but any district in this area would have been a vast improvement. It is wonderful that my salary doubled. It is more wonderful that my daughter attends a new school with state-of-the-art technology, experienced teachers, a robust support staff and enough art supplies to keep her backpack brimming with construction paper and popsicle sticks. 

I am lucky that we ended up in Washington instead of Kentucky or Oklahoma or Arizona. Of course there is still work to do. Not every student in Washington gets the wrap-around support they need. Pay scales are still inadequate in some districts. Overcrowded classrooms are still far too prevalent. Teachers still are forced to move to the picket lines to fight for resources for their students. But at least we Washingtonians have the tools to put up a fight. 

Weak unions and no strike agreements in Las Vegas leave educators with no options but to trudge back to their classrooms each year. The Oklahoma legislature seems to equate raising taxes for education as tantamount to socialism.The Supreme Court in Arizona blocked an initiative that would have poured $690 million into schools. 

We, however, live in a state where the Supreme Court once issued a $100,000 per day fine against the state when it was not moving quickly enough to fully fund education. This coupled with robust unions means that kids in Washington have a good chance at getting a decent education in a well-stocked classroom with a teacher who gets to utilize all her plasma cells as she stays up late, forever grading essays. 

I wish my students in Las Vegas had that, too.

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