I was 36 when I started teaching. Before that, as a young mother, I waitressed and ran a housecleaning business. Those jobs were physically demanding, but they could not hold a candle to laboring alongside my father in his ceiling-cleaning business. As an undergraduate student, I worked with him to make ends meet, and 20 years later, I can still say that cleaning ceilings is the hardest physical labor I’ve ever done.
We worked the graveyard shift, standing on 30-foot scaffolding wearing face masks and goggles. We sprayed a solution on the ceiling tile and then wiped that area with a cloth. Think “Karate Kid”: wax on, wax off — you get the picture. The jobs were daunting, the work backbreaking, but given the right people and supplies, the work got done and done well.
As a public school teacher, my work is less physically demanding than cleaning ceilings, but overall my easiest day of teaching is still more difficult than the toughest ceiling job. That’s because the “product” could not be more different. Children are breathing, dynamic beings with unique personalities, backgrounds and learning needs. Ceiling tiles, on the other hand, are not.
And if asked to clean a ceiling that was too difficult, my father could turn down the job. Public school teachers never turn down a child — no matter their backgrounds or circumstances. We teach children who are poor, children who are hungry, children living in unstable homes, children whose parents face addiction challenges, children whose parents are incarcerated and children with emotional and behavior issues. These challenges are increasing each year. We do this not simply to meet the letter of the law. We make these efforts because we know every child is a precious being. Each one of them deserves the best education possible, so they learn the skills, dispositions and knowledge to become engaged citizens and contributing members of society.
Throughout my 16 years of teaching, the work has become more complicated. In addition to increased student challenges, teachers need to keep up with advances in technology and teaching, and they are working to implement three major state mandates: high-level learning standards, a teacher evaluation system and a focus on proficiency-based grading.
These efforts are positive steps to ensure Maine students receive an excellent education. But they require time, energy and additional resources.
Sometimes my dad would be on a job, and it would be more complicated than originally thought. In response, he might use a different cleaning formula, wider scaffolding or hire more employees to ensure high-quality work was completed on time. Of course, these additional supports meant he also renegotiated his contract to reflect his increased expenses.
In contrast, over the last eight years, demands in education have increased, but state resources have decreased. Consequently, our district, School Administrative District 54, has eliminated 61 teaching positions, closed a community school and consolidated schools. Our school has cut its world languages positions and metals and woods programs. Our administrators and school board members value these positions and programs, but they have been placed in the untenable position of making cuts or further increasing taxes.
The governor’s proposed budget does not recognize the increased educational needs of Maine schools and students, and it does not provide the minimum financial support outlined in law. In fact, the budget significantly reduces support for education. Our district’s poverty rate is 66 percent, yet this in this budget, we will receive $878,779 less than last year. This narrative is not unique to SAD 54. Under this budget, 65 percent of Maine schools will receive less state funding.
Maine’s teachers have the honor and challenge of educating all the children of all the people. We are proud to play such a significant role in preparing every young person for career or college and to contribute to our communities and economy. But under-resourcing schools is not a formula for helping Maine’s workforce and economy.
Businesses would never expect my father to do a quality job cleaning their ceilings by reducing his access to employees or supplies. Likewise, Maine voters know teachers can’t do a quality job educating our children without support for critical resources. That is why Maine voters not once but twice demanded at the polls that the state fund 55 percent of public education. The voters get it. They know ceiling tiles are replaceable, but lost educational opportunities for our children are not.
Tamara Ranger, who teaches at Skowhegan Area Middle School, is the 2017 Maine Teacher of the Year.