I took it for granted. I took for granted that once I found my passion and had seven years experience under my belt with it, I was safe. My passion is teaching Social Studies – I especially love Civics and Sociology, but have taught everything from Global Studies to US History. I had developed and nurtured the first AP Government course in my school. I was the only Social Studies teacher who could offer college credit for Government courses. I had designed a school-wide Peer Mediation program for which I trained and advised really dedicated students every year. I was the Vice President of my union! I took it for granted I would be there forever, safely ensconced in my classroom. But I wasn’t safe. In March 2011, I was called into the principal’s office and told, with all due regret, that my position was cut. I don’t even remember the rest of that day…. or even the rest of that week.
Our district was hit particularly hard. For years, we’d floated on a surplus of funding that many other districts never enjoyed. The school board did not plan well for hard times. Suddenly, as the economy collapsed, the surplus disappeared – and then we had a deficit. I live and work in Oregon, where we lack the third rung of the taxation stool: a sales tax. Oregon also voted in 1990 to limit property taxes and unlink all but $5 per $1000 of property tax from education. So now our education funding comes from the state’s General Fund (which relies mostly on income tax) and… the Lottery. When the economy collapsed, Oregon shot up to over a 10% unemployment rate (thankfully, it has worked its way steadily down, but still hovers around 8.7%). With skyrocketing unemployment, state revenue plunged. I’d probably had an extra year of work that I didn’t realize at the time – the 2009 federal stimulus kept a lot of teachers working for another year. But as we all know, Congress chose not to renew that investment.
I, and 80+ teachers in my district, had to finish the last 3 months of the school year in 2011 knowing we would not return. The teachers who had kept their jobs struggled with survivor’s guilt and fear at what the new year would be like with so many of their colleagues gone. Our high school lost 35 teachers, and every elementary and middle school lost all their librarians, along with teachers and assistants Our Social Studies department lost three positions, and despite my seniority, I was that final, third position cut. In other departments, teachers of two or three years’ experience kept their jobs. The arbitrariness of it made it that much more surreal. I’m sure this story is familiar to many teachers: both who find themselves in the same situation as me, and those who have survived Reductions in Force (RiFs) in the last few years.
Just last month, the Hamilton Project examined government data and found that 220,000 teaching jobs were cut between 2009 and 2011. The Bureau of Labor Statistics has reported that from June 2011 to June 2012, 130,000 more positions were cut. Those are state employees for which the government can keep track of. The number of private school teachers who have lost their jobs because parents can no longer pay tuition is a number that is anecdotal at best (here in Oregon, several small private schools have closed down completely). So we’re talking about over 350,000 professionals who have suddenly found themselves not only separated from a career they loved, but now also competing against each other for the few scraps left that crop up from time to time.
A significant aspect of this Great Recession is the long-term unemployment that has become pervasive throughout the country. The reason for this is that so many of the positions that have been lost simply aren’t coming back. In an era where school “reform” means increased pressure on teachers, fewer and fewer of them makes the education environment even more tenuous for those who are still working. The chance of many positions returning is even smaller now. For those of us who are unemployed, there are so many more and new challenges that accompany the grief of not being in our classroom when the school year begins.
This year was the second start to a school year that I have experienced without being in the classroom. Dealing with job searches, temporary positions, substituting, unemployment insurance, life upheavals that come with a cessation of income, and the myriad of emotions that accompany the loss of a major part of my identity is what I will be sharing in these upcoming “Unemployed Teacher” columns. I invite comment and conversation from fellow teachers who are wading through this world of unemployment, and from employed teachers who are also feeling the effects of the budget cuts and loss of their colleagues.
What may be hard to remember about those hundreds of thousands of teachers who are longing for, and working hard to get back to, their classrooms, their students, and their passion, is that they are still teachers. Just because the lack of revenue in our states led to the removal of a position we filled, it did not remove teaching from who we are or what we are good at. And that may be the most difficult challenge of all since losing my position: I don’t work as a teacher, I am a teacher. Being unemployed doesn’t take that away from me, or any other unemployed teacher. It is what keeps us hopeful that perhaps next September, the school year will not begin without us.
To buy Cari’s book that details her sudden unemployment, “How to Finish the Test When Your Pencil Breaks” please click here.