For many outside the field of education, the mistrust experienced by educators is difficult to understand and pinpoint. Educators have been feeling the strain, and the last two sessions show the exasperation that educators have felt for years.
I have taught for over a decade. The slow decline in trust in policymakers and legislators has been a gradual erosion over the course of my entire career. Beginning in the 2009-10 school year, schools identified as being “low achieving” were audited as part of an initiative to receive funding from Race to the Top. Race to the Top was a competitive grant from the United States Department of Education costing billions designed to encourage innovation and reform in schools identified as low performing. In an effort to get the funds, Kentucky created an audit system.
Surviving the audits was the first chip in the crumbling trust for teachers who have been in the classroom for at least a decade. Teachers at struggling schools were asked to provide a multitude of evidence showing that they were good teachers. The school was placed under a microscope as a team of individuals of varying levels of educational expertise roamed the halls, talked to students, observed lessons, and interviewed various members of the staff. Our visitors stayed less than a week before delivering the crushing news that we had failed. As we sat in stoney silence in a faculty meeting, most of us holding our phones to record the meeting for those who hadn’t been able to secure childcare so that they could stay at such late notice, the words “You just left too many students at apprentice” rang across the room.
We knew what our test scores said. We knew that our kids came to us below grade level. The problem was that we really thought we were going to show them that we were still good educators. We thought they would see that we were still making gains that just weren’t visible on standardized tests. Following the meeting, the more demoralizing process began. We had to interview for our own jobs. Our principal was removed and replaced. My school was audited in the second round. As we ended the 2010-11 school year, we anxiously awaited the letters that would be delivered to our homes to say whether we would be allowed to keep our jobs. As we prepared to begin the 2011-12 school year, 28 teachers new to the building entered my school for the first time, over thirty percent of the staff.
In the 2015-16 school year, as mini audits were still being conducted across the state, teachers received yet another blow. In JCPS, we were told our pay would be frozen as we were “overpaid” in comparison to other school districts. This was the first time I ever heard whisper of the word sickout as fellow educators clamored to understand what was happening. In April 2016, following a financial audit that turned out to be incorrect, teachers in JCPS teachers were informed that their pay for the following year would be frozen. We would not receive our step increase or a cost of living adjustment for the following school year. We reacted quickly with the help of the unions who represented teachers and other school employees. This was the first time we collectively wore red. We held walk ins and the entire city wore red with us on the first Monday in May. Following the pushback, our step increase and cost of living adjustment were reinstated. It took months into the 2016-2017 school year for the pay to be sorted out and coaches had their pay delayed because of it.
Then came the 2018 session with the so-called sewage bill. Our pension has been on my mind since I began teaching. I knew there was a problem and that it needed to be fixed. Other counties had been in Frankfort for years working on our pension and trying to advocate for educators. We watched as legislators passed bill in the wee hours of the night and our first sickout happened the following day. Our trust was well and truly shattered in those moments.
As we moved into the 2019 session, we were battered and scared. It’s hard to trust others with not only your profession, but the future of education in our Commonwealth. When teachers fight for themselves, they are inherently fighting for the rights of their students. Our trust is something we are working to rebuild. We are working to be informed and active, but for outsiders looking in, our reactions might be difficult to understand. This has been a slow build up as we are the proverbial frog in the boiling pot of water.