AUGUST

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It is the last of August, and this ending could not come too soon. It’s been a memorable month.

There are great things about August: my wedding anniversary, the birthday of my older son, and surely something else.

In the old days, August is the month I began playing solitaire compulsively—with cards, not on the computers. Wikipedia suggests that about 79% of games are winnable, but I am fortunate to win a tiny fraction of that number. I have no idea what I am doing wrong. I can play a dozen hands of the game without winning.

That’s how August feels to me.

And too many tourists, preparing for company, cleaning up after company, completed projects.

The real reason August is a depressing month is that I am eager to start my teaching year. Until I retired, August simply stood between me and a new school year. Now I only teach one class each in Winter and Spring terms. The end of August means I still have 12 weeks to go.

I need a project.

When I finally checked my class list, I discovered 36 students listed in my Writing 121 class. No college or university I know would inflict that many students on a writing instructor. It is likely a few will drop, but I am thinking about how to fit that many into a classroom. I am mentally adding hours each week to my grading time. They have moved my students into two different rooms, new to me since last year and the year before, and years before that. No one contacted me about any of this, I was unable to schedule a meeting with my department, I did not receive the schedule letter from the school, and the principal was briskly friendly when I stopped by earlier this week. This is merely to say that my high school, like all public schools, is struggling.

I just read a pair of articles about pay at public school districts, one about the highest starting pay, and the other about pay scales that dip into six figures. One reality of teaching is that schools generally hire as cheaply as possible. You might observe that this is true for any business, but you might be missing a key difference about hiring teachers. A public school seeking a new principal (or a law firm seeking a contract lawyer) can find the candidate they want to hire and then negotiate a salary commensurate with desired skills and experience. That is, they know what they want and hire the best person for that job.

Public education doesn’t work that way. The districts with the highest starting pay, offer more money to beginning teachers for two reasons: they are building a stellar school system or no one wants to move to Wyoming. School districts with exceptionally high pay can do that because their tax base is exceptionally high, cost of living is high, and because they are building exceptional schools. They are throwing their money down to hire the best teachers. If you are tempted at this moment to repeat that old saw, “You can’t solve a problem by throwing money at it,” you are both right and wrong. Throwing money around is pretty pointless. But having money to spend can allow a school to hire the best and brightest teachers.

Almost no district can afford the best and brightest teachers. They have limited funds and overfilled classrooms. They hire the best teacher that they judge they can afford. Whether 80 or only 12 apply for the job, districts hire first-year teachers because they are cheaper. They might hire a teacher with 3-5 years of experience, but they can’t afford more years, or anyway, they do not afford more years of  experience. Each year of experience means additional pay, and they do not budget for that extra pay.

Districts offering the highest starting pay assume that this is one way to find and keep teachers. If they can keep them for a few years, those straight-out-of-college teachers who chose to go somewhere for the high starting pay will find they are not desirable candidates anywhere else. The longer a teacher stays in a position, the less likely another district will spend the money to hire them away.

Compare that to most other industries where experience not only costs employers more, but is actually valued more. In schools, this only seems to work for administrators.

And yet. And yet, I am eager to begin. I will visit classrooms and volunteer my time in the school library on Wednesdays, and I am eager to begin teaching. In the mean time, I am piecing a quilt and playing solitaire.

“There are four types of hands [playing American Solitaire, or Klondike]: winnable games, theoretically winnable lost games (the player made a selection that resulted in a lost game, but could not know what the correct selection was because the relevant cards were hidden), unwinnable games (there is no selection that leads to a winning result), and unplayable games.”—Wikipedia

I am playing blind.

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