A District, A Salary Schedule, and Decompression: An Interview with Robbie Ramirez

Amethyst Hinton Sainz Current Affairs, Education, Education Policy, Teacher Leadership

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I’m getting ready to sit down and watch the Arizona Wildcats take on the Oregon Ducks at McKale Center. We’ve had a great season so far, and I’m looking forward to watching us come back from our first loss.

Tucson Unified School district is also trying to stage a comeback, from years of salary freezes and painful budget cuts.

In 2008, the year that I began teaching at Tucson Unified School District, a District Management Audit of Tucson Unified School District found that the pay structures in the district were confusing, and had created multiple inequities over the years. The audit recommended simplifying pay structures and reducing inequities in order to improve morale and retain employees. Without being aware of this audit, I noticed the issue in the district and wrote about it in 2012.

In 2013, after years of frozen salaries, the governing board decided to begin steps to rectify the salary compression problem; veteran teachers were often getting paid less than new hires. The plan has three phases which will take three years. Phase I was set to begin in January 2014.  After seeing posts online by a top-notch teacher leader who helped me achieve my National Board certification, I knew her story needed to be told. Her story demonstrates why teacher salaries must be a priority for districts that have suffered over the last few years, not in a series of phases that work themselves out over years, but now.

Amethyst: How long have you been in TUSD, and in what capacity?

Robbie Ramirez: I have been in TUSD since 1977, when I first entered the kindergarten doors full of amazement and wonder. From those early foundational years I knew I wanted to work with kids and have a positive impact on the world around me. Idealistic? Perhaps, after all I was 5.  As I continued throughout my career as a student, those ideals never diminished. I was fortunate to have teachers who inspired and challenged me to reach higher.  I believed limits on my success were those I placed on myself.

As I entered the very doors I had entered in 1977 as a student teacher I found myself across the hall from my kindergarten teacher and knew I had found my home. With no vacancies in my beloved school I taught for a few years in the Sahuarita Unified School District, which was a wonderful experience but wasn’t the home I yearned for.  In 2000, the vacancy I had been dreaming of opened up and I was able to return to my beloved school working beside the very kindergarten teacher who sparked my love for learning. I proudly taught first grade for 11 years before relenting to the desire to impact the learning of even more students and transitioned into mentoring. Through mentoring teachers I am blessed to support our newest teachers as they learn to navigate the educational system. I am able to impact students on an exponential level as each teacher I support has 20-34 students.

AHS: Are you a member of Tucson Educational Association? Why or why not?

RR: Throughout my career I have had a turbulent relationship with my district association. The kind of unhealthy relationship in which I break away only to make up and give it another chance…over and over again. I believe in philosophy behind unions.  I believe in a collaborative voice and collective bargaining power. I believe in the goals of NEA and AEA. Unfortunately I haven’t seen the benefits at the local level, largely because of stagnate pay, deteriorating classroom support and growing classroom sizes. I remained a member as long as I could. Unfortunately, the very stagnated pay required financial prioritizing and the high cost of membership was one I could no longer justify. I also question how effective unions in Arizona can possibly be as Arizona is a “right to work” state. I wonder what options we might have in terms of a representative professional organization.

AHS: When was the last time you had a raise that actually increased your take home pay?

RR: 2007 was the last time in which I saw a raise that increased my take home pay. Since that time we have received one increase, which is referred to as “the wash” by many teachers. You see it was a year in which we were given a 3% raise on paper only to have pay a portion of premiums for our previously paid for insurance and increase in retirement which was also previously included. While we received a “raise” in one hand we were given a new bill for benefits in the other, hence “the wash”.

AHS: Do you feel that you are fairly compensated for your work and expertise?

RR: I don’t feel teachers in general are fairly compensated for their work and expertise. At the same time I don’t feel salary schedules are the answer. Salary scales in theory are to fairly provide compensation for service as well as cost of living increases. Let’s face it, not all teachers demonstrate the same level of commitment or efficiency and there needs to be a way to differentiate. Nor do I believe performance pay is the solution. Teachers in affluent areas will often outpace those in the lowest socioeconomic areas simply based on zip codes. From my experience some of our hardest working teachers want to support our neediest students, and should rewarded, not penalized, for doing so. As with our students there are a plethora of factors that should be taken into account, but are rarely mentioned, as it would be admitting inequities exist.

AHS: How do you think the salary issues in the district affect the work that teachers do? How does salary impact the practice of teaching?

RR: Teachers are amazing beings at the core and do their best to shelter their students from the plagues that personally affect them. Salaries definitely affect morale. While pay scales are deemed public information, the reality is individual teacher pay is often covered in a veil of secrecy as teachers are either embarrassed they are paid so little or afraid to cause animosity amongst colleagues. Few teachers are compensated in the manner in which their districts advertise.

Salary directly impacts the practice of teaching.  Many teachers have found it necessary to add additional employment to their already full plates. Tucson Values Teachers, a local collaborative effort to support teachers, recently released the findings of their 2013 Teacher Workforce Survey.  Tucson Values Teacher's 2013 Teacher Workforce Survey was the first major study to look at regional data “and paint a true picture of teachers' lives and the stark reality of a diminishing workforce and embattled profession.”

A few highlights from the survey:

·   Only 6% of teachers are completely satisfied with their job while the majority is neutral.

·   Only 33% of teachers say that they are "very likely" to still be teaching in Southern Arizona in five years.

·   40% of teachers are "not likely" to recommend their profession to others.

·   Teachers spend on average more than $1,000 per year on classroom-related expenses out of their own pockets.

·   The average full-time teacher works more than 60 hours a week on classroom instruction, preparation, grading outside of class and other required duties.

·   Nearly 33% of all teachers have an additional paying job outside of the classroom.

AHS: If your salary were to increase, how would it affect your life and professional work?

RR: As my own children are inching toward college, I am keenly aware that my choice to become a teacher may be at the expense of my own children. You see, throughout my time in the classroom any money left in my checkbook went to purchase classroom needs for my students. The limits of my salary meant an extended payment plan on student loans. Teacher loan forgiveness programs exist, but due to program restrictions I qualified for none. The reality is that I will not be able to help my own children pay for college as I will still be paying for my education after they have attained their degrees. That single fact brings tears to my eyes, as my choice to serve the children in the community I love so deeply will come at the cost of my daughter’s future. It is a heavy burden to bear and one in which I feel great guilt. A salary increase at this point will do little to change the reality, but would allow me to increase my contribution.

Salary has also shackled my future. You see I had always put my students’ needs first, even when making educational decisions for myself. I purposefully aligned my professional development with the needs of my children. This led me down the higher education path toward a masters in early childhood. I did it to be the best and most knowledgeable teacher I could be for them. Over the past few years I have had the growing desire to increase my ability to impact the lives of children. This would require a masters in educational leadership, as the very degree which I pursued to meet the needs of my students would not suffice. I researched programs and decided to dive in head first only to realize that I could not come up with any feasible justification for the additional debt that would accompany it.

AHS: Have you ever thought about leaving education? What kinds of alternatives have you considered, if any?  Why are you still in TUSD?

RR: I would be lying if I said I never thought about leaving education. To do so would be like cutting off my arm, I would be incomplete.  I spend more time lately thinking about ways in which I can remain in education. Exploring avenues in which to cut costs and making smart financial choices all the while trying to anticipate future needs. I have come to accept I live in a house of cards and any unexpected disaster would be complete financial destruction. I’m not alone; many if not most teachers are in the same boat, yet our dedication to students endures.

Why do I remain? The answer is fundamentally simple. I believe in supporting the very community in which in live. I don’t believe our children will be saved by the passing winds of that often move through districts but by those who have deep roots and recognize that we too must continue to grow with our students.

AHS: What are you thoughts on or hopes for the process of salary decompression in the district? Do you trust the district to do right by the teachers? 

RR: I haven’t given up hope on the process of salary decompression. I want to believe those in power have the desire to help and not harm teachers. I do, however, believe teachers accept that the process will be flawed and believe everyone is entitled to transparency. It is by removing the veil of secrecy and sharing the reality, complete with warts, that we can begin to build trust. As things were handled it created a deeper level of mistrust and further divided teachers.  Through clear articulation of the criteria for salary compression, the process can be demystified.

AHS. What changes need to happen and at what levels to ensure that this sort of salary compression does not continue to negatively impact the teaching profession in Arizona and elsewhere?

RR. There is much work to be done to rectify salary issues.  It is a complex issue with many moving parts. It is imperative that we as a society educate ourselves on issues of educational funding, legislative mandates and how to proactively come together to increase awareness and advocate. We need to find ways to get a seat at the table so we don’t end up as the main entrée.

 

 

I currently teach English Language Development at Rhodes Junior High in Mesa Public Schools. I love seeing the incredible growth in my students and being an advocate for them. I am a National Board Certified Teacher in Adolescent and Young Adult English Language Arts. Before this position I taught high school English in Arizona for 20 years. My alma maters are Blue Ridge High School and the University of Arizona. My bachelor’s degree in Creative Writing and Philosophy led me toward the College of Education, and I soon realized that the creative challenges of teaching would fuel me throughout my career. My love of language, literature and culture led me to the Bread Loaf School of English at Middlebury College for my masters in English Literature. I am a fellow with the Southern Arizona Writing Project, and that professional development along with, later, the National Board process, has been the most influential and transformative learning for me. I enjoy teaching students across the spectrum of academic ability, and keeping up with new possibilities for technology in education, as well as exploring more topics in STEM. In recent years, much of my professional development has focused on teacher leadership, but I feel like I am still searching for exactly what that means for me. I live in Mesa, Arizona with my family. I enjoy them, as well as my vegetable garden, our backyard chickens, our dachshund Roxy, reading, writing, cooking (but not doing dishes), hiking and camping, and travel, among other things.