When You Mistreat Teachers, Beware the Unintended Lessons for Students



We’ve all seen the shocking video from Vermillion Parish in Louisiana this week where a teacher is tackled to the ground and arrested because she asked a question to the school board.




It’s a gross abuse of power that brings up many issues:


  • Public servants responding to the public with violence.


  • Elected representatives refusing to hear from their constituents and – in fact – taking action to silence them.


  • Leaders who are supposed to oversee children’s educations unconcerned with the lesson local kids will be taking home from the actions of adults who are supposed to set a better example.


The case is simple.


The eight-member board had been deadlocked 4-4 on whether or not to give Superintendent Jerome Puyau a raise. Then one of the members died. Instead of his wife filling in until a new election could be held, board president Anthony Fontana , who was in favor of the raise, appointed a like-minded replacement and tried to force a vote.


So Deyshia Hargrave, a district teacher and parent, asked why the superintendent should get a raise while the teachers haven’t had one in several years.


It was a reasonable question, asked at the proper time, in a respectful tone, when comments were directed specifically at her.


However, Reggie Hilts, the Abbeville city marshal who also serves as a school resource officer, told her she was being disruptive and asked her to leave – which she did. When she got out in the hall, he forced her to the ground, put her in handcuffs and pushed her out of the building.


It was completely unjustified, a horrific violation of Hargrave’s rights and goes counter to the very purpose of public school.


Local control is the great strength of our education system.


It is the idea that district wide decisions about our children’s learning should be made by duly-elected members of the community in the full light of day. Except where doing so would violate an individual’s personal rights, all school documents are public. They are voted on in public. And they are subject to question and comment by the public.


If the taxpayers – the people who foot the bill for the majority of the district costs – don’t approve of what their representatives are doing, they can take steps to replace them.


These are the very foundation of public schooling and one of the major reasons the public school system is superior to charter or voucher schools, which typically do not have them. Even when privatized systems retain the vestiges of democratic rule, they are optional and can be stripped away at the whim of the businesses and/or corporations that run them.


Vermillion Parish School Board would do well to remember this.


The actions taken by City Marshall Hilts were either done at the behest of the board or certainly without any public dissent among the members.


They stomped on Hargrave’s First Amendment rights and ignored their responsibility to the community they serve.


If my description of how a public school is supposed to work sounds like a lecture, that’s intentional. These representatives could do with a lesson in how democracy works.


Our actions have consequences and those consequences only become more consequential when we become public servants. The board, the superintendent and certainly Hilts may very well have opened themselves up to legal action.


But beyond putting themselves in danger from having to pay punitive damages to Hargrave – that I hope they pay out of the superintendent’s bloated salary – they have betrayed a dangerous attitude toward the very concept of self-rule.


Whether they meant to or not, they have given the children of Vermillion Parish a lesson in government and community values.


Make no mistake. The children are watching. They get the TV news and status updates on Facebook and Twitter. They have access to YouTube. Doubtless, they have seen this video countless times. They have probably played it over and over again.


They saw their teacher brutally manhandled by a supposed law enforcement officer. And they heard the deafening silence from the school board about it.


They know now that this kind of behavior is deemed acceptable in Vermillion Parish. Beware the kind of behavior adults can expect from children who are given such a disgraceful example!


Moreover, these children are well aware of the matter in dispute.


The board is fighting to give the superintendent a $38,000 raise. Yet they refuse to give another penny to teachers – all while class sizes have jumped from 21 to 29 students, according to Hargrave.


That is not what leaders do who care about the well-being of students. It is a result of backroom deals and the good ol’ boys network.



The lesson is that hard work doesn’t matter. The only thing you should worry about is making a deal no matter whom it hurts. Just look out for numero uno.


After all, the board could give the teachers something – some token of appreciation to show that they value their continued commitment to the children of the community. But they don’t. Yet they fight tooth and nail to do so for one individual who has in no way proven himself indispensable.


It is the teachers who come in every day and give their all to help students learn. Not a superintendent who demands they jump through an increasingly complex set of irrelevant hoops.


But there’s always money for the person at the top. Never anything for the people who do the real work.


Critics complain that teachers don’t deserve a raise because they already earn more money than the majority of the people who live in the community. (An argument which – by the way – would also apply to the superintendent.)


But even beyond basic logic, it’s a bogus line of reasoning!


Doctors attend patients in poor communities. They still earn high salaries – maybe not as high as they would serving the wealthy, but they have to be able to survive, to pay back the loans they took out to go through medical school, etc. So do lawyers, accountants and specialists of all kinds. That’s just capitalism. If you want someone to provide a good or service, you have to pay them a competitive wage. Otherwise, they’ll move on to greener pastures.


The kids see you pinching pennies. They know what that means – you don’t think they’re worth the investment.


The lessons of Vermillion Parish go far beyond Louisiana.


Anytime people mistreat teachers, they’re really mistreating the children those educators serve.


An attack on teachers is an attack on students.


When Hilt wrestled a woman half his size to the ground and placed her under arrest for the crime of exercising her rights, he put the entire community in jail.


When the board directed him to act – or at very least neglected to stop him – they made themselves culpable in the crime.


It is something we have been guilty of in nearly every state of the union. We have neglected our children, abused our teachers and injured the democratic principles on which our country was founded.


Class dismissed.



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The One Reform We Never Try: Increase Teacher Salary


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There are many suggestions for improving America’s public schools:


More standardized tests.


New academic standards.


Increase charter schools and/or allow kids to attend private schools with public money.


But one reform you hardly ever hear about is this: pay teachers more.


Isn’t that funny?


We’re willing to try almost everything else but that.


Sure, some folks want to tie teachers’ salaries to test scores, but that’s not increasing pay. That’s just doubling down on standardized testing.


Isn’t it shocking that no one is willing to invest more money into the actual act of educating children?


Consider this: full-time employees making minimum wage earn between $15,000-$20,000 a year. (Some states have voluntarily raised the minimum wage above the federally mandated $7.25 to as much as $10 an hour.)


Compare that to a teacher’s starting salary.


According to the National Association of Colleges and Employers (NACE), the low end for teachers entering the field is around $30,000. That’s a mere $10,000 above the most generous minimum wage.


There are places in this country where going into debt earning a four year degree in education, serving an (often unpaid) internship in the classroom and agreeing to teach the next generation gets you a few notches above fry chefs and WalMart greeters.


This isn’t to disparage burger cooks or grocery clerks. I, too, love a crispy French fried potato and a sincere greeting. But which profession is more important to our future as a nation? The quality of our service industries or the education of every single child in the country – all our future doctors, lawyers, politicians and… well… EVERYTHING!


Average starting salary for teachers nationwide is only $37,000, according to NACE.


Compare that to other professions.


Computer programmers start at $65,000. Engineers start at $61,000. Accountants (mathematics and statistics majors) start at $54,000. Even philosophers and priests (philosophy and religious studies majors) start at $45,000.


Are they more important than teachers? Do they provide more value for society?


I humbly suggest that they do not.


Who taught the programmers how to program? Who taught the engineers and accountants how to add and subtract? Who taught the philosophers how to think logically? Who taught the priests how to write their sermons?


TEACHERS. That’s who.


Yet if we judge purely by starting salary, we certainly don’t value their services much.


To be specific, they make 14 percent less than those from professions that require similar levels of education, according to the Economic Policy Institute.


Sadly, it only gets worse as time goes on.


Teacher salary starts low, and grows even more slowly.




According to a report by the Center for American Progress, the average base salary for a teacher with 10 years of experience and a bachelor’s degree is $45,000. That’s a mere $800 annual raise. No wonder more than 16 percent of teachers have a second or third job outside of the school system. They simply can’t survive on the salary.


They can’t buy a home or even rent an apartment in most metropolitan areas. They can’t afford to marry, raise children, or eke out a middle class existence.


What effect does this have on students?


Well, for one, it often leaves them with inexperienced or exhausted teachers.


Nationwide, 46 percent of educators quit before reaching the five year mark. And it’s worse in urban districts, where 20 percent quit every single year!


That translates to more students learning from educators who are, themselves, just learning how to teach. If we took pains to keep them in the profession, think of what a positive impact that would have on the quality of education the nation’s students  receive – Teachers learning from experience and improving their practice every year instead of a continual flux of novices just trying to figure out the basics and survive!


But it’s not all intangibles. It costs bookoo bucks to constantly find and train new teachers – roughly $7.34 billion a year, to be exact. Imagine if we could invest that money into salaries instead.


This is exactly what they do in many other countries.


We’re always comparing ourselves with nations in Europe and Asia where students average higher standardized test scores. Yet we rarely enact the policies that got them these results.


Many of these countries recruit the top graduates to become teachers. How? By offering sweeteners and incentives to become a life-long educator.


In Singapore and Finland, for example, they actually cover the cost of the college coursework needed to become a teacher. And when it comes to salary, they leave us in the dust. In South Korea, they pay educators an average of 250 percent more than we do!


For many people, education is a calling. You feel drawn toward the job because it holds meaning to you. But how many people ignore that calling because of simple economics? There are plenty of things you can do with your life; If you can’t earn a living doing one thing, you may opt for something else.


How many more excellent teachers would we have in this country if we prized and rewarded those practitioners we already have?


It doesn’t take a deep dive into the news to see how teachers are treated in American society far beyond the low pay.


Everything that goes wrong in our public schools is laid at their feet whether they have any control over it or not. Child poverty, inequitable and inadequate resources, regressive and nepotistic policy, backward education legislation – it’s all somehow the teacher’s fault.


Imagine if we saw teachers as part of the solution! What effect would that have on teacher turnover?


Look no further than our foreign counterparts. In South Korea, turnover is only 1 percent per year. In Finland, it’s 2 percent. In Singapore, it’s 3 percent.


It’s certainly worth a try.


As reforms go, this is one with more evidence behind it than 90 percent of the garbage that comes floating out of partisan think tanks.


Pay teachers more.


Starting salary should be at least $65,000. End pay after 30 years should be at least $150,000.


THAT would boost educational outcomes.


And, please, don’t give me any nonsense about summer break, teacher tenure, the power of unions or whatever else you heard on talk radio or the corporate news media. Teachers average 53 hours a week August through June – making up for any downtime in the summer, tenure doesn’t mean a job for life – it means due process, and unions aren’t evil – they just ensure workers more rights than the bosses would like.


Moreover, don’t tell me we can’t afford it. We spend more on the military than the next 8 nations combined.


Imagine if we put a priority on raising our own children instead of guns and missiles. Imagine if we spent more on life than death.


Imagine if we tried the one reform left in the box – increase teacher pay.


PA Legislature Plans Taking Away Teachers’ Sick Days


Dear Pennsylvania legislators:

So now you want to take away teachers’ sick days.

Sabbatical, sick days, bereavement leaves – the Senate Education Committee voted 7-5 to strip them from the law and make teachers bargain for them with their districts.

So the next time I get sick, you don’t want to guarantee I can take the day off. If my mother dies, you don’t want to protect my right to attend her funeral.

The full legislature still has to vote on it, but that’s pretty cold.

Which brings me to my first question: Why do you hate public school teachers so much?

Seriously. What did teachers ever do to you? Did we give you a bad grade when you were kids? Did we give you detention? What did we ever do to earn such animosity?

You obviously must have something personal against teachers.

It’s understandable. Even though the majority of Pennsylvanians voted for Democrats, most of you are Republicans. You have gerrymandered the state so that you artificially have the majority, and as such you must espouse the most radical positions possible. Otherwise, you’ll be primaried by someone even farther right – a Tea Partier, a plutocrat, an anarcho-capitalist, a fascist.

We see the same thing playing out nationally. Hello, Donald Trump!

So it’s no surprise that after stripping public schools of almost $1 billion every year for the past five years, after tens of thousands of teachers have been laid off, after you’ve given away millions of dollars to private corporations to run fly-by-night charter schools or through tax credits to religious schools – well, it’s no surprise that you feel the need to continue the war on teachers.

It’s paying off for you big time.

Not so much for our school children. They have had to deal with increases in class size, narrowing of the curriculum, reductions in extra-curriculars, cuts in tutoring – just about every deprivation imaginable.

I wonder – do you realize that every attack against teachers is also an attack against students? Making sick teachers come to school won’t improve kids’ educations. Forcing educators to choose between work or seeing their loved ones off to their final resting places won’t boost test scores. Do you understand that or do you just not care?

Follow-up, if I may: do you realize that most public school teachers are women? Does that factor in at all? Which do you hate more, the gender of most teachers or the fact that we are unionized?

Oh, and Pennsylvania School Boards Association, don’t think we’ve forgotten you. We know you requested this mess, Senate Bill 229. Instead of standing with your teachers to fight for fair, equitable, sustainable funding, you’ve decided to ask the legislature if you can stiff teachers to make ends meet. We’re there for your kids everyday, and this is how you thank us. That’s gratitude.

It’s what we get for being one of the last workforces to be unionized. We have the temerity to demand fair treatment. You can’t just do whatever you like with us, you have to actually sit down with us at the bargaining table and talk.

Legislators, we know it’s something that infuriates your base. No, I don’t mean the people who vote for you. I mean your real base – the corporations, millionaires and billionaires who pay your real salaries – the unlimited and shadowy campaign contributions that, let’s be honest, are really nothing less than legal bribes.

We shouldn’t be surprised that you have prioritized taking away legal protections for teachers’ sick days. It is quite in line with what you want to do to the profession. You no longer want highly qualified teachers making a middle class income who then can stay in our schools for their entire careers. You want lightly trained temps who use teaching as a stepping stone to a job that pays enough to live.

After all, if we afford teachers the status of professionals, they might actually be able to jump all the other hurdles we’ve put in front of them and educate the poor.

That would be terrible.

Despite all the standardized testing, Common Core, value-added measures, budget cuts, and constant propaganda about “failing schools,” they might actually teach these kids to think. That’s the last thing you want.

A thinking public might see how much you’re screwing them over. They might actually rise up and fight. They might refuse to accept the status quo that you are so desperately trying to protect.

That’s your real endgame. And though it makes me sick, I suppose I will no longer be able to take off.

I’ll just spend the day, coughing and wheezing with the children.


Steven Singer

The Gadfly on the Wall