Teaching is her calling and for Rachel Overberg, it shows in her results.
Consistently ranked “highly effective,” Overberg feels confident in her job as a fourth-grade teacher at Clarksville Elementary School.
But in her eighth year on the job, she’s still living paycheck to paycheck.
“$38,220 a year after eight years of teaching is not quality pay,” Overberg said.
Now working three jobs, the single mom makes it work. Her district did recently approve a base salary raise, which will bring Overberg up to $41,220. It is still far off from what she had hoped to be making at this point in her career.
Her school isn’t alone.
“We put every dollar we could possibly put on the salary schedule,” said Joy Lohmeyer, New Albany-Floyd County Consolidated School Corp. teachers’ association president. “I think the salary increase is as much as we can get locally with the monies that we have.”
That’s why hundreds of teachers are headed to Indianapolis on Tuesday, for what’s been termed a Red for Ed Action Day, to voice their concerns to lawmakers during Indiana’s General Assembly Organization Day.
“The honest truth is that we never recovered from the recession of 2008,” Lohmeyer said.
During that time, NAFC schools closed four buildings, changed from certified teachers to specialists to teach specialty areas such as art, reduced administrative staff and more in an effort to save funds and make ends meet as the budget tightened.
“The thing that is concerning about it is that it’s been 10 years since the recession. The economy has recovered, but teacher salaries and money for resources in education have not recovered,” Lohmeyer said. “Lots of people are enjoying this strong economy, but public education is trying to get back to where we were.”
MAKING ENDS MEET
Meghan Tetley started teaching right after earning her bachelor’s degree, later getting her master’s degree and additional credit hours beyond that while balancing her career and family life. At that time, school districts had set salary schedules based on years of experience and education, giving yearly bumps in pay for many. A change in the law made it so that those scheduled bumps are no longer based on years of service alone, but also on merit, and only given if the district has the funds. The guarantee of moving up is gone. She said she’s making thousands less now than she would have if the first salary schedule remained.
“I would like to at least see a cost-of-living raise,” said Tetley, who teaches at Utica Elementary. “If we had more money to hire more teachers, our class sizes would improve.”
Funding is needed for more than teachers, she said.
“New neighborhoods are being built. We’re going to run out of space in our buildings. Some desks and chairs are taped together. We need a replacement program [for furniture],” Tetley said. “It’s deeper than a paycheck.”
“Raising the teacher pay has a domino effect to it,” Overberg said. “It allows highly effective teachers to stay in the classroom, because they’re receiving quality pay … Teachers staying in the same position have the best effect on students, because [experienced educators] know the content the best and they can prepare for what kind of misconceptions and errors [students] might make. It trickles down to the students, which should be at the heart of what education is about, what is best for our students. It’s keeping that highly qualified teacher.”
The hours are long. Overberg said she works 50-60 hours during the week, preparing lesson plans, grading, calling parents and more. She said working extra jobs to pay the bills really takes a toll, reducing time for family and friends.
However, leaving once the bell rings isn’t an option for her and many others in the profession.
“I feel the obligation to do a good job, do my job well and fulfill my calling to be a teacher,” Overberg said. “To be a teacher is to do all those things — to respond to those parents, to respond to those emails, to have good lessons planned, to be following up on my students who are having social and emotional issues, all those things. That’s what being a good teacher is. It’s impossible to do a halfway job and be fair to the students. My students wouldn’t get quality instruction. They wouldn’t learn at the level that they need to learn at. They wouldn’t have the support that they need.”
She and her colleagues are having to not only teach lessons, but also help students face numerous social and emotional issues.
“If you have a parent who is in prison or in the hospital or one that has passed away in the past couple of years, [students] are going to have moments that they’re down,” Overberg explained, adding that public schools take students from all walks of life versus picking and choosing whom to accept. “They’re going to put their head down and they’re not going to feel motivated. You have to know what’s going on so that you know how to talk to them to bring them back around and bring them back to listening to the lesson and wanting to be there mentally.”
She said that’s possible, but as class sizes grow, her time to do all of that for every single student is stretched thin.
“Depletes teachers,” Overberg said of helping 30 students with issues beyond the classroom at once. “I almost left teaching … Large class sizes burn you out.”
Lohmeyer said schools not only need more funding, but also they need a more stable income source. Years ago, the Legislature changed the funding model from using property taxes to using income derived from sales tax.
She said she fears another recession, which would deeply hurt schools.
“What happens when you’re based on sales tax and people have less money and people are afraid to spend their money, so they spend less and less is collected,” Lohmeyer said. “We’re also asking for a more stable funding mechanism from the state of Indiana. The only option for folks are to go to the local taxpayers and ask them to raise their taxes locally [with referendums]. The question is, what will we do in the future? Those are one-time monies. They last over a certain amount of time then they’re gone, so it’s not really a good option for salary and benefits that’s ongoing.”
In addition to funding, educators will be asking lawmakers to hold teachers and schools harmless from the ILEARN results. The statewide test that replaced ISTEP for the 2018-19 school year proved to be disastrous for many, with very few passing.
Lohmeyer said any single test will not prove to be an accurate measure of student learning.
“Standardized testing is a one-time measure. It’s a snapshot of that day, in that moment, of what that student may know,” she said. “We know in order to support student learning we have to incorporate multiple measures to access kids. Not every kid is good at taking multiple choice tests. They may do better showing their information by doing some type of presentation, doing group work. I can think of 1,000 examples … What we need are multiple types of assessments … We’ve always been accountable. We’re accountable to students and we’re accountable to parents.”
Statewide testing isn’t cheap. The contract for ILEARN is about $19 million annually, slightly less than the previous testing model, ISTEP+, according to Adam Baker, press secretary for the Indiana Department of Education.
“We have spent hundreds of millions of dollars in the state of Indiana for decades on standardized testing,” Lohmeyer said. “It makes me reflect on what we could have been doing with that money for public education?”
TRAINING THE TEACHERS
Teachers are also pushing back against a new state law, requiring them to do 15 hours of an externship to renew their teaching licenses.
The externship requires teachers to spend that time volunteering in a local community business to learn more and bring those lessons to the classroom. For example, an art teacher may volunteer in a local art gallery. Overberg questions this requirement and where she could possibly volunteer as a fourth-grade teacher. Tetley agreed.
“I’m very aware of how our students need to be prepared in elementary school,” Tetley said. “In my day-to-day classroom, going and watching someone in a business isn’t going to change what I do. It’s another thing we’d have to schedule and take time away from our family to do.”
She has a different idea — legislator externships.
“I would love for them to come in and see what we have to do and see what a day is. They need to come and shadow a classroom [all day] and see what we do day in and day out,” Tetley said. “Yesterday, I didn’t get a restroom break until I got home, because I didn’t get time to do it.”
With just a 30-minute break for lunch, the day moves fast, with that lunch break often including making copies and other things that can’t be done in the classroom, she said.
Local teachers said these reasons and more are why they are getting up before the sun Tuesday and driving two hours to Indianapolis, to be among thousands of teachers shouting for change.
School districts and educators can't fix it, Lohmeyer said.
“We are working really hard with the money that we have to make things work," she said. "I just wonder if legislators are working to really prioritize the money that they have in the same way that they’re saying the local [school] boards and local communities should be prioritizing better.”
She said this Red for Ed Action Day may just be a jumping off point.
“We know that this is probably the beginning of a long year and a half to the end of the next budget session, but if people want to see change, they’re going to have to step up,” Lohmeyer said. “One thing is certain. If we do nothing, nothing will change.”