I always thought of myself as someone who supports and values teachers. I sent my sons to a cooperative preschool requiring classroom volunteer time. When they transitioned to elementary school, I continued to volunteer regularly. I taught Art Masterpiece, dressed in colonial attire for American history day and helped my youngest son’s fifth-grade class create its own newspaper.
When my boys were in middle school, I worked a morning in the library each week and sold after-school pizza every Friday to help the orchestra raise money. During their high school years, I was active in the orchestra boosters parent group.
So I’ve spent plenty of time around teachers. Some of my best friends are teachers. How could I have been so ignorant?
When I saw a recent screening of “Teaching in Arizona,” a new documentary short film, I realized how much I didn’t know about the challenges facing Arizona teachers.
The film follows three Tucson teachers through day-in-the-life vignettes and interviews that contrast incredible passion for their profession against the utter magnitude of what that passion costs them — in energy, emotional reserves, self-doubt and a lowered standard of living.
It’s “must-see TV” for every parent, grandparent, business leader and politician in our state.
The 25-minute film, a project of the 10-year-old nonprofit Tucson Values Teachers, puts a human face on staggering statistics with profound implications for Arizona’s future workforce. It certainly hammers home many of the reasons Arizona struggles to attract, retain and support teachers.
We watch Janet Acree, a young teacher struggling to maintain order in a large, boisterous classroom of fifth-grade charter-school students with varying degrees of attentiveness and self-control. Later, fighting tears, she talks about the toll it takes on her emotionally and shares her sense of self-doubt — despite what we all see as calm competence in a sometimes chaotic classroom. She is desperate for support and coaching from someone with more experience and seniority.
We see Nate Rios, a gifted and energetic 11-year history and government teacher in a public high school where 80 percent of students receive free or reduced lunch. Rios clearly connects with his students. He is capable, confident, no-nonsense — excited about his subject matter and the potential he sees in his students. Rios has other responsibilities, too: department chair, instructional mentor to first- and second-year teachers, student government adviser. So it is truly heartbreaking to see this fine professional scooping ice cream on the weekends — when he should be home with his wife and three children — just to make ends meet.
We see Tia Tsosie-Begay, a seasoned fourth-grade teacher at a unified school district, making calls to parents late into the night, seeking insights that will help her be more effective with students who are struggling in class or empathetic with students who just seem “off” emotionally. She frequently pulls from her own pocket to provide basic classroom materials and to build home libraries for her 33 students. Tsosie-Begay has both a bachelor’s and master’s degree in education. She, too, makes extra time to coach and mentor younger teachers.
While last spring’s #RedForEd movement demanded additional funding — not just for teacher pay but education in general — “Teaching in Arizona” makes clear the problem underlying much of what’s wrong in education today: Our society doesn’t convey the same respect to teachers that we convey to physicians, lawyers and other well-educated professionals — even though teachers bear the responsibility to prepare the next generation of leaders, innovators and entrepreneurs.
Ironic, isn’t it?
Watch the film. Share the link with your friends. And ask yourself: Could I be doing more?
Teaching, by the numbers
- It takes teachers an average of 25 years to make a living wage. Even if all Arizona teachers receive the 20 percent increase in pay promised by Gov. Doug Ducey in response to last spring’s teacher walkout, they will still make less money than the national median.
- Teachers typically work an average of 57 hours each week — meaning they’ve done a full year’s work in just 40 weeks. And that doesn’t count second jobs to cover their household expenses.
- Arizona has the highest teacher turnover in the U.S. Nearly one-quarter leave their schools annually — nearly double the national median.
- Arizona’s student-to-teacher ratios are higher than almost any other state.
- Teachers on average spend $500 of their own money each year on classroom supplies.
COMING UP: Read our upcoming January magazine to learn more about “Teaching in Arizona.” Our story includes interviews with filmmaker Lisa Molomot and high school teacher Nate Rios, who is profiled in the documentary, along with specific suggestions for ways we all can work meaningfully to support teachers and education. And if you can’t watch the film this Friday, we’ll share some other opportunities to see it in the new year.
- 2019 Arizona Teacher of the Year Kareem Neal
- 6 tips for better teacher-parent communication
- Why recess is as important as reading and math