Teacher Appreciation in Seattle

A polished apple would have been fine, but this year, the Seattle School District decided to go above and beyond in recognizing its employees for national “Teacher Appreciation Week.”

The official Web site for the week of gratitude recommends “choosing such a memorable and unique teacher gift that your effort shines through and your teacher has no choice but to realize how much you think of them.”

Doing her best to follow this advice, Seattle Public Schools Superintendent Maria Goodloe-Johnson gave us teachers a clear picture of what she thinks of us when she sent two personal gifts for the week, beginning with a hand-delivered letter sent certified mail at a cost of $5 per teacher — totaling some $20,000. The letter read in part:

The purpose of this letter is to advise you of my determination that there is probable cause to non-renew your contract that was for 180 basic contract days plus two LID (Learning Improvement Day) days, and offer to you an employment contract for the 2009-2010 school year for 180 basic days plus one LID day.

I checked with the foreign language department, and they translated the above passage as, “I used the contract you previously signed as tissue paper; your union and legal right to collectively bargain don’t impress me; and should you not agree to these terms, good luck.”

Remember when your mom gave you that handmade pair of boxer shorts with the Looney Tunes fabric at your 13th birthday party? Okay, maybe that was just me, but I can attest the feeling is analogous to receiving this letter from the District. It wasn’t that losing a day’s wages and the extra day of training to make us better teachers was so bad. It was the skirting of our union and the rigid ultimatum that left the taste of day-old school lunch in teachers’ mouths.

Just like when my mom wished she had saved the gifting of the Daffy Duck undershorts for a more discreet time after seeing the look of alarm on my face, District Spokeswoman Patti Spencer realized the inopportune timing of their petit cadeau, saying, “It’s very, very regrettable.”

The district’s hunger for generosity not yet satiated, Teacher Appreciation Week was capped off for me and some 172 other teachers in the Seattle School District with a second gift: messages to our principals that we were to be “RIFed.”

I checked again with the foreign language department, and RIF is roughly interpreted as “Reduction In Force” — or more precisely: “apply for unemployment; good luck raising your four-month-old son; oh, and your three-and-a-half years of service to the children of Seattle are irrelevant.”

Okay, so maybe it was a little tacky to deliver these gifts during Teacher Appreciation Week, but after all, the district is facing a budget shortfall that was exacerbated by Washington state legislators’ reckless slashing of $800 million from the K-12 budget, right?

I sympathized briefly with the District when I remembered the summer after college that I wanted to get my dad a really nice pocketknife for his birthday, but I was broke, so I got him a shirt with a picture of a Swiss Army knife instead.

However, the District’s claim of lack of funds is inexplicable given that they are hoarding more than $30 million in a reserve “rainy day” fund they say must be saved in case of a financial storm. It should be clear by now that we are in the middle of an economic monsoon that will wash the education of our children into the gutter if we don’t tap that fund.

Moreover, the District has another important source of revenue. Washington state law RCW 28A.320.320 allows school districts to transfer the interest earned on capital funds over to the operations budget, specifically to pay for “instructional supplies and equipment.”

In 2008-09, the district budgeted $22.7 million for “instructional supplies and equipment,” which, if transferred from the capital side would free up $22.7 million from operations. That money could then be used to offset the Reduction In Force of teachers and ballooning class sizes.

Advice columnist Linda Ann Nickerson has council for just such situations: “Gag gifts are one thing, but what if you get a gift that makes you gag? Resist the temptation to state that you hate the flavor, color or style of the gift . . . [But if] the item is the wrong size, or broken, then it may be acceptable to request the giver’s permission to return or exchange the item.”

Ever polite, Seattle’s teachers are now asking if we can exchange these broken gifts for ones that improve the quality of education in our city. Should we be ignored, we will take the discourteousness to mean that students, parents, and teachers should unite to build a civil rights struggle for the funding education deserves.

Jesse D. Hagopian is a middle-school teacher in the Seattle Public Schools. Read other articles by Jesse, or visit Jesse's website.

2 comments on this article so far ...

Comments RSS feed

  1. rg the lg said on May 21st, 2009 at 11:59am #

    My take …

    1. Are you surprised?
    No. Neither am I. Administrators rarely give a rats behind about teachers … unless they, like ours, have offspring who happen to work for the district. Then at least they aren’t prone to gagging letters. They pick other times, such as when no one is looking … or when no one else will apply for the positions they want their spawn in.

    2. Does the community care?
    Not unless they are going to RIF coaches. But that probably will not happen. Coaches are exempt … unless they have losing teams … and then only if the sport actually matters.

    Teachers do not matter … and never have.

    Sad … isn’t it?

    But NOT surprising.

    RG the LG

  2. kalidas said on May 24th, 2009 at 8:50am #

    Consider [the pedagogue] in his highest incarnation: the university professor. What is his function? Simply to pass on to fresh generations of numskulls a body of so-called knowledge that is fragmentary, unimportant, and, in large part, untrue. His whole professional activity is circumscribed by the prejudices, vanities and avarices of his university trustees, i.e., a committee of soap-boilers, nail manufacturers, bank-directors and politicians. The moment he offends these vermin he is undone. He cannot so much as think aloud without running a risk of having them fan his pantaloons.
    H.L. Mencken