Dear Governor Haslam:
I’m quite certain you personally will never read this letter, but since you have taken over the helm of this great state, I feel compelled to write you anyway. Please, allow me to be clear–this is not a partisan attack on your principles or values, and this is not meant to be a politically charged diatribe, either. Instead, this letter is merely meant to illustrate the state of the state, so to speak, in terms of our educational system.
Please, also allow me to be clear that I love this state, especially East Tennessee. This is my home, and when I finished graduate school, I chose to move back to this area to be a part of this community. There were other opportunities in other regions open to me, but I chose to utilize my skills for the people of East Tennessee. I am a professional educator, having taught for 13 years at the collegiate level, and I wanted to teach here because I felt it was my duty. However, at this point in my career and in my life, I cannot see a rational argument for continuing in this profession in this area much longer. My reasons for feeling like this profession is a dead-end emanate from the absurdly low monetary compensation we receive and the deplorable working conditions under which we are required to function.
On the monetary level, for 13 years my salary has remained basically stagnant and is lower than the salaries of most fast-food managers. During this same time, my rent, electric bill, groceries, and fuel costs have all risen by at least 30%. Real-world, real-life inflation has consumed every penny and then some of disposable income I once had. Additionally, I’m saddled with $60,000 worth of student loan debt that I feel will never get paid off because I simply don’t earn enough money to afford the monthly payments. In order to hold this position, I must have at least as much education as an accountant, an engineer, or an architect, and in obtaining that education I accrued as much debt, but the opportunity to pay off that debt is not equitable. To me, this is an unsustainable system, and at times, I feel like a liar and a hypocrite for telling students that education matters. I hold bachelor’s and master’s degrees, yet my education has done little to improve my economic conditions.
In terms of our working conditions, I am deeply frustrated by the quality of students we receive at the college. Since the inception of the Hope Scholarship, we have been overwhelmed by a throng of kids who are not prepared for college. These students have swelled our class sizes to nearly double the optimal student-teacher ratio. There is substantial data to support the claim that this ratio is one of the biggest factors in educational quality. When classes are overcrowded, the ones who suffer the most are the serious, sincere students who truly want an education to better their lives. We get so overwhelmed by the sheer volume of students that we become incapable of providing them with the time and attention they deserve.
Those of us who are serious, committed professionals are frustrated by all the hindrances to serving our students. There have been times in my career when I have gotten to teach courses with an optimal ratio for writing classes of 15:1, and in those courses, I was able to provide my students with detailed one-on-one instruction to work specifically on their personal writing issues. This mode of instruction is much more effective and much more fulfilling. Once the ratio gets above 20:1 for a writing course, most instruction becomes generic and abstract, and the instructor is limited in how much he or she can learn about each individual student. In my experience, most of us truly care about delivering a positive experience to our students, and most of us want to contribute to society by improving the lives of those students, both traditional and non-traditional. However, when our classes are overrun with people who neither want to be there nor are prepared academically, our jobs become impossibly frustrating.
Also, the sheer volume of hours we put in is part of the difficult working conditions. During each semester, I have no time for anything other than my job. On good weeks, I put in 60 hours and work 6 days. On bad weeks, those numbers can reach 80 hours and 7 days. Rarely, extremely rarely, do I work less than 60 hours. As a divorced man who lives 500 miles from his children, I cannot make trips to spend time with my children throughout the semester because I cannot spare the weekend from grading. I cannot be the father my children deserve because of the demands of this job. Among ourselves, many of us grumble about not having time for anything or anyone other than our jobs. If the monetary compensation mirrored the workload, we might see the sacrifices as worthwhile, but since our salaries hover just above the poverty line, it’s difficult to find justification for losing months on end from our families.
This human toll of teaching is by far the worst aspect. I didn’t enter the profession with delusions of becoming wealthy. I knew my salary would be lower than many other professions. I chose to teach because I wanted to give something back to my community. Now, 13 years later, that feels like a terrible mistake. If I had known that I would have to make so many sacrifices for this job, I would’ve done something else for a living, and my fear is that over time, fewer and fewer serious-minded, dedicated professionals will gravitate to this career because of the overwhelming demands placed on us with too little in return. As I speculate on the future, I imagine an educational landscape dominated by semi-skilled, quasi-professional people who work the job much like most fast-food employees work theirs, with no sense of quality or duty.
There was a time when I loved my profession. I woke up every day excited to go to work, and I felt as if my contribution to society was meaningful, important, and crucial. Now, I feel as if I have wasted my life. Education has become so devalued that most of my students view it as an obstacle to their careers, instead of a bridge. Perhaps education is not important. Perhaps our state can move into the economy of the future without a literate workforce. Perhaps it was merely naive and idealistic of me to believe that giving back to the community was a sincere contribution. All I know for certain is that under the current circumstances, I do not have many more semesters in me. I am completely and utterly exhausted.
If the state is serious about improving the educational system in Tennessee, it needs to find a way to bring salaries up to levels that are equitable to other skilled professions. Money from the Hope Scholarship program needs to be redirected into K-12 to prepare students better academically. Until that foundation is fixed, the money is mostly being wasted. And the demands placed on those of us in the classroom need to be lessened. As the system stands, dedicated teachers are being used up way too early in their careers, and if this continues, the quality of instructor in the classroom will only continue to erode.
Thank you for your time and contemplation on this matter. My hope is that the system will be improved, not by adding more layers of bureaucratic oversight and more hours of unproductive paperwork but by fixing the core issues of inequitable pay and substandard working conditions.
D. A. Adams