Tuesday, September 29, 2015

An Open Letter to the School Board of Upland USD

I have been employed by Upland USD as a teacher of English for the past thirteen years. In this letter, I do not presume to speak for the other teachers in the district; my opinions are solely my own, though they may be shared.

Formerly I worked for the Jurupa Unified School District. I began my teaching career there, and I loved my job. I taught English, Journalism and Yearbook, and by the time I left I was making close to $90,000 a year. I took a $12,000 a year pay cut to come to teach in Upland. You may wonder why. (Certainly my friends and family members did.)

It would take far too much column space here to attempt to unravel all the turbulent events of the mid to late 1990's in that district. Suffice it to say, it all began over money. Teachers faced a situation similar to the impasse we have now in Upland. Attendance at school board meetings rose dramatically and tempers rose accordingly. Teachers rallied and carried signs, bought slogan-printed t-shirts, got the community involved. People took sides. Administrators who were sympathetic were transferred punitively, and that's when things really became an ugly mess of name-calling and shaming. (For all the gory details, look for stories archived in the Inland Valley Daily Bulletin and the Riverside Press Enterprise.)

Through all that mess, I continued to teach. I loved my students, and I loved my colleagues. I showed up for work every day ready to teach, to encourage, to support, and I waited for resolution, for the dust to settle. Sadly, it never did. Oh, eventually the district offered a salary increase that was acceptable and teachers ratified a contract. But the damage was done. Bitterness and resentment remained, permeating every classroom. It felt like a marriage that is irreparably damaged by anger and infidelity. And then the turnover of administrators began as the district hired principal after principal in a desperate attempt to find someone who could shore up sagging test scores (which had plunged right along with teacher morale). Nothing worked. The pervasive negative attitude coupled with a principal who felt no qualms in making profoundly hurtful and sexist statements caused me to look elsewhere for work.

I will never forget my first year working for Upland USD. I was welcomed repeatedly by everyone from administrators to the maintenance crew. New teachers were given constant support, and as I met my colleagues, I found people who still had that zeal to make a difference in the lives of the kids they taught. Everyone smiled. Not so now.

Do the teachers currently employed by Upland USD deserve a raise? Absolutely. I could go on and on about how hard we work and what we sacrifice; please don't think any of us have forgotten about buying our own copy paper and yes, buying our own toilet paper when we were asked to conserve a few brief years ago.

But there is now something at stake here that is greater than money, and that is virtue, specifically, the virtues of dignity and mutual respect. These were the virtues that were beaten down and destroyed by angry activists on both sides in Jurupa Valley. It took that district a decade to recover.

I did not come to Upland because of the salary schedule. I chose Upland because of the school district's reputation. Friends told me Upland was a district steeped in teacher support, professional regard and civility, and these are exactly the traits I found here. I would implore you not to allow these traits to be further eroded by the salary dispute. What we stand to lose in teacher morale and support for our students will be a very great sum to forfeit, I assure you, and, once lost, could take years to recover.

Wednesday, September 2, 2015

Wood Shop

I suppose this post could be the sequel to "If You Teach a Girl to Fish." The guy pictured above wearing safety glasses and using a circular saw is my buddy Doug, literally the aider of damsels in distress (because that day when I called him, his response was, "Any time I have the opportunity to aid a damsel in distress, I'll take it").

Four years ago I bought a beautiful, custom built drafting table on craigslist.com. I'd been looking for just the right drafting table for years, and when I saw this one, I fell in love. I drove to Apple Valley, plunked down $200, and carted it away in my truck. The following winter I wrote The Dogs Who Saved Me while sitting at that table every afternoon. Problem was, though, it was just a few inches too tall, so I could never quite get comfortable sitting on a stool or standing up.

Two weeks ago when I had a new floor put in the family room, I called Doug and asked if he would come over and help me move furniture back in place so I could function in my house again. This prompted his damsel in distress response, and he appeared an hour or so later, helping me not only with the furniture but the TV and computer as well.

The drafting table had been moved to the patio during the flooring job, and when Doug asked if I wanted to bring it in, I explained my issue with the height and asked him if he thought it would be feasible to just chop a few inches off the legs. This time his response was "Get a taller stool."

In the end, though, he went home and returned with a saw, a router, a fancy ruler and some other fascinating stuff, and went to work.

I will confess here how envious I was as I watched him. When I mentioned something about the "boy skills" he possessed, he referenced his experience with Wood Shop in junior high, and that hurt just a little. I had asked counselors in both junior high and high school to put me in wood shop or auto shop classes but was told those were "all boy" classes. Times are different now, of course, and girls are certainly not discouraged from taking vocational education classes at the high school where I teach, and I'm glad for that. I love wood, and the idea of having both the skill and tools to build something lasting is a very compelling one to me. Alas, I'm relegated now to standing on the sidelines and watching.  Hmm. Perhaps a wood working class might be placed on the agenda as an activity after retirement.

Less than an hour after Doug began, we were carrying the drafting table back to its spot by the window in the family room. We set it down, and I shook it. Absolutely amazingly stable. No wobble. Ahhhh, the perfect workspace.

When I'm writing, I often do so with a notebook open and also the internet open as well, especially if I'm working on a blog post. (In this post already, I've double-checked my accuracy on "circular saw" and "router," and I grabbed the link to the previous post.) The drafting table gives me lots of space for all that plus room to stick a lamp and a few pencils and a cup of tea. And a cat, on occasion. I have illustrated some of this in the photo below (sans cat). A removable sheet of glass covers the surface of the table, so I can place things under it—such as the outline of the children's book series I'm currently working on.

Having the table just right is a small thing in the larger scheme of my life. But... workspace to a writer is much like a classroom is to a teacher; you kinda need a place for all your books and pencils and stuff.