(first published on WIvoices.org)
Below is the full verbatim interview of veteran teacher Meg Farrington. The Somerset School District took a collaborative approach in their educational policy over the past couple of years. The school board not only included administrators and the public in their decision-making, but teachers as well when they were no longer required to do so by law. Her story is a stunning tale of a community pulling together in a crisis.
Here’s her full story.
“I’m licensed as a speech and language pathologist in the Somerset School Distrcit…I am originally from Illinois, but I decided to get my degree and teach in Wisconsin because it has such a high reputation for education…It’s a requirement that you have a master’s degree in speech and language pathology to have the expertise to do my job. I work mostly with kids on the autism spectrum, with language and learning disability students, and cognitively disabled students who have speech and language delays. One of my teaching philosophies is to teach my students about the importance of being a citizen in our world and how they can be part of that, regardless of their challenges.”
Can you explain how you’ve been affected by the events and the policy changes over the last year in Wisconsin?
“Interesting enough, my story is more of an emotional story, about how our staff, including myself, went from this shock of what happened in February 2011 to how we went through those phases of grieving, not only as a staff but as a community in Somerset. We’ve really evolved in our district over the last year and half.
It started out when Act 10 first happened. It was just a shock.
The influx of media being poured at you in such a negative way…all of a sudden spinning it that we were union thugs and just in the profession for money. It was…it was a shock and sadness….and then just looking at yourself and saying, “What am I going to do with this?” The amount of sadness in a building…in a community of people that really had supported each other all along.
In Somerset, we have a history as a community, where the school is actually very much the center of our community. Teachers are really involved in the community. When we go through referendums, where we have studied teachers and their influence in the community, we receive an extremely high rating. I feel like I can walk around the community of Somerset and interact with anybody and am very well regarded. And it’s always been that way because there’s a real support system. Teachers are really enmeshed in our community. So, all of a sudden, we were in this situation where we were painted by the governor’s agenda as the enemy. It was a hard thing to go through. [nodding].
So, what do you do? You know, I tend to turn things around pretty quickly. I’m just that kind of person, and the first thing I did was call my representative. Because that’s what you do when something happens legislatively that impacts you. You have a representative that represents you in Madison.
It was a newly elected representative, Eric Severson, in the 28th district. So, I called him to talk to him about the impact this had on me and I needed someone to listen to how I felt about that. It was an interesting conversation. What I got from Representative Eric Severson is that he repeatedly told me how I disgusted him for wanting to earn a wage as a teacher. I didn’t know what to do. I happened to have a student teacher at the time, who was also in the room when I called him over my lunch hour. She happened to be standing there and could hear him yelling at me over the phone, not allowing me to speak.
And, so, I went from sadness to just total, like, “what outlet do I have?” Here I am, in northwestern Wisconsin, four and a half to five hours from Madison and all this is happening. And my representative thinks I’m despicable because I teach in Wisconsin and want to earn a wage and have benefits…as a teacher for thirty-two years with a Masters degree plus an incredible amount of credits, and an enmeshed person in the community of Somerset.
I didn’t know what to do. So like other teachers, I went down to Madison that week. And in my building what happened was over the course of six months – I just watched people just in grief. Teachers just stuck hearing negative media all the time, not knowing what to do…not having an avenue for their voice…with representatives that were unwilling to speak their voice in Madison. And then, going to Madison yourself, and at least feeling good because you had other people there with you, who were feeling the same way.
So, I came back from Madison and I encouraged my coworkers to try to attend events where other people could support them. And some did. And some moved forward, but many didn’t. And so, we were just in this flux of what was going to happen. In the meantime, we’re part of this community that also doesn’t know what to do. And at first, I have to admit, our administration kind of had a knee-jerk reaction. Suddenly we were this “union,” instead of the people who were employed in the district. And so they (administrators) kind of pulled back and became really distant with us. We lost that sense of community and collaboration and we were just like, ‘where’s this coming from?’
What happened then, as I reflect back, is that when I went to the first school board meeting. It was interesting to watch the school board because we had a great relationship with them as an educational association. Our district had met with our association; we had worked together as a collaborative unit. We had gone to a high-deductible insurance. We had done those things. We had made those hard choices for the community of Somerset.
The school board was asking our school administrators, ‘What are we going to do without a contract? What is our liability? What is going to happen? What is our responsibility to our employees? What is our responsibility to our taxpayers? How are we going to have a financially secure district when there are so many unknowns?’ What happened at that board meeting is the board starting looking to us and asking us, ‘what does this mean to you?’ And our board members started setting up coffee talks within our community to invite taxpayers and teachers to sit down and talk about what they wanted for our district under the new context of the law. They asked, ‘do we want to pay people?’ because we believe in our teachers and we believe that is the core root of education or do we want to pave parking lots, or build new buildings? This dialogue started to happen because we had this history of working together. We moved from that inability to do anything that grief brings to the movement towards the collaborative approach of working together.
But it took a long time.”
So when your district was faced with some choices about whether to include teachers in that process, or to decide alone, your school board decided to include you in the process?
“Yes, that’s what happened. We had several school board meetings with people very involved. The school board had gathered these conversations with people over the course of the year, from taxpayers and teachers. The school board and the administration decided that they would do a collaborative approach in creating the handbook, since we no longer had a contract. There was a group of about 12 to 15 people who decided that they would meet every Monday night, support staff members of their association, teacher members of our teacher education association, school board members, and administrators, who would sit every Monday night and hash out a handbook until everybody agreed with what was in it.
Until there was a consensus.”
What makes Somerset unique, in that you are taking a cooperative approach? Other districts faced with these same choices are keeping the power all consolidated in one group.
“We have always been an integral part of the community. A majority of our school board members went to school themselves in Somerset. One in particular that I’m thinking of, and there may be more, his dad was on the school board when I first started. We have a history together here. Many teachers have taught here many years. We don’t leave. We like it. They like us.
We work together.
Standing in front of our school board, we’re looking at people we’ve taught. They’re looking at us as people who have educated them. They have a knowledge of us as people. But what they didn’t really have a knowledge of really was what was happening to us, personally, so they asked. One of the priorities of our board was that everything be transparent. There would be no hiding of information. So, every meeting the minutes were taken and were made available to taxpayers…emailed to all teachers and support staff. So, everybody knew what everyone was saying. There was no behind-the-doors negotiating. How and when Act 10 went through, the behind the scenes things that were happening was the biggest issue for us. It did not instill trust. Our board wanted to have very open and honest conversations that would instill trust.”
What kind of advice would you give to other districts that are not taking this approach?
“I guess I would say start talking. Start listening to each other, because that’s what we did. Because of Governor Walker’s cuts to education, Somerset still had a deficit, but some of the things that our board members said at the last meeting were, “we think our teachers have given enough to the deficit in our district. They have taken their cuts. They have lost their pay. They have lost quite a bit of wages and earnings. We don’t want the burden of our deficit anymore on the teachers’ backs.”
Those were the comments by our school board members. They’ve said, “we appreciate you. We honor you. We know what you do here for us and for our kids.”
And what they didn’t know, they found out. They didn’t understand about licensing and what we have to go through. They didn’t understand what professional development plans (PDP’s), were and now how the state has changed those…when they found out that a university graduate credit is somewhere between $300 and $1,000 and that teachers are required to get those (ongoing basis), they were like, “how can we ask our teachers to pay more and give more of their wages back, when they’re trying to just live?”
After listening to what you’ve described in education, some might assert that Governor Walker’s policies are working because the tools that he’s given you have worked positively in Somerset. What would be your response to that?
“Well (laughs), I wouldn’t say that Governor Walker has had any responsibility to what Somerset has been doing at all. Because we were doing this before.
What happened was that we took a very bad situation and said – are we going to let this happen to us or are we going to work together to problem solve through it?
We’re not sure how we’re going to do it, but we’re going to do it together. So that everybody feels OK about each other. We’re all going to make cuts. We have to – we don’t have any choice.”
“What’s happening in Somerset, now, is because of Governor Walker’s cuts we have students that aren’t being fed…aren’t being cared for. So, who has stepped up to the plate? Teachers. Last night…all last week…every day of the week we raised money for this community ofSomerset…Grace Place…Salvation Army. And it was teachers raising that money and bringing it to their classrooms and asking students to also come in with canned goods for the food shelf. We are asked frequently, every couple of weeks, there’s no food left for the backpack program. So, the teachers do that. Last night, we had a fundraiser to raise money for Grace Placeas an ending to that week. I’m not sure what the count was last week but just monetary donations within our elementary building were over $350 and we brought three carloads of food to the food shelf. Tonight we’re raising money for the scholarship committee. Because of the cuts that have happened, we may not be able to give out as many scholarships. People aren’t donating enough. So, tonight many of the teachers are going to raise money for the scholarship fund. This is what we do. This is what the teachers in Somerset do.
There comes a point where you need a balance in your life between the give and take. There’s been a lot of taking from teachers and educators and from the communities, the people who can’t afford things. There have been a lot of takers. Scott Walker’s plan gives money to people who are very wealthy. Teachers tend to be givers, so they come into play, and they give and give, but without that balance of giving and taking it creates an unhealthy environment. Right now, we’re stepping in and doing what we can like dealing with the effects of homelessness of our students, but how long can we do that? How long can we band-aid that situation? We’re helping as much as we can, but something needs to change in our society, in Wisconsinin particular, but across the nation too. We need to balance the haves and the have nots. Poverty is now a part of our every day teaching. Economically speaking, more of us are down here, and less of us are up here. [motioning low and high] As teachers we’re not going to be able to make up that difference in many of our students’ lives. We’re not going to be able to give enough to support the number of people that are in this place. So, that’s how I would answer that. We’re doing it now, as best we can, but soon…how long will we be able to do it?”
What would happen to your (special needs) students in a charter school?
“Are we going to go back to state institutions or no schooling for special needs students? I’m not sure what would happen. Are you going to fund a school that teaches kids on the autism spectrum to be functional members of society? I’m not sure. Are you going to evaluate teachers’ performance on standardized test scores when their students are not eating because they don’t have enough food? And they come and take a standardized test…a computerized standardized test, when they’re thinking of their next meal or where they are going to sleep? And then are you going to evaluate a teacher’s performance on that? It’s so easy to sit in these private corporations or government positions, where you’re not interacting and go, “Oh yeah, this sounds like a really good idea.” But when you get into the schools, like our school board did, you realize, “this is impossible.”
What would you say to new teachers coming into this profession?
“You know, that’s a really tough one because I love my job. Our school board and handbook committee actually addressed that. They said they are concerned that they will not be able to pay new teachers enough to come here. I know, personally, that I could move across the border and get a job as a speech and language pathologist in the schools of Minnesota and make about $20,000 more than I am now. You know, there may be an influx of that. People are not going to stay in the profession. I think there’s a sense with our board that we may lose the quality of educators that we have. New people coming into the field have already talked about that. ‘Why should I stay? I mean I can’t buy a house. I can’t pay rent.’ So, what our board is trying to do is put more money to attract new teachers so at least we can try and engage more people into the field.
But I am telling you the truth, right now in this political climate in our state right now, unless things change, I would not encourage people to go into the field. But I would encourage them to vote!”