LePage uneducated about teachers

Need more teachers at your kids’ school? Now is a good time to buy.

Teachers are, said Gov. Paul LePage, “a dime a dozen.” Even if this statement were true – it isn’t – what message does it send to Maine teachers as they head back to the classroom over the next two weeks?

At the tender age of five or six, we entrust our little kiddies to the adults with whom they will spend most of their time. From kindergarten on, teachers will offer instruction, opportunity, discipline and support to kids of every background and ability. Good teachers should be held up as heroes in our society, not brushed aside as inconsequential.

There are plenty of teachers who love their jobs and perform them admirably. Almost all of us can name a teacher in our K-12 days who opened our eyes to a particular subject, believed in us when we did not believe in ourselves or reached out to lift us up when we were at our very worst.

For far too long, teacher salaries have been woefully low in relationship to the importance of the work they do. That is beginning to improve, but it is a long battle. The National Center for Education Statistics says that about 76 percent of public school teachers are women – in primary schools, it is 87 percent. “Is it a coincidence that teaching, a mostly female profession, is often perceived as low- to mid-skill work, confers little social status and pays poorly?” (Casey Quinlan, “How Gender Bias Affects Teachers’ Salaries.”)

The average teacher salary in Maine is just over $47,000, while starting salary is about $32,000. According to teacherportal.com, that puts Maine 42nd for starting teacher salary and 36th for average teacher salary.

A bill to mandate a starting salary of $40,000 was killed by the legislature in 2016.

TeacherPortal also produces a “salary comfort score” that compares both starting and overall average salaries to cost of living in a state, “to find which states were friendliest to teachers from a salary perspective.” Maine ranked 45th. Very not friendly.

According to the U.S. Department of Education, Maine has identified teacher shortages in math, science, special education, gifted and talented programs, languages and industrial arts. A dime a dozen? It’s just not so. Teacher shortages are certainly part of the reason why U.S. students lag other countries in science, mathematics and reading.

There are several nationally used methods to evaluate student performance. We don’t look so hot on any of them. The NAEP test (National Assessment of Educational Progress) rated 40 percent of 12th graders “below basic” in science. Only 25 percent of 12th graders were “proficient” in math. The most recent PISA study (Program for International Student Assessment) put the U.S. 38th out of 71 countries in math and 24th in science. These results are dismal.

Maine has plenty to offer teachers who might like to live and work in our state, in addition to those who already do. Natural beauty, clean air and water, a low crime rate and a low cost of living for much of the state are all factors that might appeal to young teachers looking for a place to settle. The governor’s “dime a dozen” remark was picked up by the national media and serves notice to teachers around the country that we do not value them.

Mind you, the governor is not all downside when it comes to education. The “dime a dozen” remark was made at Cianbro’s new workforce development center, where a program of vocational training will prepare Mainers for jobs in the construction business.

This training is an important complement to academics for many students. The pendulum is swinging back from an effort to get most students to pursue post-secondary degrees to the recognition that a good living is to be made in the trades. But could he stop with a positive message about the value of both educational pathways, pointing to Cianbro as a leader in vocational training? He could not.

It was not enough to promote vocational education; he had to denigrate academics (“just teaching out of a book”) as well. “It’s mentoring that’s more valuable,” said the governor, and while mentoring is indeed valuable, and has proven to be an extremely effective educational tool, why does it have to be a contest of one over the other?

“I’m telling you, the trades and vocational education are critical,” said the governor. “You have to have a roof over your head.” Yes. “Not everyone is going to college.” Also yes. Ending it there would have done the job nicely. Instead, here we are, with teachers feeing undervalued, the nation once again chuckling at our expense and potential teacher recruits from away determined not to touch Maine with a 10-foot pole.

The governor was right to recognize Cianbro for creating a valuable training program that will help more Mainers make a good living, developing skill sets that will be relevant to life in Maine for years to come. If only he could have stayed on the high road. His “dime a dozen” comment is not worth a plugged nickel.

Jill Goldthwait

Jill Goldthwait

Jill Goldthwait worked for 25 years as a registered nurse at Mount Desert Island Hospital. She has served as a Bar Harbor town councilor and as an independent state senator from Hancock County.

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