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Susan Straight

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Teacher Layoffs: Spring Rite or National Shame?

Posted: 03/21/11 11:03 PM ET

Last week was Pink Slip Week in California. All over the state, teachers got notices through certified mail that they might be laid off. Teachers around the nation have been getting pink slips for weeks, and this year, the possibility is even larger that they will lose their jobs.

The two words, in the American lexicon, are never good. Pink slip. The first time I ever heard it when I was young was when Kaiser Steel handed out pink slips to many of my neighbors and relatives. Layoffs were about efficiency, sales figures for raw materials or refrigerators. Kids might be "raw material," in a strange sense, but they are not refrigerators.

Last year, federal stimulus money was used to plug holes in state budgets, and many teachers were actually rehired (23,000 pink slips were sent out in California during 2010.) But this year, with deeper and deeper budget cuts to education at every level -- federal, state, and county -- American schools will mostly likely lose teachers by the thousands. On March 15, more than 30,000 pink slips were mailed to teachers in California, according to the California Teachers Association, and last week, they arrived.

I know they arrived in my neighborhood because after work I saw my letter carrier, Randy, who carried a large sheaf of them. He was despondent about having to deliver the certified mail -- "if it's certified, and it's today, I'm hoping they don't answer the door," he said. That way, he said, he wouldn't have to see the faces of our neighbors who are getting the layoff notices.

"It's been four years since we started this," I said, and he nodded.

"Four years of the teachers being the ones we scare," he said.

In 2009, MSNBC called the layoff notices "a spring rite as predictable as cherry blossoms in the nation's capital." Are you kidding me? That kind of pink is not pretty, and not flowery. This habit of threatening to balance budgets on the backs of schoolchildren and teachers and custodians and education employees should never have become something routine. When Detroit threatens to close half the public schools, and Providence, Rhode Island send layoff notices to every single teacher, something has gone very very wrong. In Vassar, eastern Michigan, 18 teachers received pink slips, mostly teachers of English and Fine Arts. And in Gahanna, central Ohio, 32 teachers got pink slips. Proportionately, that's just as big as the thousands who got notices in California.

It's terrifying for teachers and their students, for their families, and terrible for the economy. Twenty or so of my closest friends are teachers -- two teach second grade, one is a speech therapist, many are high school teachers -- and when they receive pink slips, not only do their blood pressure and stress levels rise, they cannot make plans to replace essentials like car tires or washing machines. (They don't buy dishwashers, if the recent hilarious segment on The Colbert Show, "Cribs: Teachers!" is to be believed.) They don't even consider roof repairs or termite treatment.

Their children worry. Their students are nervous and even scared -- will my teacher lose his or her job? What will happen to me next year, or to my younger sibling who was looking forward to fourth grade with Mrs. ___ or Theater with Mr. ___?

Last year, my youngest daughter's high school teachers were all on edge. First on the block are arts and sports -- last year it was Theater and French teachers, along with many others. How can America put up with this as a "rite of spring," when other nations make education a priority? For no other profession have we decided wholesale layoff threats are acceptable. Furloughs, pay cuts -- as a public university teacher, I took a 10% pay cut last year. But no city or state sends thousands of layoff notices to court employees, correctional officers, sewage and sanitation workers, or administrative staff.

"Where will all those kids go?" my daughter asked tonight. She was doing basic math -- 30,000 teachers, and how many with classes of 30-40 students?

Not all teachers are great. Then again, not all lawyers, bank managers, policemen, streetsweepers, or sales clerks are great. Measure of greatness could be equal -- except those professions aren't required to administer bubble-response tests to their clients or charges each spring just after pink slips show up.

Teachers spend most of their daytime hours with children. Teachers at every level, coaches, counselors, cafeteria workers and yes, custodians, spend their hours trying to make children's lives different, if not always better. (Two of my brothers-in-law and a sister-in-law are school custodians.)

Some of those students end up in college, where I spend my days with them. More than half of my former students teach -- elementary and high school, community college and university. I taught them to be passionate about literature and writing, and to attempt to translate that passion to their own students. They are rookie teachers, most likely to be laid off and not rehired, even though they are passionate. From what they tell me, they don't begin their careers thinking, Hey, I'll do a mediocre and tepid job with these kids for 30 years and then -- whoo-hoo! Pension!

This spring rite of passage is scary, shameful, and unnecessary. Were politicians willing to realize how foolish it is to slash budgets for education -- hurting not only children but adults, hurting local economies, and mostly, reversing centuries of American reverence for education and for making sure our children are the most important investment we have -- they might remember some of the most important people who shaped them before they became politicians: teachers, coaches, maybe even a few patient custodians. As a novelist, I actually made a high school History teacher the hero of one book, and for my new novel, not only is he a hero again, another hero is a community college teacher who encourages a damaged young man who's an orphan to write about music and art, to blog, and to want to be a teacher himself. That's the best tribute I can offer to all the teachers who made me into a writer and someone who loves students, and the power of education.