Information, observations, and analysis from the James River valley on the Northern Plains-----
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South Dakota has enjoyed the status of being 51st in the nation in teachers' pay. For years it scrambled hard with other states like Mississippi for the distinction, but for the last ten years or so, it has had a lock on the position. It is a distinction conferred by at least three organizations that keep track of such matters: the U.S. Dept. of Education, the National Education Association, and the American Federation of Teachers. Other organizations also rank South Dakota last, but all of the organizations get their data from the same public records.
The South Dakota state higher education system also ranks last in what it pays professors. That statistic does not get as much publicity, but it contributes to a consistent pattern.
What does it signify to pay teachers the least in the nation? It signifies what the people value. Money is not everything, but where people put their money expresss the things they value. Few people will outwardly say that they could not give a rusty dog turd for education other than it keeps the kids out of their hair during the day. Part of the national charade is to support education as the great democratizer and an essential component of informed self-governance. South Dakota's perennial bottom-ranking for what it pays teachers speaks louder than 700,000 flapping lips chanting odes to education. The fact is that South Dakotans do not like teachers and could not care much less about education.
Whenever the bottom ranking comes up, the cliche choir assembles and begins its chant justifying the low teacher pay in South Dakota
- South Dakota has a low cost-0f-living. This cliche supposes that low pay is okay because some things cost less in South Dakota. The spouters of this brilliant gem never address what other places with similar costs-of-living pay their teachers. Nor do they address the real cost-of-living in the state. Some things cost more in South Dakota because they have to be shipped in over great distances. There are some things you just can't buy in South Dakota and have to pay a premium if you need them. And they never address the fact that families in South Dakota put in more work hours than families in any other state to maintain middle class status. What this cliche really signifies is how desperate people are to rationalize cheap pay.
- Teachers get paid less because they don't work as many days a year. The fact that teachers are not standing in front of their classrooms 12 months a year rankles people no end. It never occurs to these people that time in the classroom represents only half, at minimum, of the time teachers put in the classroom. As a research project, the Dakota Writing Project asked a sampling of teachers K-graduate school to keep logs of their workdays over an academic year. Most teachers grade papers and do class preparations during the evenings and weekends. Work weeks for teachers ranged from 60 to 80 hours per week. For college professors, who had heavy loads of final examinations and research papers to read, some work weeks went over 100 hours. There is, also, no mention of the requirements in most school systems for teachers to keep current in their subject areas and teaching skills by taking course work. When teachers leave the profession for other jobs, better pay is usually a reason, but a reason cited more often is the matter of time teachers can devote to their families and other obligations. The Dakota Writing Project work logs showed that the time teachers spent in the evenings and on weekends on school work was a major source of stress in their families.
- You can't solve the problems of education by throwing money at it. The assumption here is that increases in funding of education is money wasted. When pressed, the advocates of this slogan fall back upon making teachers work harder as the solution. And of course when money is made available, the idiots who are throwing it around are never teachers. And the problems that people who mouth this cliche see in education are education and teachers. They would solve the problems with education by ending public education.
- Never mentioned in the justifications for low pay are the levels of responsibility teachers assume for other people's children and the stress level of having to maintain order and effectiveness among the unruly and resentful. The attitudes that adults have toward teachers and education are reflected in the attitudes with which children come to school. These attitudes represent regional cultures. In South Dakota, the low pay and the arguments in support of it express the attitude that many children bring from their homes. Before teachers can even begin to worry about the level of learning achieved by their students, they have to work out disciplinary problems among students who enter the classroom possessed by attitudes of disrespect and belligerence
While South Dakota loves to cite that it is a place that has few of the problems that urban areas do, it does have many of the problems that backward rural areas do. One of those problems is that a significant majority of people do not in fact support education. They regard education only as tax burden imposed on them by "liberals."
For good teachers who want better pay and better working conditions, the solution is obvious: find a job in a place where education is actually valued.