The Election, Teachers And Our Keiki

A couple of weeks ago, I found myself in conversation with a young waitress — a recent graduate of University of Hawaii. I asked her how many days she worked.

“I only waitress part time. I’m a schoolteacher,” she replied with obvious pride.

“How long have you taught?”

“Three weeks,” she said. “I teach second grade. I love it. The kids are so cute.”

I’m sure they are. But, I gently warned her, based on living with an elementary schoolteacher for more than 40 years, that teaching is a full-time job. It doesn’t end when the final bell rings.

“I know,” she said. “The backseat of my car is piled with work I have to do.”

It always will be, but with her enthusiasm she’ll get through it all, while falling in love with a new batch of kids every year.

Eventually she will be among the 97 percent of Hawaii’s teachers who recently were deemed effective (81 percent) or highly effective (16 percent) by state Department of Education’s Educator Effectiveness System.

That “system” is part of the 2013-17 labor contract between DOE and Hawaii State Teachers Association. A teacher’s annual rating helps determine whether he or she will be eligible for pay raises, tenure or termination.

That’s the draconian atmosphere in which modern teachers labor, not merely in Hawaii, but in school districts large and small across the country. It’s all about the new accountability brought upon us by the No Child Left Behind legislation of 2001 and its Obama administration iteration.

Behind it is the assumption that all that’s wrong with public education stems from underperforming teachers, ignoring the society outside the classroom — a society that’s changed radically over the last half century.

It’s a poorer society, one in which one in five children live in poverty. We hear ad nauseum this election year about the dwindling middle class. It’s not leaking upward. Since long before the onset of the Great Recession in 2007, the salaries of American workers have been stagnant, and the recovery has been built on a shaky foundation of low-wage service jobs.

It’s also an overworked society. In too many households, especially in Hawaii, two or more breadwinners work two or more jobs in order to earn enough to support a household.

Overstated? Look up the block. All those two-story, lot-line to lot-line homes were not built just to house an aging parent. I believe “multigenerational” is the adjective.

Kids who come to school hungry suffer academically. So do those whose parents are working too hard to read to them, check on their homework or attend their school events.

Our democratic belief that “education is the great leveler” is more than a clich√©. It happens, generation after generation, through the work of dedicated teachers. Still, we’re asking those same teachers to do so much more, to compensate for a society that is neither socially nor economically as healthy as it once was.

In the Aug. 9 primary election campaigns, every candidate who could boasted about his or her vote against taxing pension income — and lacerated Gov. Neil Abercrombie for proposing it. Save our kupuna.

What about save our keiki? Support for education in Hawaii, teachers’ salaries included, comes out of the state general funds, precisely what the governor was seeking to replenish during the economic downturn.

We need to hear more about keiki from our candidates, so that my young waitress friend can afford to give up her part-time job.