Mesa teachers weigh in on protests, challenges of teaching in Arizona

Posted at 6:50 PM, Apr 11, 2018
and last updated 2018-04-11 21:52:19-04

Not long after the sun came up, they began to fill the parking lot at Taft Elementary School in East Mesa.

Teachers, parents, and children, wearing red, holding signs, standing in solidarity on yet another Wednesday morning.

Red for Ed took hold in about 1,000 Arizona schools for yet another week with a sense of anxiety. No teacher wants to go on strike.

"No, or course not," said teacher Colleen Bean. "We strike, we leave our kids and we don't want that."

Teachers say, it's not about the money. It's never been about the money. It's about the kids.

"I can't tell you how many times I've stayed awake at night, worrying about my kids,"  said Deanna Wilhalme. "Which one was behaving badly? What's going on at home? They never leave you."

Taft Elementary is a school where more than 70 percent of children receive a free or reduced cost lunch or breakfast. The majority of students come from low-income families.

The school has also been rated A+ by the state education department for academic achievement.

That's a point of pride for the tight-knit staff, but budget cuts and stagnant salaries are driving some of them right out of the work they love.

The five teachers interviewed for this story all say they've considered moving or leaving the profession altogether, just to earn enough to pay the bills.

"I could make more just going to be a flight attendant, easily," said Hannah Berk, a second year teacher who comes from a family of educators. She said, teaching is the only thing she's ever wanted to do.

Teachers and parents said they were dismayed and disappointed by Governor Doug Ducey's comments Tuesday on KTAR radio. The governor has refused to meet with representatives of Arizona Educators United, the non-partisan group which has staged many of the Red for Ed demonstrations.

The governor compared the rallies to a "political circus," calling demonstrators, "political operatives."  

"I think the biggest problem right now is, he won't even sit down to talk," said Bean. "Does he get all the blame? No... We've cut education for years now. It has not been a priority. It should be a priority."

Governor Ducey has proposed increasing teacher pay by one percent in this year's budget, with $100 million in additional spending, which could go to teacher pay at the discretion of district superintendents.

Teachers are demanding a 20 percent raise, which would bring the median salary in Arizona in line with neighboring states. 

Arizona school administrators reported 2,000 vacant teaching positions by mid-year, with 40 percent of classrooms staffed by workers who don't currently meet state standards for teacher certification.