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Respect of teachers missing at North Harrison

My life is, and has always been, about education. My father, Carl Uesseler, was a teacher, principal and superintendent at Lanesville for 30-plus years. After he retired from Lanesville, he won a seat on the South Harrison school board, which he held for two years until his death in 2004. My mother, Carol, replaced him on the board, and won re-election in 2006. Two of my sisters and my brother, as well as a brother-in-law, are educators. I, myself, have been a teacher at North Harrison Middle School for 20 years. You can imagine what the conversation around the Sunday dinner table is like at our house.
I have seen education firsthand from all sides. I remember, as a kid, my dad going to school every morning, coming home to eat dinner with the family, then running out again to a ballgame or a meeting. I saw him lead the community of Lanesville to victory in a battle to keep their school open. I watched him deal with difficult board, teacher and student situations. I heard the teacher’s point of view as my sister and brother-in-law went through difficulties with their teacher contracts a few years ago. I’ve seen frustration on my mother’s face as she tries, as a board member, to do what she feels is right for the community in which she lives.
No one who works in education ever expected the job to be easy. There are new challenges that arise on a daily basis. To be effective, you have to love what you do. You have to be able to put aside all the political stuff and walk into your classroom every day with the intention of helping students build better lives for themselves, even when they don’t want to. That’s getting harder and harder to do at North Harrison.
I do love what I do. God created me to be a teacher. He gave me this talent, and I’m using it to the best of my ability. I don’t see how I could be happy doing anything else. I love the kids ‘ and I teach middle school, don’t forget, so to say I love a bunch of 12- to 14-year-olds is really saying something. I love to see the light come on when they ‘get’ something. I love to celebrate their victories with them, no matter how small. I guess that’s one of the perks of being a teacher.
But lately, it’s harder to keep my head up and be proud of what I do. I’m still teaching; don’t get me wrong. I still carry a bag of stuff home to work on most nights. I still read professional books to improve my teaching and keep up on the ‘new’ techniques that are considered best practices. I still give my heart and soul to my students every day. But when my family sits down to Sunday dinner at my mom’s and someone brings up school, I keep my head down and try to stay out of the conversation. And after someone asks me a question about my opinion, I say, ‘Do we have to talk about work?’ and try to move things along to some other subject.
North Harrison is my school. My students are not just my students; they are my kids. They belong to me. I used to feel that we were all a family: students, parents, teachers, staff, administrators, board members. I don’t feel that way anymore. There’s a schism that’s formed. I don’t feel like we’re all on the same side. I don’t feel like we’re working together to do what’s best. When I attend a board meeting, I actually feel contempt and annoyance emanating at me from those sitting at the long table up at the front. They don’t want to hear what I have to say.
I know money is a problem. It’s not the money that I’m missing; it’s the respect. It’s being on the same team and working together to find solutions to problems. When all of this started back in 2005 with the reduction in force of teaching staff, I know that the teachers tried to come up with a way to cut money so that some of my colleagues wouldn’t lose their jobs and students wouldn’t have to be crammed into larger classes. But the school board wouldn’t even listen. They stopped listening to us back then, and they are still refusing to listen to us now.
Do they value me for the job that I’m trying to do, for the years of experience I bring? Or do they wish I would look for a job elsewhere so they could hire in a first-year teacher and save money? I know that I don’t feel very valued. I feel frustrated. I feel bogged down by the weight of all the changes and cuts and drama.
I wonder, are they as tired of this as I am? Are the parents even aware that this is going on? Do they see the slow demise of this school system coming? It’s being ripped apart at its heart, with the teachers who make it tick. We will continue to do our jobs, but the joy has been stolen from us. How can that ultimately be good for the students? It’s that energy that comes from a true love of the job that separates the good from the great. And it’s that energy that slowly seeps out of me with every board meeting, every bargaining session, every teacher that retires or moves on and is not replaced, and every negative comment that is made toward us by those we are supposed to be working with, not against.
I want to stress again this is not about the money. A 1.8-percent raise is hardly something to get excited about. Someone told me that it works out to about an extra $25 a pay period. It is about wanting what is best for North Harrison. And what’s best for North Harrison is a board, administration and teaching staff who all want to save this school system and who realize that it’s going to take compromise, a willingness to listen, and respect, to do just that.
Outside mediators and fact-finders have been here and given their impartial recommendations, which have been ignored by those who have the power to end this. Yet these same people have requested another mediator. Is it a waste of time? Do they even want to end this turmoil?
I urge the parents of the North Harrison school district to get involved. Call the board member who represents your township. Let him know that you are tired of the turmoil. Let him know that you believe there is no way this can be good for our students and our future. Let him know that it is time now to settle this and move forward.
We used to be a family at North Harrison. I want that back.
Jill Fitzgerald is a teacher at North Harrison Middle School.