Show Some Support

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One problem with our capitalist system is the subjective nature of the value we place on the work individuals do, which then translates into objective salaries.  Often, the amounts different professions make have little to do with the value of the work provided.  Some people do virtually nothing to become billionaires—they just inherit their fortunes.  Then, there is the exorbitant money professional performers make, which seems out of proportion to the work they do—swinging bats, singing songs, shooting hoops, or just being “famous” can translate into $10,000,000+ a year (not to mention getting paid to sign your name).  Most of us, however, wouldn’t complain about the earning power of doctors; they perform vital public services and can only be licensed to heal after extensive and arduous study/practice.  There are also the jobs that are generally undervalued, but rewarded much more reasonably in some places—my old job, teaching, being a good example, where many teachers earn relatively poor wages in rural areas, while those in the better-off metropolitan suburban areas of the country (like the Chicago collar counties) make a decent living.

And then there is the large class of jobs which people do not value much, at least not in dollars, status, or working conditions.  If your career doesn’t take as much education and/or isn’t supported by an organized labor union and/or is paid by the hour, it is very tough to find a job where you can live a middle-class life, especially in the Chicago suburbs.  Besides compensation, there is also the matter of respect and standing; hourly wage earners are often looked down upon by those whose careers garner more cash.  Since capitalism is extremely competitive, we tend to see those who earn the most as winners, and those who earn less as losers.  This is especially unfortunate and unfair when you look at some of the most important and underappreciated people who play a large role in our children’s lives—the support staff members at every school in the country.

Custodians, para-professionals, classroom aides, and secretaries are just some of the people who go to school along with our teachers and students every day.  We’ve already mentioned the decent wages teachers in the Chicago suburbs earn; plus most of them are able to sit down with their employers to bargain the terms of their employment every two or three years.  Students, of course, do not get paid in cash, but get something even more valuable for the effort they put into their schooling—they become educated.  Support staff members, in contrast, make hourly wages that are often ridiculously low, especially when you consider many reside in the suburbs where the cost of living is high.  Although some have organized into unions and do get a chance to negotiate their salaries and working conditions, still more are what is called “at will” employees:  They can be fired without the kinds of protections that unionized employees have, and they have little say in the pay or benefits provided—they can either accept what their employers mete out or try to find another job.

Their working conditions also vary greatly, dependent on the largesse of the school districts for which they work.  Break/lunch time, paid holidays, insurance coverage, compensation for overtime, hours worked, job descriptions, and seniority rights range from minimal to draconian, and even worse, get changed at the whim of a school board.  Favoritism runs rampant as administrators take care of those they like while getting rid of or mistreating those who don’t adopt a properly servile attitude.  When I worked at Hinsdale South High School from 1987 until 2012, the support staff (which had no union except for a brief three-year span) was often lectured about how many other people would be thrilled to have their jobs and how easily they could be replaced.

But nothing could be further from the truth.  From ensuring that large buildings with dozens of toilets and some of the sloppiest people on Earth inhabiting them (and that’s just the teachers!) are clean to enabling physically and mentally challenged students to get the opportunity for the high school experience every kid deserves, these people have jobs that require skill, dedication, and the patience of a saint.

If I could give a new teacher who will be joining a large department in a high school a single piece of advice, it would be to get on the good side of the department’s secretary.  Not only does this person know everything about just about anything, she will also be able to assist you in doing your job in countless ways—getting your class covered when you are late, making sure you get a good sub, making sure somebody checks on your classes when the only sub available is a bad one, screening your calls, making sure that you get important messages from outside the school when you are in class (Yes, I do realize that cell phones and voice mail make those last two less important now, but there will be times when the secretary is the ONLY person who can keep you in contact with the outside world.), steering you to the right people for advice or answers to questions, and being able (if you really are one of her favorites) to tell you which people in the school to avoid as much as possible.  And, believe it or not, much more.

But you can’t overlook the custodians who keep your room spotless and can fix that blind that won’t shut or find you the extra desk you need or set up the cafeteria for that meeting you’re having with your volleyball parents.  Oh, and don’t forget that student supervisor who will can take that out-of-control student to the dean’s office or make sure that elusive bathroom pass abuser is brought to justice or escort that under-eating-teen-who’s-about-to-pass-out safely to the nurse.  Then there’s that nurse’s aide who can diagnose the severity of that teen’s situation or assess the actual need of that perpetually complaining student or let you know how best to address the issues of your severely allergic students.  But you better not overlook that classroom aide who can make sure your special needs students are actually learning or help to integrate them into the flow of the class or clue you in that one of your students is actually sandbagging on what he can really do in order to manipulate you into going easy on him.  And you’d best not ignore the tech guys who rescue you from the blue screen of death or make sure the network works when your whole lesson is dependent on it or patiently guide you through the latest “time saving” software change.

There are many other specialists on the support staff team that teachers and students couldn’t function without.  Keep in mind that support staff members will interact with your kids every day they attend school, every…single…day. That alone should push everyone to want to hire the best possible individuals available; yep, we’re back to the way we demonstrate our love through capitalism—show them the money.

Somebody with greater skills than I should create some sort of scale that could factor in as many variables as possible to measure a school employee’s total impact on students.  Number of students affected, quality of relationships, frequency of interactions, importance of person to students, value of skills taught or provided, emotional connections, and difficulty in finding replacements to provide the same services would be just some of the myriad of things which could be considered.  While it might not take an enormous skill set to make the cafeteria clean and biologically safe after our adolescents have wallowed in it for five lunch periods, that end result—a spotless, hygienic eating space—is extremely important over the course of a school year.  If we could eliminate all our biases and hone in on that which makes our lives better, we would quickly recognize that good para-professionals or grounds keepers are worth much more than we currently pay them.  My belief is that with some sort of check list or evaluation system like this in place, the value of support staff positions would range from (minimally) half what a teacher of comparable experience earns on up to 75% (at least).  Their actual value would probably be higher, but that would be a reasonable place to start.  In my old district (Hinsdale High School #86), then, the salary range for support staff in 2014-15 should have started at $26,457 (half of a first-year’s teacher salary of $52,913)  and ranged on up to $95,651 (75% of what a teacher makes with twenty years of experience and maximum education).

However, if you check the actual earnings of District 86 support staff for 2014-15, you will see that many make significantly less than that $26,000 and not one comes close to $96,000.  (You can see the salaries for everyone in the district listed at http://www.hinsdale86.org/departments/hr/Documents/PA097-0609%20IMRF-Disclosure-Total-Comp%202014-15.pdf .)  Look at the “Annual Salary” column rather than “Total Compensation,” since few people include their insurance costs as part of their salaries, especially when a good chunk of that salary in most places (including District 86) is deducted as part of a contribution to those insurance costs.  You’ll also notice that teachers and administrators get more than twice the number of paid sick days that support staff members do, just one of the many working conditions which are much worse for the non-union support staff.

There will be many who would see my suggested salary range as outrageous, but that just shows how ignorant they are to the value of a school’s support staff.  It is currently way too easy to take these people for granted, and we can only hope that school boards and communities will recognize that superior treatment for all employees could dramatically improve school systems through more stability, greater enthusiasm, less turnover, top-quality job candidates, and better educational outcomes.  It really won’t take that much—a little money and respect—to strengthen every school in the country by treating support staff members as well as they treat those with whom they work.  Yes, that’s a very high standard, but the support staff members I have known deserve at least that.

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