Thursday, April 28, 2022

A New Plan for Teacher Pay

Playing with a bit of satire for this week's column in The Villager. Or, perhaps it's a really great idea for school funding.

The country is facing a serious teacher shortage, as fewer young people see the profession as a viable career move. And teacher salaries is a key issue. According to Chalkbeat, the average Colorado teacher makes $51,000 a year, though in rural districts the pay can be significantly lower where starting teachers make just $25,000 a year and earn only $40,000 annually after a twenty-year career. In a state with above average housing prices and a high cost of living even before inflation, the challenge to lure young professionals to teaching with lucrative salaries remains a problem.

However, this isn’t a column to complain about teacher pay. As an educator for nearly thirty years, I’ve always been quite satisfied with the living I make. Granted, teachers earn twenty percent less than comparably educated workers in the private sector. The reason is teachers are only paid for ten months of work. Despite what many people believe, teachers aren’t given a year-long salary for only forty weeks of work. Most schools have yearly contracts of roughly 180 days, though districts often disperse pay over twelve months for obvious reasons. The one perk meant to offset the public-private pay gap is a pension system that offers an earlier retirement age than Social Security, which teachers don’t receive.

Many people believe society undervalues teachers and has misplaced priorities. They think it's wrong that professional athletes make millions of dollars to play a game while some teachers struggle to pay the bills. I completely disagree with that comparison. I won’t fault any athlete for earning as much as they can. I once heard Oprah ramble on about how athletes should make less and “teachers should make a million dollars a year.” That’s nonsense, even if it weren’t coming from a billionaire television personality. Athletes earn millions for one simple reason – they generate that money. It’s all about revenue, especially advertising.

Millions of fans pay hefty ticket prices to watch adults play a game for our entertainment. Millions more tune in to televised games which generate billions of dollars in advertising revenue. Athletes deserve a share of the money they produce. Teaching doesn’t produce revenue. No one is buying tickets for even the most entertaining classrooms. And advertisers are not throwing money at schools and teachers for advertising space. However, perhaps they could. Maybe they should. So, I’m thinking about advertising and endorsement deals for teachers.

Picture this: a teacher walks into the classroom where anxious students await the lesson or assessment. The teacher announces, “Ok, today we have a quiz on multiplying polynomials … and this quiz is brought to you by Quiznos.” Or Starbucks. Or Nike. Or T-Mobile. Students receive a copy of the test with company logos splashed across the top of the page. At the bottom of the paper is a coupon for ten-percent off their next purchase. It could even be used to incentivize achievement. Students would receive higher discounts, premiums, and perks for better grades. The possibilities are endless.

As an English teacher reads an intense passage, he might add, “Wow, this character could use an ice cold Coca-Cola.” Business teachers could offer financial literacy lessons, as well as discounted prices for opening an IRA or new bank account. Teachers and schools have a captive audience which is a virtual goldmine of current and future consumers. Why not take advantage of that widely available advertising opportunity? Teachers often wear clothing with school logos, which is nice to support the school, but not remotely lucrative. So, why aren’t teachers sporting company logos and getting a nice kickback from advertisers?

Interestingly, some teachers do make million dollar salaries. Kim Ki-hoon, a popular private tutor and cram school teacher in South Korea earns $4 million a year because his test prep lectures are so popular in the country where high stakes testing for high school and college admissions is even more intense than America’s. And Deanne Jump is a kindergarten teacher who has earned more than a million dollars selling her lesson plans and class materials online.

So, now that college athletes have been freed by the courts to capitalize on their marketability, perhaps the same courtesy might be extended to educators. Critics of public education have long argued that schools need to work more like the business world. So, why not let market forces work their magic in the classroom? And if not, then maybe teachers could just set a tip jar on their desks.

Monday, April 25, 2022

Conservative, but not Republican

A common theme among conservative writers lately has been the surprising, even embarrassing, behavior of Republicans and the Republican leadership, leaving many people to realize they are "conservative but not Republican." I explore this idea in a piece published this week by the Colorado Sun.

In the early 1960s, Ronald Reagan switched his party affiliation from Democrat to Republican, famously noting, “I didn’t leave my party. My party left me.” The same hollow feeling of abandonment is now felt within the Gipper’s party as many conservative Americans no longer see themselves in the contemporary Republican Party. Republican leadership has slowly ceded authority to media personalities and fringe political upstarts, leading a growing number of people to realize they are conservative, but not Republican.

As conservative stalwarts like George Will and Joe Scarborough literally left the party, and leaders like Liz Cheney are attacked for questioning the January 6 insurrection, it’s become clear conservatism is no longer a guiding principle in the Grand Old Party. The censure of Liz Cheney and Illinois congressman Adam Kinzinger signified a new low in party politics, the tolling of the bell for a political organization that has been moving away from conservatism and toward extremist partisanship since the late 90s. That partisanship focused primarily on securing power and winning elections culminated in 2016 when Republican voters rejected a lifelong conservative of impeccable character, Mitt Romney, and instead nominated a media personality who’d never been actively Republican nor remotely conservative.

Conservatism is a belief system and set of values, not a political platform and voting record. Prudence, decorum, tradition, and stability are hallmarks of conservatism, harkening back to the Ten Conservative Principles of scholar Russell Kirk and the moral conviction of Barry Goldwater’s The Conscience of a Conservative. That word, conscience, is pivotal in the struggle of many conservatives to see themselves in today’s GOP. With so many unconscionable words and actions by noisemakers like Marjorie Taylor Greene, Matt Gaetz, and Lauren Boebert, the party brand has been tarnished, and a conservative would never support or condone such crass, disrespectful opportunists. People don’t usually capitulate on values or compromise on ethics, which means excusing or justifying these disruptive political voices is simply a rejection of the conservative tradition.

And still, the anti-conservative actions among prominent Republicans keep piling up, often in disturbing displays of extremism. The most recent example is found in the texts and emails of Ginnie Thomas, wife of Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas, regarding the 2020 election and January 6 debacle. As conservative writer Jay Nordinger noted, “You can’t write these things and believe in the Constitution.” A conservative and a believer in law and order can’t excuse or dismiss them either. Both Nordinger and conservative writer David French have spent two years diligently attempting to expose the lies and turn the GOP back toward conservative values. Yet millions of Republicans ignore these voices of reason, instead tuning in as talk television loudmouth Tucker Carlson proudly aligns himself with Vladimir Putin over the autonomous people of Ukraine. It’s truly baffling.

Hundreds of thousands of voters nationwide have left the Republican rolls, and Colorado’s situation is equally concerning. As weak central leadership cedes moral authority, what’s a conservative to do? In the past twenty years, as the number of unaffiliated voters has risen, many people feel conservative-but-not-Republican, and they vote that way, too. Colorado GOP Chair Kristi Burton Brown pledged to not simply be a party of complaints and criticisms but instead one of ideas and solutions. Yet anyone who follows her social media accounts knows her posts read more like snarky insults and whining, than they do a thoughtful political platform with insight and ideas.

Writer Will Durant summarized Aristotelian philosophy by noting “We are what we repeatedly do,” and Burton Brown will not restore the party to the “big tent” of Ronald Reagan while also speaking derisively of Democrats. While many independents share beliefs with Republicans, they don’t see Democrats as the enemy. Declaring fellow Americans enemies is simply unacceptable in the party of Lincoln, the man who united a nation following a tragic Civil War by urging “with malice toward none and charity for all.” While many unaffiliated voters support Republican candidates, they don’t see Democrats destroying the Constitution. While fiscally conservative Coloradans seek prudence in government spending, they don’t believe Democrats want to tax Coloradans into poverty. Such comments make nice soundbites, but they don’t ensure trust.

Thus, the party of Bush, Reagan, Goldwater, Eisenhower, Teddy Roosevelt, and, of course, Abraham Lincoln is ceasing to be a conservative party or a welcoming place for conservative values. It’s simply a political action committee of “Republicanism,” focused on winning seats, holding offices, and acquiring power rather than leading and legislating a community, a state, a society, and a nation. Believers in this new “–ism” will remain members of the Republican Party, but many conservatives can’t and won’t.

Thursday, April 21, 2022

Talk to your Enemy

So, after last week's column about the importance of dialing down the divisive rhetoric and the portraying of neighbors and community members as enemies over basic political issues, I received an interesting email response. A reader thanked me for the column and explained how she really liked it and agreed with me .... except for the part where I said neither party hates America and no one is trying to destroy the Constitution. Then she proceed to explain how the radical Marxist extremists are bent on the destruction of American culture and society.

Oh, well. (heavy sigh).

As I read the email, just shaking my head, I thought of my current study of John Knowles' classic American bildungsroman A Separate Peace with my ninth graders. Specifically, I am thinking about the closing of the novel and its poignant and important bit of wisdom:

"All of them, all except Phineas, constructed at infinite cost to themselves these Maginot Lines against this enemy they thought they saw across the frontier, this enemy who never attacked that way -- if he ever attacked at all; if indeed he was the enemy."

The novel is a wonderful and insightful read if you haven't read it before, or if it has been a while. And along this same line of thought, I must offer another reading suggestion, I highly recommend Jonathon Haidt's The Righteous Mind: Why Good People are Divided by Politics and Religion.

Thursday, April 14, 2022

We Need to Talk

For my column this week in The Villager, I'm thinking about the problematic nature of contemporary society's inability to have calm, rational discussion about political and cultural issues.

One serious problem in contemporary America is simply a rhetorical one. Basically, the general discourse has become pretty crass and rather harsh. Many people can’t even talk to each other anymore, and when they do, their words are not what we’d call polite conversation. The language Americans use to speak about people with whom they disagree has become negative to the point of absurdity. Perhaps it’s time we put away the superlatives and simply talk in tempered tones.

As a writer and teacher, I come by my language skills honestly, having learned the art of communication from my parents. My mom was a newspaper writer and editor, and my dad worked in personnel. And while my mom was an astute observer and master of the written word, my dad was simply a great talker. Working for many years in labor relations, he valued the art of communication, and he knew that if people were honest and earnest, anything could be talked out. “As long as we’re talking …” he would say. That was his credo: “Everything will be all right as long as we’re talking.”

That spirit of genuine conversation guided my dad in his job and personal relationships. He spent many years walking the neighborhood each morning with a close friend and neighbor who was also his polar opposite on many political issues. As they walked and talked, the conservative Catholic Republican and the progressive Protestant Democrat never resolved much or changed the other’s mind, but they were always friends at the end of the day. We once theorized that if our senators and representatives walked and talked each morning, the country might be in better shape. I actually wrote a column for Merion West Magazine, suggesting “Congress Should Live Together.” I envisioned a 535-family townhouse complex in DC where politicians and their families would all be neighbors. They might not always agree, but it’s harder to hate each other when your kids play together.

In the 1980s, Ronald Reagan and Democratic House Speaker Tip O’Neill were fierce political rivals. Their public comments about each other weren’t often kind. In fact, Reagan once called Tip after a particularly harsh comment in the newspapers, and Tip told him, “Well, buddy, that’s just politics. After 6:00, we’re friends.” The two political giants battled for many years, and probably didn’t hang out much. But they ultimately developed a healthy respect for each other, and at the end of their careers, Reagan said, “Tip, if I had a ticket to Heaven, and you didn’t have one, I’d give mine away and go to Hell with you.” Years later Joe Scarborough would opine that you could impeach Bill Clinton one day, and the next Bill would come up and ask you to go play a round of golf. Both Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton led successful presidencies because they were, in their hearts, friendly, gregarious men.

Politics doesn’t have to be a combat sport, and political opponents don’t have to disparage each other. Disagreement about political issues doesn’t mean one side is stupid. It doesn’t mean one side is made of fascists while the other is full of communists. Neither political party hates America, and no one is destroying the Constitution. People just have different views, and they should be able to talk about them with tact and maturity. At one time in American history, the Senate was envisioned as the great deliberative body. Senate procedures and the filibuster were actually intended to slow the discussion and extend the debate. Like my dad said, “As long as we’re talking …”

Of the many great documents in American political history, Abraham Lincoln’s Inaugural Addresses at the beginning and end of the Civil War are among our most treasured. As the nation prepared to go to battle, Lincoln actually finished his first address by reminding Americans “We are not enemies, but friends. We must not be enemies. Though passion may have strained, it must not break our bonds of affection.” Years later, as the conflict came to a close and the country faced a difficult reunification, he urged America to go forward “With malice toward none, with charity for all.” If Americans coming out of the Civil War could cease portraying each other as the enemy, then certainly two political parties talking about tax rates can do the same.

As the campaign season gears up, and voters prepare for midterm elections, let us hope cooler heads prevail, and someday soon we can speak to and about each other civilly. As Honest Abe wished for us, we should always seek to be guided “by the better angels of our nature."

Sunday, April 3, 2022


As April arrives, and springtime springs, I find myself thinking of home and my parents and their garden and times long past. Since April is also National Poetry Month, I am reminded of this poetic piece I crafted many years ago.


In the early morning, on my hazy quest for a cup of coffee, I am stopped in my tracks by an image of absolute clarity. Through the kitchen window of my parents’ home, I glimpse the two most important men in my life. One is thirty-five years my senior, the other thirty-two years my junior. It’s summer, and I’ve come home to visit.

Remembering these moments amidst the hassles of daily living is important.

The hour is early, before the intense humidity of a St. Louis summer can make being outside unbearable, and the sunlight is just beginning to peer over the neighbor’s house. In an awkward angle from my position in the hallway, peering sideways through the glass and around the obtrusive windowpanes, past the hummingbird feeder, and over the patio fence, I see them. Sitting on a bench under a tree in the botanical garden that is my parents’ backyard are my father and my son.

Life is good.

They had disappeared out the back door a while ago – my dad to turn on the fountain or take out the trash and my son to look for bugs, frogs, turtles, or any other creature that might be lurking among the hosta lilies, dwarf conifers, and rose bushes.

Life is good because my family is safe.

My wife and I and our two children live in Colorado, a fourteen-hour drive from my childhood home. In the past four years, I’ve been home just once. Even though I’m a teacher, it always seems like summer vacation is too short, as I spend much of it taking classes. When my parents, who are now in their seventies, come out to visit, they always stay in a hotel, and their two or three day visits always seem to be over just as they’ve begun. But there on the bench, my son still in his pajamas, it seems like there’s all the time in the world.

Life is good because my family is safe, and they’re happy.

I watch them for a few moments, but it seems like an hour. At various points, Austen talks animatedly, waving his arms and pointing, or sits quietly, contemplating the scene, leaning into his grandpa, and occasionally tugging on his shirt. My father sits calmly, shoulders slumping slightly, listening to my son and seeing the garden through his eyes. My dad said later that he often forgets to take time to sit and enjoy the garden. Between taking care of the garden and working a new job as a financial advisor, he rarely takes time to smell the proverbial roses. When my son leans over and rests his head against his grandpa’s arm, I know the meaning of life.

Life is good because my family is safe, and they’re happy, and they’re sheltered, and they’re here.

That’s the key, isn’t it? Being present.