Heather Wolpert-Gawron

The Hunger Games of Education

By on April 13, 2011

I sat in the room of saddened and anxious teachers, some of whom had dedicated up to 10 years with my district, waiting to hear about some RIF settlement that our district and union had negotiated on our behalf. As the lawyer rattled on about extended sub rights, 50/50 Cobra pay for 4 additional months, and priority rehiring, a list was being passed around which distracted many of us.

It was the bumping list, a record of the chain of shifts being proposed as one teacher bumped another from their classrooms. Occasionally, the lawyer’s drone was punctuated by a murmuring or audible shaking of a head as someone read the name of the person who was bumping them or who realized that their name was the final one on a series of bumps that lead to the word “Laid-Off” in one of the boxes.

It was 90 minutes into the meeting when the lawyer, realizing the crowd was getting ugly, said she at least had some good news, that 4 of us had been rescinded already, that we should take heart, and that there was hope for some of us after all. My name was read along with 3 other teachers. There was a cursory pat on my back by a young gifted teacher who was not so lucky, her name still in the drawing for expulsion. And I realized that while I was grateful, I was living a part in The Hunger Games.

For with every year in teaching, every spring, comes our Harvesting. Our newer teachers sit in wait with their names on a list based not on a lottery, but on a hire date, waiting to be sacrificed for the good of our budget. Their new blood being let in order to save those higher on the seniority list who luckily made it through during more flush times.

It’s a typical story, one that we’ve seen in mythology with the young teens awaiting to meet the Minotaur, in the cinema with the 80’s movie Dragonslayer where the young group of girls with flowers in their hair wait to see who will be culled from the village and given to the dragon. In literature, it’s an evil device most recently seen in The Hunger Games, as Katniss, the cunning hunter, the provider for her family, the brave heroine is sent out to kill other sacrificial lambs so that others in her district may live.

And so too is it with education’s yearly pink slip plague. It is a time every year when teachers are roped off into a corner to wait to hear their fate. A time when they are permitted into courtrooms to argue why they should bump others off the list rather than be bumped themselves. A time when we are Harvested.

I am grateful that my name was not called this season. But at what cost?

How many teachers are being released into the air? How many will begin to pull in unemployment, their talents being wasted as the new school year begins?

There is a bleeding of potential going on in our schools. A hemorrhage of talent that is not being staunched by the system.

The expulsion of some of these teachers is not in the best interest of our students. The bumping process into a new classroom after learning so much about a grade level or curriculum is not in the best interest of our students. The pressure and tension that is yearly for many teachers, the spring threat that challenges a person to emotionally commit to the profession, is not in the best interest of our students. The inability to retain new teachers who show promise and dedication is not in the best interest of innovation in our schools. The seasonal fear is not the best interest for recruiting new talent. The system of retention based solely on seniority is not in the best interest of our profession or our students.

It is a system set up to expel the new blood, and any profession needs new blood as well as the experienced veteran in order to survive. There is a slaughter going on, and the system is set up to produce it year after year. Sure, some pink slips are rescinded, and I am grateful as a new mom and a dedicated educator that I am not forced to look for work for another year. But what of the next Harvesting?

The fact is, that after this year’s culling, I and others like me, will be even lower on the seniority list next year. At what point do we leave this profession that we have invested in, and make for higher ground in order to avoid the Harvesting again? It looms in the background of our job, year after year. And that threat is not in the best interests of education.

I wish everyone well while they await their own verdict. May each and every one of us who wishes so, find a classroom one day to call home.

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